Almost two years after it joined the European Union, Croatia is still in a rather deep economic crisis, which has resulted in high unemployment and continued decrease of the country’s GDP. Although there are some signs of recovery, it will take time before the first positive trends are felt by the general population. At the same time, however, there are no benefits of EU membership that could be easily recognised by the general population. Not many expected a miracle and thus few are disappointed. However, one would expect in these circumstances for political life in the country to be focused on economic issues, not on old ideological battles. Yet the last presidential elections, in which Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the candidate of the opposition (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ), narrowly won over Ivo Josipović, revealed a deeply divided country that is still fighting the old wars: those of the 1990s (“Homeland War”) and of the Cold War, but also – in a strange virtual way - the war between the Ustashe and the Partizans of the 1940s. The revival of the old wars is a central part of electoral strategy of HDZ and its associates on the right. Ms. Grabar-Kitarović’s victory has already been described as a “return of nationalism” to Croatia. The worst might be yet to come if – as it seems likely today, although not yet inevitable – HDZ wins the next parliamentary elections, which are due to take place in November of this year.
The leader of the opposition, Tomislav Karamarko, who was the Minister of Interior in Ivo Sanader’s and Jadranka Kosor’s governments and who had also been the head of the country’s main intelligence agencies (POA and SOA), is running on a ticket of a “re-Tudjmanisation.” With Ms. Grabar-Kitarović as President, this time next year HDZ might be in a position to control key instruments of political power in Croatia for the first time since Franjo Tudjman’s passing in 1999. Karamarko’s political programme is actually in sharp contrast to that of the two post-Tudjman HDZ Prime Ministers who managed to introduce pro-European and even some pro-liberal reforms into HDZ.
Ivo Sanader, who was the Prime Minister in the relatively successful years of 2003-2009 before suddenly resigning for never quite elaborated reasons, came to power on the wings of nationalist discontent with the country’s cooperation with the ICTY in The Hague. But once in power, he made a U-turn and offered full cooperation with the international tribunal for crimes committed during the wars in Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslav states. Together with President Stjepan Mesić (2000-2010), Mr. Sanader changed the nature of Croatian nationalism from anti-liberal and anti-European to more moderate and compatible with European conservatism. He realised that membership in the European Union is country’s strategic objective.
Croatian sovereignists had good reason to desire EU-membership for Croatia. They viewed Croatian sovereignty – which the country declared in June 1991 and which was internationally recognised in January 1992 – as being little more than just “nominal” or “symbolic” as long as Croatia had to extradite its citizens, among them the top military commanders such as General Gotovina, to The Hague Tribunal. In addition, in 1991-1995 Croatia had to tolerate UN supervision over the territory of secessionist Krajina. In the 2000s, the EU-accession process imposed further limits to what Zagreb can and/or cannot do in terms of domestic and foreign policy. It is only because of the promise that Croatia will turn its “nominal” into “real” sovereignty once it becomes a member of the EU that it agreed to such temporary “supervision.” On 1 July 2013, this external intrusion into sovereignty had come to an end – or at least this is how the sovereignists saw it. While EU-candidates have to act as they are expected – or at least they have to simulate that they listen to Brussels – member-states do not have to be so cooperative. The day of joining the EU thus meant the end of a policy in which the Unifying National Objective stood in the way of full expression of national sovereignty. Thus, “good old” nationalism, hidden under the carpet but not gone, reappeared with full force.
This became obvious already in 2012, when Ms. Jadranka Kosor had her HDZ membership unceremoniously revoked, despite of - or perhaps precisely because of - her successful role as Prime Minister in the final days of EU-accession for Croatia. The new leader of the party, Tomislav Karamarko, ran for office under the slogan “New Croatian Independence.” Mr. Karamarko presented himself as a tough and well-organised leader who can lead the party and country back to the “glory days” of Tudjmanism. He is an ideologue, a nationalist believer who argues that the process of de-Tudjmanisation was a mistake since Franjo Tudjman is the Father of the Nation, deserving of the victory in the “Homeland War” of the 1990s. Indeed, for Croatian nationalists – especially those who view democracy as an optional objective, in any case secondary to ethno-nationalism - the 1990s were a “Golden Age.” In that decade Croatia achieved independence, despite initial hesitation of the international community, which imposed additional criteria for Croatia’s sovereignty. Badinter’s Committee in 1991 recommended Croatia to be internationally recognised only on three conditions: 1) signing a peace agreement with the Yugoslav Army, 2) accepting UNPROFOR as a guarantor of peace between ethnic Croats and ethnic Serbs in the unilaterally declared independent Krajina region and 3) changing the Constitution in order to guarantee rights and autonomy for Serbs in Croatia. Tudjman agreed on all three conditions, but by the end of the 1990s none of these conditions were fully respected. The country was reintegrated through a combination of military actions against local ethnic Serbs (in 1995) and diplomatic efforts to peacefully reintegrate the territory of Eastern Slavonia (Erdut Agreement, implemented fully in 1998). This was done by tacit agreement of the international community and under USA supervision. The result was a much more ethnically homogeneous Croatia. At the beginning of the conflict in 1991, the ethnic minority population made up about 22 percent of the total population. Today, it makes up only nine percent. The number of ethnic Serbs was reduced from 581,663 to 186,633. Those who declared themselves as “ethnic Yugoslavs” – 106,041 in 1991 – disappeared altogether, whereas those “ethnically undeclared” went from 73,376 in 1991 to 26,763 today.
Thus, not only did Croatian ethno-nationalists achieve the “historical objective” of independence for Croatia, but also the territory of that state was not reduced (as it was the case with Serbia – in light of Kosovo’s declared independence in 2008). The new state was also ethnically “more Croat” than ever before. Based on these achievements, the new Croatian nationalism celebrates the “Homeland War,” in which it first dubs Croatia the collective Victim and then the Winner of the conflict. The new national myths are all being built around celebration – not commemoration - of the war, while the role of international actors is seen with ambiguity. Europe, in particular, is seen as being hesitant and not particularly helpful in this process. In addition, in his last years, Tudjman himself promoted a strong anti-European rhetoric, based on his scepticism towards any multi-ethnic and supra-national entities. Just like other Croatian nationalists, he was a firm believer in strong and homogeneous nation-states, not in some “liberal” experiments that looked increasingly like Yugoslavia. When the EU defined post-war reconciliation and inter-state cooperation in the Western Balkans as one of the criteria for EU-accession of all countries in that region, including for Croatia, Tudjman refused to follow. In 1997 he introduced an article into the Croatian Constitution in which he made illegal any initiating of or joining into an association with other post-Yugoslav and Balkan states. Croatia ended the 1990s in a de facto stalemate with regard to EU-accession. It lost crucial years on its road to the EU – and thus joined only in 2013, not in 2004 or even 2007 with Bulgaria and Romania.
For as long as the country was in the process of EU accession talks, Tudjmanist legacy was somewhat being marginalised and pushed under the carpet. After all, HDZ convincingly lost both the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2000. This was not only – and perhaps not primarily – due to Tudjman’s isolationist policy towards the EU, but also because of his anti-democratic and increasingly autocratic style of governing in 1995-1999. In this period, Tudjman refused to accept results of elections in the capital city of Zagreb, claiming – just like his Serbian counterpart, Slobodan Milošević – that an opposition victory at local elections endangered the very foundation of the newly liberated state. He viewed himself as a War Leader, and War Leaders do not get easily defeated at elections. They tend to use the “war victory” and “historical legacy” arguments when confronted with the undesirable will of the electorate. Changes were possible only after his death in December 1999.
The decade and a half of Stjepan Mesić's and Ivo Josipović’s presidencies were used to democratize society and introduced some liberal reforms. The real test of how deep and successful these reforms have actually been is yet to come. Some were sceptical all along. Mieczyslav Boduszyinski called the Croatian transition “simulated,” while Andrea Despot and Dušan Reljić of the German SWP warned in 2011 that Croatia was not ready for EU membership. They argued that the country’s economic crisis is deep and that in this respect the EU is opening its doors to a “new Bulgaria” or “new Romania.” Corruption charges, including those raised against Mr. Sanader (currently imprisoned and awaiting the final verdicts on a number of serious counts) revealed deep problems with transparency and public responsibility. Privatisation scandals dating back to the early days of the economic transition were so big that Croatian Sabor (Parliament) enacted a special clause in the Constitution by which it removed the statute of limitation for indictments of this nature. The crime of “war profiteering” was also enacted in the Croatian legal system. In addition, public opinion surveys conducted in the years that preceded the end of EU-accession talks revealed that majority of Croatians are indifferent towards the EU. Their support for EU-membership was more tacit than explicit, as many feared that they would live worse, not better once the country joined the EU. There were reasons for that. The system of significant subsidies to the population – some inherited from socialism, while others obtained due to participation (real or alleged) in the war – made many dependent on the state. People feared that these politically based subsidies could not continue in a fully open market system once the country joined the EU. National sovereignty became a source of social security and of additional income. EU-membership was in this respect seen as a threat, not a chance for a better life.
Nevertheless, this scepticism towards EU-membership did not amass to an open rejection of it. After all, joining the EU was not only about whom one joins, but also whom one leaves behind. For Croatian nationalists Europe was the last stop on a “historical” journey away from the Balkans. Europeanization was, for many, first and above all de-Balkanization. It has more to do with raising a wall between European Croatia and the non-European Balkans – meaning Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina - than about erasing the walls altogether. Additionally, by joining the EU, Croats – just like all other European nations – obtained veto power over the destiny of candidate-countries’ membership applications. For nationalists it is very tempting and very promising to become a new Greece, a country that successfully uses instruments available by internal rules of the European Union with regard to its northern (Macedonian) neighbour. If Greece can permanently block Macedonia in a clear display of its superiority over the non-EU candidate state, why wouldn’t Croatia do the same with regards to Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina? EU-membership, which in the 2000s was the generator of regional cooperation between Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, is now becoming the opposite in the hands of Croatian nationalists: an instrument of revenge. And revenge is best when served cold.
Indeed, two crucial bilateral relationships for the future of the Western Balkans - between Zagreb and Sarajevo, as well as between Zagreb and Belgrade – are now at their coldest since 1999. The new Croatian President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, has already announced a change in her policy towards the region by saying “this is Croatia, not the Region.” She will clearly use the instrument of EU-accession to try to intervene in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia internally over the issue of the status of ethnic Croats in these two countries. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, HDZ has traditionally advocated the third entity approach and claims that Croatia’s political intervention is justified for two reasons; first, Croatia is a “signatory and a guarantor” of the Dayton Peace Agreement and second, it has the duty of care for Croats who live in Bosnia-Herzegovina inscribed in its own Constitution. HDZ keeps repeating that Bosnia-Herzegovina is “also the state of Croats” and that Croatia is the “nation-state of all Croats,” including those in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost all of them have dual citizenship and they overwhelmingly supported Ms. Grabar-Kitarović for President. Under new circumstances Croatia is also likely to use its influence within the EU to pressure Bosnia-Herzegovina further on this particular issue. This is clearly seen in the fact that as many as five (of 11) Croatian members of the European Parliament joined the European Parliament’s Delegation on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
With regard to Serbia, the bilateral relations were already at a standstill, following the victory of Mr. Tomislav Nikolić at the presidential election in 2012 and of Mr. Aleksandar Vučić’s Serb Progressive Party (SNP) at the parliamentary elections in 2014. Both Mr. Nikolić and Mr. Vučić are remembered in Croatia for their participation in Vojislav Šešelj’s ultranationalist Radical Party during the 1990s. Thus, there has not been real progress between Zagreb and Belgrade since they came to power. Ms. Grabar-Kitarović has managed to make things even worse in her victory speech in January 2015 by mentioning Vojvodina as a separate entity from Serbia and demanding equal rights for Croats in Vojvodina, similar to those obtained by Serbs in Croatia. A few days later she disturbed fragile inter-ethnic relations by asking whether there are any Serbs in Croatia – at least in a political sense – and saying that “all those who are Croatian citizens – are Croats (Hrvati).” The intention was to perhaps emphasise the need for a more civic and less ethnic understanding of the concept of citizenship. However, in the sensitive Serb-Croat relationship such a statement was not welcome by Croatian Serbs, whose leader Dr. Milorad Pupovac protested. Not surprisingly – except perhaps for the new Croatian President herself – Croats in Vojvodina did not welcome this new “civic” concept of nationality either. If all Croatian citizens are Croats, then – by analogy – all Serbian citizens are Serbs. To Croats in Vojvodina it is just as difficult to become Serbs as it is for Croatian Serbs to become Croats, not to even mention Bosnia in which nobody (at least nobody in the political elite) wishes to become Bosnian. In fact, the Bosniaks ran a campaign against Bosnianism during the last population census. Thus, the first steps by the new President are not promising.
Even more problematic is the outburst of nationalism during the long presidential election campaign and in the first weeks after the January elections in Croatia. The hate-speech against “Yugoslavs,” “Srbočetnici“ (Serbs-Chetniks), „Udbaši“ and „Communists,“ which characterised the 1990s, reappeared quickly in the public space. During the election campaign, the most radical war-veterans (controlled by HDZ) staged sit-ins in a tent in front of the Ministry for War Veterans, demanding the resignation of the Minister and the whole “Yugo-Communist” government. Their main slogan was “In 1991: Against Yugoslavia, in 2014: Against Yugoslavs.” According to them, the “Yugoslavs” are all those who “did not want an independent Croatia.” These are – in the first place – members and supporters of the ruling Social-Democratic Party, which is the successor to the League of Croatian Communists (SKH). For the HDZ leader, Tomislav Karamarko, as well as for the leaders of the War Veterans protest, the government is nenarodna (un-peopled), a phrase that has been copy-pasted from the post-revolutionary and post-WWII rhetoric by Yugoslav Communists who used it to disqualify domestic traitors and members of the bourgeoisie. In fact, the rhetoric of the new HDZ closely resembles the old Communist revolutionary vocabulary – words such as treason, fifth column, foreign agents, forces of the old and discredited regime are again in use at party meetings and rallies. In addition, they call their political opponents – Yugophiles, anti-Croat forces and apologists of Milošević. The right-wing portals and other publications, which have mushroomed in the last two years, rehabilitate the Ustashe of the Second World War and call Partisans fascists. Yet, they accuse anti-nationalists of hate-speech. HDZ is now clearly advocating lustration, although they find it difficult to spell out criteria for it. The majority of the former Communist Party members actually joined HDZ, not SDP. About 90 percent of the former Yugoslav intelligence services – including leading figures in Croatia – quickly and without hesitation joined the new Croatian intelligence organisations. Even a large number of Yugoslav Army officers who were Croats (four thousand or 40 percent of the total number of Croats among officers) joined the Croatian Army in the first days of independence. So, the lustration – if it happens – will have to be selective. It would be based not on formal, but rather “discretionary” criteria, such as whether one was patriotic enough after 1990 and especially whether one is patriotic now, so that the sins of the past could be “forgotten.” Lustration will serve a political purpose. The main objective would be the destruction of the opposition and of the NGO scene, as well as intrusion into the independence of the media, trade unions and universities. Mr. Karamarko has already announced that he considers the current Social Democratic Party, now in power, to be unpatriotic and associated with a totalitarian regime. Croatia, he says, needs “real Social Democrats,” not “Yugoslav Social Democrats.” Thus, if he wins the elections, it is quite possible to see an attempt to build a system in which opposition would again be shaped by the government in order for it to never get strong enough to win elections. The old Tudjmanist method of not recognising the opposition as patriotic enough will be replicated. In addition, Mr. Karamarko announced that under the new system, Tudjmanism should be protected by the Constitution. Whereas in private everyone would still be allowed to say or think what he/she wishes, in public it would become impossible for views to be expressed if and when they are in conflict with Constitutional values.
All this raises fears and already limits space for freedom of speech and academic research in Croatia. Instead of moving forward and looking towards a more European progressive future, Croatia is turning back to its worst decade since the Second World War – the 1990s. The paradox is that minorities, civil society and progressive segments of the general public now feel that the decade of EU-accession (2003-2013) is the period that might come to be remembered as their own Golden Age. The European Union is, as it seems, a much better ally of progress to candidate-states than to its own member-states. Looking at it from the Croatian perspective, it looks as if the transformative power of the EU stops the day of a country’s joining. Yet, even then – as it seems to be obvious from this case – the transformation itself could be rather shallow and is by no means irreversible. This lesson should perhaps be noted for the sake of other candidates.