Croatia

1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

Croatian-Russian relations between sanctions and economic interests

Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, political relations between Croatia and Russia have grown more aloof. Aggressive Russian politics in its neighbourhood and the strengthening of its authoritarian rule at home only increased distrust. Croatia, as a member of the EU and NATO, criticized the annexation of Crimea and joined sanctions against Russia.

Yet, at the same time, there were attempts to strengthen economic relations. Russia is Croatia’s 8th largest export and the 6th largest import market. Oil products comprise 94 % of imports, creating an overall trade deficit for Croatia. Russian foreign direct investment in Croatia is small, with €93 million being invested between 1995 and 2014, mostly in gas stations, tourism and the banking sector. Sanctions against Russia particularly affected Croatian citrus fruit exports, entitling them for compensation from the EU.

In February 2015 a high level Russian-Croatian economic forum took place in Moscow, despite criticism from the USA. 100 businessmen from Croatia and 250 from Russia attended the Forum at which several contracts were signed worth in total over €30 million. The Croatian delegation was led by the Minister of Economy Ivan Vrdoljak, who explained that while Croatia adheres to sanctions against Russia, at the same time it has the right to explore economic opportunities in areas not under sanction.

Early in 2015 Russia protested as eight Croatian citizens were reported to fight on the side of Ukraine. In the spring of 2015 the Russian Foreign Ministry published a report on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in which it, among else, accused Croatia of aggressive nationalism due to which some 30,000 Orthodox believers converted to Catholicism in the last 20 years. Croatia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed both claims with a statement that neither of them is supported by official politics.

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Strong support for internationally recognised borders

Croatia condemned the violence in Ukraine and urged all parties to find a peaceful political solution for the self-proclaimed breakaway republics of Donbas and Lugansk. The strong position supporting territorial integrity of Ukraine has often been quoted in the media, drawing parallels with experiences of Croatia’s Homeland War 1991-1995, when the country faced similar challenges. Croatian media debated the situation in Ukraine from both pro-Western and pro-Russian perspective. In February 2015 Professor Vlatko Cvrtila from the Vern University stated for the daily Slobodna Dalmacija that it is difficult to change the situation on the ground because the West is not prepared to enter into a military conflict with Russia.

Since the beginning of the conflict some Croatian citizens individually joined the ranks of Ukrainian army as volunteers’, which caused tension in relations with Russia. At first Croatian Foreign Ministry denied these claims, but later on it confirmed a presence of small number of individual volunteers that are not in any way encouraged by Croation Government.  Public support for Eastern Partnership states grew further when Russia banned food imports from the EU. The crisis in Ukraine steered extensive political and academic debates on foreign policy of the EU. At the round table “Foreign policy of the EU and responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine” held by the Croatian Paneuropean Union in May 2015, Croatian MEP Andrej Plenkovic stressed that the EU calls for peaceful re-integration of parts of Ukraine which are not under Kiev’s control. He also stated that instead of federalization, as called upon by Russia, Ukraine needs decentralisation.

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Disappointing outcome of the Riga Summit

Following the Riga Summit, Croatian media reported thin results and a lack of specific solutions. The media noted that the summit was held in an atmosphere of disunity among EU member states regarding prospects of further EU enlargement on six countries of the Eastern Partnership, which caused disappointment among their representatives. This particularly relates to the fact that the visa regime with Ukraine and Georgia was not liberalized. The reports stressed that the EU is slowing down its process of drawing closer to the six ex-Soviet countries, emphasising that the Eastern Partnership was not directed against Russia. It was also reported that with no clear perspective of EU membership, six countries might find the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union more appealing.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said the EU should remove the visa regime for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens, provide more support to those countries and lessen the bureaucratic criteria. Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Vesna Pusić endorsed a tailor-made approach for each Eastern Partnership country, depending on their aspirations and potentials. She also said that the situation between the EU and Russia is improving, and that it is the EU’s responsibility to find a sustainable solution to managing closer relations with Eastern Partnership countries, while maintaining communication with Russia.

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Establishment of a European army considered unlikely

The call for the establishment of a European army by Jean-Claude Juncker in March 2015 was covered in the Croatian press, but there were no public statements by politicians on this topic. The establishment of such an army, Juncker believes, would show that the EU is serious about defending its values, itself and its neighbours, and would make the possibility of a European war impossible.

However, the argument that an army of the EU could undermine the role of NATO and the strategic alliance with the USA is present in the Croatian media. With NATO in place and no clear consensus yet, it is believed that an army of the EU will not be established in the near future. Russian reactions were covered only by alternative media in Croatia. These voices consider such a plan potentially belligerent, uncalled for, that the projected economic savings are a myth, and that support by the US would be doubtful.

In general, the proposal did not gain much momentum in the Croatian political sphere and was only duly noted by the press. It is viewed in the context of tensions with Russia and further reactions will depend on future geopolitical developments.

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2. EU Enlargement

Croatia shares its recent EU accession experience

Croatia’s official positions on EU enlargement to the Eastern Partnership states are less frequent and unambiguous compared to the strong support for the Western Balkans. But since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, Croatia intensified cooperation with the Eastern Neighbourhood countries in transmitting its recent EU accession experiences. It also signed a number of cooperation agreements and memorandums of understanding with these countries. In December 2014, the Croatian Parliament ratified the EU Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Arguing in favour of visa liberalization with Georgia and Ukraine, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Vesna Pusić said that free travel greatly contributes to modernization and liberalization of the country.

Croatian MEPs Andrej Plenković (European People’s Party group, EPP) and Tonino Picula (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group, S&D) have strongly been advocating for an EU perspective of Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership states. In the European Parliament, Plenković holds a position as a president of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee. He was elected as head of the European Parliament observer delegation at the parliamentary elections in Ukraine held in October 2014. In July 2015 Plenković was declared one of the four “best friends of Ukraine” by the Brussels-based weekly, Kyiv Post. In March 2015 Plenković chaired the public hearing in the European Parliament on the European Neighbourhood Policy. He repeatedly stated that each country of the Eastern Neighbourhood needs to be evaluated individually. In mid-2014, MEP Tonino Picula became “shadow rapporteur” for Ukraine for the S&D group.

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Croatia actively advocates further enlargement

Croatia supports the integration of the Western Balkan states in the EU, noting at the same time the ongoing enlargement fatigue. There is a bipartisan consensus that integrating this region into Europe, with its high standards for the rule of law, human rights, and functioning markets, is in Croatia’s strategic interest.

Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Pusić underlines that it was Croatian diplomatic effort which led to the new initiative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) launched by the United Kingdom and Germany in November 2014. However, BiH is also viewed through the prism of caring for the position of Bosnian Croats, one of the three constituent peoples. The two main parties – the Social Democratic Party and Croatian Democratic Union – are slowly converging their views on this issue, although foreign diplomats in Zagreb express concern that Croatian politics towards BiH still has a significantly national rather than fully European outlook.

Among various regional issues, relations with Serbia went sour in the course of late 2014 and 2015. There are a number of sensitive issues not yet solved dating back to the 1990s, one being the status of Operation Storm, whose 20th anniversary in August 2015 is causing tensions between the two states. The provisional release of indicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj in November 2014 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on the condition of his illness came as a surprise. The fact that he immediately upon return to Serbia made defamatory public speeches caused a strong reaction in Croatia. President Ivo Josipović sent letters to the UN Security Council, the Parliament unanimously adopted a declaration protesting Šešelj’s release and the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning his hate speech.

The crisis in Macedonia was widely covered by the media with politicians expressing concern over possible destabilization of the country and its neighbourhood. Minister Pusić described Macedonia as the most sensitive spot in the region.

Croatian government generally supports Turkish EU membership but understands that Turkey will remain a negotiating state for a very long time. Following the local and presidential elections in 2014, Croatian media extensively covered the rebalancing of political power among political parties in Turkey pending the general elections in June 2015. The latter elections were reported as a significant weakening of the Justice and Development Party (AK) although the party secured a relative majority. The success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish left-wing party, which passed the electoral threshold of 10 percent, was noted. The media continues to cover the process of post-electoral government formation, as well as the potential for war with Syria and its spill-over migration effects.

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This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.

This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.