Croatia could have been the success story of the region. Unlike the other countries, which have EU accession timelines that are a decade long at best, Croatia joined the EU in 2013, merely nine years after being confirmed as a candidate country. It has a coastline that supports a burgeoning tourism industry and potential for offshore fossil fuel extraction, and it is working with countries along the Adriatic and Baltic Seas to form a regional transport corridor.
Over the past few years, Croatia has faced an uptick in nationalism that resulted in a rightward drift during the country’s 2015 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, government instability has provided an opening for leaders to use nationalist sentiment for political gain. It has taken nearly two years for the government to form a coalition composed of political leaders who are less controversial than those appointed in the past. Although the government as of October 2016 is stable and less overtly nationalist, the religious, predominantly Roman Catholic society and a not-so-distant history of fascism still permeate the contemporary socio-political environment. The country’s World War II collaboration with the fascists included atrocities committed by the Ustaše government, yet in recent years, revisionist views of the wartime Ustaše movement and the fascist-allied Independent State of Croatia (NDH) have entered Croatia’s political mainstream.[i] Nor does Croatia operate in a vacuum: the status of Croats in BiH impacts the regional dynamics, with both Serbia and Croatia using developments in BiH to maintain their own balance of power within the region, according to a prominent Croatian elected official.
After taking office in early 2016, the now former minister of culture, Zlatko Hasanbegović, attempted to cut funding for progressive nongovernmental and civil society organizations,[ii] tightened restrictions on independent media, and lauded a widely criticized documentary film that questioned the death toll at the Jasenovac concentration camp.[iii] Against this backdrop, the freedom of the press is under pressure. When a prominent Croatian journalist was attacked in the coastal city of Split, the response of the Ministry of Culture was to caution him on the content of his articles. More recently, Croatian investigative journalist Domagoj Margetić, who testified about war crimes committed by the Croatian army against Serbs in the town of Sisak in 1991 and 1992, was attacked and told that “he will never write again.”[iv] “I have been an activist for twenty years,” says one civil society representative, “and I am tired of this system. Even though I want to live in the country, I also feel the outlook is bleak and there is no incentive for the society and political system to change.”
The Serbian minority in Croatia is facing increased hate crimes and reduced funding, leaving many members of the community wondering if they should leave for Serbia. Ruža Tomašić, a Croatian member of the EU parliament, has publicly stated that “Croatia is for Croatians.”[v] And under the previous government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanović (December 2011–January 2016), violent protests erupted over a law on the application of dual-alphabet (Roman and Cyrillic) signs in cities with a large Serbian minority. During the protests, the government decided to postpone the application of the dual-alphabet laws due to public opposition.
The government itself has been through several crises. In June 2016, Croatia’s parliament gave a vote of no-confidence to the now-former Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković, who has been criticized as a Canadian carpetbagger who “speaks Croatian using Google Translate.” This followed a narrowly averted no-confidence vote one month earlier against then Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Karamarko.
A European Union member as of 2013, Croatia may have been able to reap some benefits, as EU data shows a 7 percent annual average export increase between 2009 and 2015.[vi] However, the economy still lags that of other EU countries, with one of the highest unemployment rates at 17 percent and low growth rates of about 1.5 percent in 2015 (compared with 3.2 percent for BiH, 3.5 percent for Kosovo, and 0.7 percent for Serbia).[vii]
In 2014, Croatia launched its first-ever tender for offshore oil and gas exploration, awarding the majority of the ten licenses to a consortium formed by Houston-based Marathon Oil and Austrian OMV.[viii] In addition, the country is also taking bids for construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk. The terminal would be able to receive, store, and re-gasify LNG received from LNG suppliers such as Qatar. While these are positive developments, the benefits accrue primarily to international corporations and state-owned companies; local businesses that could drive employment and create growth opportunities in the region progressed only minutely. While the number of small enterprises in Croatia has grown, the number of those employed by medium-sized enterprises has declined from 2008 to 2013.[ix]
[i] The NDH and Ustaše atrocities during WWII; Glenny, M. (2000). The Balkans: nationalism, war and the great powers, 1804-1999. New York: Viking. p.485-506
[ii] Attempts of the Croatian Government to cut funding for CSO’s and independent media; Sestovic, V. (2016, May 03). GONG: Croatian government’s triple attack on autonomous Media, Civil Society and Culture. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://civic-forum.eu/en/civic-space/croatian-governments-triple-attack-on-autonomous-media-civil-society-and-culture
[iii] Croatian government defends the controversial film on the Jasenovac camp; Curic, D. (n.d.). Hasanbegović: Ovakvi filmovi su korisni jer govore o brojnim tabu temama. Retrieved February 13, 2017, from http://www.vecernji.hr/hrvatska/premijera-filma-jakova-sedlara-jasenovac-istina-1073702
[iv] Croatian journalist physically attacked for his writing; Croatia: Journalist Domagoj Margetić beaten in Zagreb city centre. (n.d.). Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://europeanjournalists.org/blog/2016/12/14/journalist-domagoj-margetic-beaten-in-the-center-of-zagreb/
[v] Croatian EU MP calls for expulsion of Serbs; Milekic, S. Serbia Slams Croatian MEP’s ‘Call for Expulsions’ Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/croatian-mep-s-serb-statements-sparks-anger
[vi] Croatia’s export to EU member states since 2003; Intra-EU trade in goods – recent trends. (n.d.). Retrieved February 16, 2017, from http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Intra-EU_trade_in_goods_-_recent_trends
[viii] Croatia explores oil and gas reserves in the Adriatic; Joy, O. Croatia looks to oil and gas fields in Adriatic Sea. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/23/business/croatia-president-josipovic-eu/
[ix]Croatia’s SME’s size, total income, employment and exports in 2012 and 2013; Small and Medium Enterprises Report −Croatia 2014. (2014). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.cepor.hr/izvjesce-o-malim-i-srednjim-poduzecima-u-hrvatskoj/