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In 1918, the Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes formed a kingdom known after 1929 as Yugoslavia. Following World War II, Yugoslavia became an independent communist state under the strong hand of Marshal TITO. Although Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it took four years of sporadic, but often bitter, fighting before occupying Serb armies were mostly cleared from Croatian lands. Under UN supervision the last Serb-held enclave in eastern Slavonia was returned to Croatia in 1998.
The government, like so many regimes in Croatian history, sees the salvation of the country in an integration into larger structures outside. The two most important are of course the EU and NATO. Croatia formally requested to join the EU on February 25th, 2003, despite being warned by various Brussels officials that its bid was too early. It is now agreed on all sides that entry into the EU is realistic after all for 2007.
Croatia was cold-shouldered from being even a Partner for Peace of NATO in the 1990s with Tudjman in charge and Croatian war criminals at large. Many of these have now been handed over with the full cooperation of the government with the Hague authorities. NATO entry within a few years is on the cards. Croatia is at last coming in from the cold.
The Croats are a people with a long past, that is profoundly marking their present and future. But of abiding significance is their mountainous and hilly geography, which has, moreover, changed, albeit slowly, during the centuries. In particular it underwent a long process of deforestation, which left many uplands bare.
They are situated in a vulnerable location, on the threshold of the Balkans, yet betwixt central and eastern Europe. They have consequently had to accommodate themselves to a whole series of more powerful peoples for a while, often lasting centuries. This can help explain their eagerness to surrender sovereignty today.
Yet their location gave them great opportunities as well, notably for sea-faring across the Adriatic and into the Mediterranean. But for this they needed timber to build boats. Hence the deforestation and the longer run tribulations of the countryside.
After peacefully migrating from Ukraine and settling in modern Croatia in the sixth century, the Croats enjoyed a period of self-rule. But the incursion of Magyars in the ninth century in central Europe changed everything. In 1091 the Croats agreed to submit themselves to Hungarian authority under the Pacta Conventa. By the mid-1400s fear of Ottoman encroachment led the Croatian Assembly to invite the Hapsburgs, under Archduke Ferdinand, in to assume control and responsibility for Croatia. After various vicissitudes Croatia became largely free of Turkish rule by the 18th century. In 1868 Croatia regained domestic autonomy, but significantly under Hungarian authority.
It became absorbed into Yugoslavia after the First World War, but broke away in the Second World War under the Ustase who collaborated with Germans, the most discreditable episode in Croatian history. But the Partisan leader himself was a Croat, Marshall Tito, who proceeded to found the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia after the war. Croatia became a relatively successful part of the federation, the one communist polity that allowed its citizens to leave freely and could thus be justly called a socialist country, rather than a socialist prison.
In 1990 Croatia held its first multi-party elections, in which long-time nationalist Franjo Tudjman was elected president. Independence was declared next year, which triggered off a four-year war with Belgrade. In December 1995 Croatia signed the Dayton Accord and agreed to the return of all refugees.
The death of Tudjman in December 1999 was a blessing, allowing Croatia to enter the new decade, century and millennium with a clean slate. A new president and coalition government, under a new premier, have been able to pursue national reconciliation, democratization, regional cooperation and refugee returns.
Update No: 086- (30/06/04)
Croatia's right-wing prime minister is facing strong internal opposition to the extradition of General Ante Gotovina to The Hague tribunal, which may sabotage the country's hopes of becoming a candidate for European Union membership this spring.
Ivo Sanader told the cabinet last week that EU officials had made it clear during his visits to Brussels and Strasbourg on January 12 and 13 that Zagreb would not obtain candidate status if Britain and the Netherlands failed to ratify the agreement on cooperation and association.
The two countries will not do so until the indicted general, currently on the run, appears in The Hague.
Despite public pledges to cooperate with the tribunal, Sanader now faces the same difficulties over the issue as his left-of-centre predecessor, Ivica Racan.
A large section of the electorate strongly opposes the extradition of war crime suspects, including some in the leadership of his own Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, more hard-line opposition parties and extremist elements in the police and military.
Only the voluntary surrender of General Gotovina can enable Sanader to fulfil his electoral promise to secure Croatia's admission to the EU.
Last December, when Sanader was forming his cabinet, there were rumours of talks between his associates and Gotovina over a voluntary surrender. Word had it that the government had pledged whole-hearted assistance and support for the general's defence in The Hague.
Sanader then seemed willing to resolve the long-standing dispute with the tribunal, arguing that the "Gotovina case" was a legal, not a political, issue. He also said he would not violate existing legal provisions concerning cooperation with the tribunal and the hand-over of indicted suspects.
This was interpreted as an expression of determination to resolve the contentious issue keeping Croatia out of the EU.
The pro-government daily Vjesnik even reported that the general might be handed over by the end of January, though the paper did not disclose its source for this information.
Now the premier appears to be backing away from the issue. Despite expectations that Sanader would preside over talks with the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, the prime minister allotted the task to Justice Minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt, a political junior.
The action suggested the premier was deliberately lowering the level of Croatia's relations with the tribunal, enabling him to refer all the problems over co-operation with the war crimes court to the justice ministry.
The justice minister's position is weak, as she belongs to a party with only one deputy in parliament.
Circles close to the premier have also been sending messages to the public, suggesting EU membership now ranks low among most people's priorities.
On a visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul reminded his hosts that while Croatia still hankered for union accession, it wanted also to pursue an Atlanticist agenda, as the US's most reliable ally in the region.
The change of tack suggests Sanader encountered stronger resistance over extradition than he expected.
This became evident among HDZ loyalists, many of whom are already dissatisfied with Sanader's policy of tolerance towards ethnic minorities, which they feel is indulgent. Party supporters were shocked by his appearance at a Serb Orthodox Christmas reception in Zagreb and his greetings to ethnic Serbs.
The extradition of Gotovina would provoke bitter discontent and might push many in the direction of the extreme-right Croatian Party of Right, HSP, which fared well in January's local elections in the formerly war-torn Osijek-Baranja district of northeast Croatia.
The HSP won almost 15 per cent of the votes there, a big hike on its result in the same district in the parliamentary election last October, which was nine per cent.
Sanader faces strong resistance also among the party top brass, many of whom oppose the extradition of Gotovina, including two of his closest associates - the party's vice-president Andrija Hebrang and the speaker of parliament, Vladimir Seks.
Hebrang has long been a staunch opponent of co-operation with the tribunal. During the case of General Janko Bobetko, he led a campaign against Bobetko's handover to The Hague following the publication of his indictment in September 2002. The general's death then intervened in April 2003.
Sanader claims he has reformed the HDZ and expelled hard-line nationalists, but many senior officials resist the party's transformation into a moderate conservative force.
Gotovina enjoys huge support among the state security service and the army, many of whom consistently block efforts to track him down and arrest him.
Del Ponte herself told the Belgian daily La Libre Belgique last week that Gotovina was being protected by highly-placed officials in Croatia.
During Racan's term of office, the interior ministry issued an arrest warrant and promised a reward for any crucial information leading to Gotovina's arrest. The effect of this offer was diluted, however, when the Association of Homeland War Veterans announced it would reward anyone who revealed the identity of the person who provided information about the fugitive general.
"Sanader almost certainly knows, like Racan did, where Gotovina is hiding," a Racan ally said.
"Like Racan, Sanader is not exactly keen to keep insisting on Gotovina's arrest. Many people see him as a hero, which is why those who want to send him to The Hague may face serious political consequences."
The source predicted that Sanader, like Racan, would "pay lip service to the issue of cooperation with The Hague tribunal" but make no moves to arrest the general.
Gotovina, alongside the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, is one of the most wanted indictees whom Del Ponte wants to see in the dock.
He was charged in May 2001 with crimes against humanity, violation of law and customs of war and war crimes during the military offensive against rebel Serbs known as Operation Oluja (Storm).
He has been on the run ever since the indictment was made public in July 2001. The government has claimed Gotovina is not in Croatia, while the media have reported his presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, France, Italy and Ireland.
Gotovina has been tracked down on occasion. The owner of the weekly Nacional, Ivo Pukanic, last June published an interview with the fugitive including a picture of the two of them together.
Police experts confirmed the authenticity of the picture. Pukanic was requested to present himself to the Zagreb police for interrogation but refused to disclose where he had met Gotovina.
In opposition, Sanader's party took advantage of the case to undermine the left-of-centre coalition. Now the new premier is himself a hostage of the Gotovina case.
Without a voluntary surrender, the premier faces one of two risky choices. One is to confront his party colleagues and supporters. The other is to close the door on membership of the EU, at least during the lifetime of the wanted man.
EU to open accession talks with Croatia in early 2005
European Union leaders are set to announce the start of EU accession talks with Croatia early next year, eubusiness.com reported on June 17th.
The opening of the negotiations should serve as encouragement to other Balkan countries to pursue reforms to get in shape for eventual EU membership. "The European Council decided to convene a bilateral intergovernmental conference with Croatia early in 2005 in order to begin negotiations," a draft of the conclusions released by the EU's Irish presidency read.
"It confirms that the negotiations will be based on Croatia's own merits and that the pace will depend solely on Croatia's progress in meeting the requirements for membership," they said.
However, the EU leaders stressed that Zagreb must maintain "full cooperation" with the United Nations war crimes court at The Hague investigating the 1991-95 Serbo-Croatian war.
Croatia must also "take all necessary steps" to ensure the handover to the court of war crimes suspect, Ante Gotovina, a fugitive former general.
But the leaders were to welcome Croatia's decision to postpone creating a controversial fishing and ecological zone off the country's Adriatic coast, pending an agreement with the EU on fishing matters.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, recommended in April that Croatia be granted formal EU candidate status after judging that the country was well on the way to meeting the exacting standards of membership.
The country has set itself the ambitious goal of joining in 2007, in the next wave of EU enlargement which is also expected to see Bulgaria and Romania accede.
The EU heads of government said Croatia should act as an example for the rest of the Balkans region. Countries such as Serbia and Albania are nowhere near being ready for entry to the bloc, which took in 10 more members in May.
"The European Council emphasises that the achievement of candidate status by Croatia should be an encouragement to the other countries of the western Balkans to pursue their reforms," the draft conclusions said.
"The advance of the individual countries of the region towards European integration will proceed in parallel with the regional approach, which remains an essential element of EU policy."
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