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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

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.