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Relations with Serbia – a challenge for Croatia’s regional strategy

Croatia’s geographical and cultural conditions provide a solid basis for it to replace Slovenia in the role of regional promoter of EU enlargement – argues Tomasz Żornaczuk

The decision made by the European Council earlier this week on setting up accession negotiations with Serbia on January 21, 2014, overlapped with a call by part of Croatia’s public for a referendum on decreasing the rights of national minorities – Serbs among others. These events together with the broader context of relations between the two countries are challenging the regional policy of Croatia, a country that aims to play a crucial role in the European Union enlargement policy in the Western Balkans.

After securing its own accession to the union in 2013, Croatia supports enlargement in particular in the Balkans. And it has on numerous occasions announced its intention to provide political and technical assistance for its neighbours, in order to smooth their path to membership. Moreover, this approach was reinforced by the Croatian parliament’s declaration from 2011 not to exploit its position as a member state by ending bilateral disputes with its neighbours.

This position was based on Croatia’s own experience with a neighbouring country. Namely, that negotiations with the EU were frozen for almost a year and the threat of seeing its planned accession date postponed, both times as a result of a bilateral dispute with Slovenia; first over the course of the maritime border and then over the bank deposits. Given the number of bilateral problems that remain unsolved between Croatia and the other countries of former Yugoslavia, it remains to be seen whether Zagreb manages to stick to its approach.

Of course, the most fragile Croatia’s relations are those with Serbia. Both countries are struggling with the aftermath of the war in the Balkans including missing persons and refugees, mutual accusations of genocide before the International Court of Justice and finally an odd border dispute over two islands on the Danube. Indeed, Croatia’s readiness – expressed just recently – to a conditional transfer of the ICJ issue from the court to bilateral discussions may be interpreted as a manifestation of goodwill. But it looks like both countries remain convinced the tribunal would rule in their favour and therefore it is hard to reach a compromise based on a dialogue.

However, there are also legal issues that are present within Croatia itself – with Serbia in the background. A petition with 680,000 signatures – the country’s population is 4.3 million – that was recently delivered to parliament in Zagreb calls for a referendum to make it harder for national minorities to have their language officially recognised at the municipal level, demanding that they make up not 33 per cent as the law stands now but 50 per cent of the local population.

Of course, the aim of the petition signers is to remove items in Serbian from Vukovar – a city in Croatia that was heavily damaged by Yugoslav forces in the conflict between the two countries over 20 years ago – and roughly 35 per cent of its inhabitants are the Serbs. The Croatian authorities have already criticised the idea of the referendum and it will now fall to the political elites in this country to safeguard the reconciliation process with Serbia in the face of occasional popular pressure.

Thanks to a relatively quick integration with the EU and good relations with Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina – and other countries in the region – Croatia has potential to be a bridge between the EU and the Western Balkans; and thereby strengthen its position in Europe. However, Croatia will only make it to play such role if it refrains from linking bilateral issues with EU-related ones. Here, the relationship with Serbia is of significant importance. Since finding solutions in Belgrade to key accession issues will be a long process, Zagreb’s temptation to use its EU leverage will remain on standby.
Resorting to such behaviour seems unlikely today, primarily because slowing down the pace of accession negotiations would undermine Croatia’s plan for regional integration.

Yet, recourse to this leverage cannot be excluded as there is precedent. Of course, the country is aware of its smaller population and therefore of its lower institutional clout within the union – and will seek to utilise as effectively as possible its commitment to the enlargement policy to bolster its status within the bloc. The nation’s geographical and cultural conditions provide a solid basis for it to replace Slovenia in the role of regional promoter of EU enlargement. After all, Slovenia no longer directly borders countries aspiring to membership and by the earlier blocking of Brussels’ talks with Zagreb has also undermined its image as an unalloyed supporter of enlargement policy.

Tomasz Żornaczuk is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs think-tank

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