Stateness: the orientation of foreign policy and regional cooperation

The problem of stateness created a sensitivity to cooperation with the other Balkan countries, especially Serbia. In this sense, the EU made a major strategic miscalculation when it formulated the so-called ‘regional approach’ to the Western Balkans in 1997, for it gave Tudman the ideal ammunition to claim that Europe wanted to reconstruct Yugoslavia (Jovic 2006: 85-6). This stemmed in part from an unresolved tension in Croatia between the country’s identity as a Central European state on one hand and its historical connections to the Balkans on the other (Bartlett 2003: 63; also Zambelli 2010). As a result of this tension, Croatia has been pulled in different directions with regard to its international relations. On one hand, Croatia has long been part of two Balkan, South Slav unions, and yet also had a coast with a strong Mediterranean orientation. Large parts of Croatia also belong firmly to the central European geographic, cultural and trade sphere due to their long period of development in the Habsburg Empire. However, the presence of ethnic Croats in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina meant that foreign policy was shaped in reference to the Balkan region as well. Economic networks have reflected this varied orientation, with links to the west, south and east. Nevertheless, in the post-Yugoslav period there has been a strong impetus to direct the gaze of post-communist Croatia toward the West and take Croatia out of the Balkans. The HDZ, in fact, came to power promising to bring Croatia ‘back’ to Europe. There was a concerted effort on the part of the HDZ regime to market Croatia abroad as a Central European, and not Balkan, state. Joining European structures was positively viewed by an overwhelming majority of the Croatian public, though most people did not connect the dots between economic and political conditionality and membership in Europe. At the same time, there were domestic political incentives to include the Herzegovinian Croats in the transition project. However, since the Herzegovinian Croats were resident in a neighbouring state and in a backward region with different political traditions, this effectively meant orienting Zagreb’s foreign policy away from Europe and toward the Balkans. Thus, the decision to support ethnic Croats outside of Croatia’s borders and pursue irredentist policies in Bosnia helped in part to shape Zagreb’s ambivalent attitude toward Europe and the West. This attitude led to effective international isolation by the end of the 1990s, when Croatia had yet to sign a formal agreement with the EU. Tudman was not ideologically anti-Western, and in fact he probably would have gained politically in the long term had Croatia made progress on its accession to the EU. But he was also a shrewd politician, and calculated that the short-term costs were too high. He knew that strong support for the EU in Croatian society was divorced from the actual process needed to join the organization and that granting more rights to Serbs or allowing for the mass return of refugees would be too high a political price to pay, as any potential benefits that Croatia would derive from it in terms of EU membership were far away. The legitimacy of the HDZ regime, in the end, rested on a nationalist project that reflected issues of stateness and was expressed in policies of non-cooperation with the EU or its southern neighbours.

Yet even after the democratic turnover of 2000, as the EU retreated from a regional approach, Croatian politicians still felt immensely constrained in selling cooperation with neighbouring states to the public, as the following quote from former Prime Minister Ivica Racan attests:

For me personally, and for the government, there are no problems regarding regional cooperation. However, the other thing is that we still have to explain certain issues and we still have to take into account the fears which are based on our experience of being part of some other associations up until recently, and which have not ended happily.

(Quoted in Jovic 2006: 95)

Current ambivalence toward the EU, noted elsewhere in this chapter, is also in part a legacy of widespread distrust of supra-state organizations.

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