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Croatian journey

January 15, 2012

It's been two decades since Croatia was recognized by the European Community under international law. An upcoming referendum on EU accession shows the nation has come a long way since it first broke away from Yugoslavia.

Croatian and EU flags
Croatia's ties with the EU have grown stronger in recent yearsImage: dapd

On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia announced they would seek independence from the Yugoslav federation. The Yugoslav People's Army responded by attacking Croatian cities, plunging the region into war.

Leaders of the European Community, as the EU was then known, engaged in heated discussions about how the bloc should react - whether it would be better to recognize both Yugoslav republics as independent states, or not.

While the French and British were reserved and favored a reform of federal Yugoslavia over a break-up, Germany advocated the independence of Slovenia and Croatia.

"We worked very hard for recognition, because it was the self-determination of people," German MEP Elmar Brok recalls. "We knew from experience that self-determination should be respected. It led to German reunificiation, and should be supported in other countries like Slovenia and Croatia too."

In the end, the German foreign minister at the time, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, prevailed. On January 15, 1992, Croatia and Slovenia achieved international recognition as independent states. But the military conflict in former Yugoslavia was far from over.

A Croatian family returns to their homes after a battle with Serb forces in 1995
Croatian forces regained control of areas occupied by Serb rebels in 1995Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Independent - and at war

By the time Croatia was recognized internationally, one third of its territory was occupied by rebel Serbs, who were backed by the Yugoslav army. These fighters did not want to live in an independent Croatia, and aimed to form a common state with Serbs from other Yugoslav republics instead.

Although Croatia's acceptance among the international community did lead to a cessation of hostilities in the country, the Serb-occupied areas remained outside the administrative power of the central government in Zagreb.

For years, that prevented Croatia from starting accession talks with the European Union.

Brussels' argument was simple: One does not negotiate with states that are partly occupied.

Passers by walk in front of a poster with a portrait of a top war crimes suspect Gen. Ante Gotovina, in Croatian town of Knin, Sunday, March 13, 2005
The EU demanded Croatia extradite war criminals like General Ante GotovinaImage: AP

In 1995, Croatia launched military operations against Serb fighters and regained the occupied territories. But Brussels was unimpressed, putting negotiations on ice and calling for Croatian generals to face war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Zagreb refused to extradite its "war heroes" to The Hague. As a result, Croatian ties with the EU deteriorated and the nation became increasingly isolated.

Relations only thawed after the 1999 death of Croatia's first president, nationalist Franjo Tudjman, and the 2000 election won by a center-left coalition led by Ivica Racan.

Official EU membership talks began in October 2005. Croatia signed the EU Accession Treaty in Brussels in December.

Referendum time

A Croatian ballot box
Croatians will vote on EU membership on January 22Image: dapd

Over the past six years, Croatia has "evolved from an authoritarian state to a vibrant democracy," said Hannes Swoboda, rapporteur for Croatia in the EU Parliament.

Democracy is firmly rooted in Croatia, he added, citing recent elections in December that saw a Social Democratic-led coalition replace the previous Christian Democratic government.

The head of the EU delegation in Zagreb, Paul Vandoren, said Thursday that he was confident Croatians would back their country's membership bid in a referendum on January 22.

Officials in Brussels hope other south-eastern European nations will learn from Croatia's experience and follow its footsteps into the EU.

"Europe is not a prefabricated house. Come and build with us," said Green MEP Franziska Brantner, who was only 11 years old when Croatian independence was recognized internationally.

British Liberal MEP Graham Watson agreed: "Europe is not perfect, but it's the best thing we've found and it works."

Author: Alen Legovic & Zoran Arbutina / sje
Editor: Toma Tasovac