Will EU membership help Croatia find closure?

Croatia is preparing for an epic party as it finally joins the EU on Monday. But, reports Kim Sengupta in Zagreb, not everyone is so keen to celebrate

The memory that Ljiljana Canjuga has of Christmas Day 1999 is of deafening noise, blinding flames and excruciating pain, before she fell into unconsciousness.

The 120mm mortar shell had landed within yards of her, sending shards of metal flying into her body and head. She was rushed, under fire, to a hospital but asked to be moved three days later because that place too was being bombed and she did not want to die, helpless, in bed.

In the savage strife which followed the dismemberment of Tito’s Yugoslavia, Ms Canjuga became one of the few female fighters in Croatia’s militia. Seventeen years later, the social worker feels a sense of injustice about the way those who risked their lives to save their homeland and secure the fruits of independence are being treated by the state’s current establishment.

Ms Canjuga, whose injuries have left her with 60 per cent disability, is now a senior member of the Patriotic War Volunteers and Veterans Republic of Croatia. She sees little reason for optimistic about her country’s impending entry into the European Union, which will happen on Monday; there is instead apprehension about dilution of sovereignty with little economic reward in return.

 “I see in this supposed big family of Europe the same symptoms, the same problems as there were in Yugoslavia,”  Ms Canjuga says. “They talk about democracy, but it means losing national rights, the same rights so many fought so hard to achieve in that terrible war. The government here don’t care about the sacrifices we made and an organisation of 28 governments will care even less. As far as the economic benefits of joining the EU, they are far less now than they were 10  years ago when we started negotiating. We have seen what’s happened to other small countries and we hear even some of the big countries are thinking of leaving.”

Croatia’s entry into the EU has often been portrayed as one of  the final acts of closure in a painful chapter of the continent’s recent history: the Balkans conflict which cost 100,000 lives and left two and half million people homeless. Croatia is the first of the main combatant nations  to join, and the others – Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro – will theoretically follow in due course. The fraught nature of this process was evident yesterday as EU leaders agreed to open talks with Serbia in recognition of its steps to normalise relations with Kosovo, just a day after police in Pristina used pepper spray on protesters furious at moves to build bridges with their old foe.

In Zagreb, the airport has freshly painted signs proclaiming “Welcome to Croatia. Welcome to the European Union”, and there is a new blue EU lane at customs. The landmark will be marked by celebrations in the capital tomorrow evening, at which Nick Clegg will represent Britain, which has supported the country’s application. By far its biggest sponsor, however, has been Germany, which secured international recognition for its staunch Second World War ally after it seceded from Yugoslavia and has now chaperoned its accession to the Brussels club.

Despite this support, Angela Merkel will not be joining the celebrations. The German Chancellor was due to be the star of the show, the big name who would be used to attract others. Her last-minute cancellation has undoubtedly has been ascribed by some to Zagreb’s failure to extradite Josip Perkovic, an intelligence agent from the Yugoslav era accused of killing a dissident émigré 20 years ago in Bavaria. A more likely reason is that the Bundestag is about to debate EU expansion and MPs there are hardly empathetic towards allowing another chronically weak economy into the fold, after having to bail out Greece, Spain and Cyprus.

The Croatian economy has suffered five consecutive years of recession, a downward spiral surpassed only by Greece. GDP has fallen by 11 per cent, foreign investment by 80 per cent, and its credit rating has been cut to junk. Unemployment among the young stands at, according to differing figures, between 22 and 50 per cent.

The German magazine Bild summed up the harsh view among many in Germany: “Is the bloc doing itself any favours by admitting this Balkan country of debt, corruption and unemployment? It will be the new graveyard for taxpayers’ money, the next billion-euro grave.”

The government in Zagreb is pained that detractors in northern Europe do not appreciate the exhaustive and punitive process it has gone through to gain membership. Zoran Milanovic, the Social Democrat Prime Minister, stressed: “Not one single post-Communist country has been scrutinised as much as Croatia has been during the accession period. We should be readier to join than any other country, much readier.”

Croatia has handed over war crimes suspects from the Balkans conflict to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, carried out sweeping legal reforms, thinned out its public sector and carried out wholesale privatisations. On the way this has resulted in severe collateral damage, especially the last two measures.

EU membership broadly comes with a requirement that states should not own non-essential concerns, and Kamensko, a manufacturer of clothes and artefacts, was sold to private owners. When the new owners went bust three years ago, making 426 women unemployed, the workforce went on hunger-strike, held demonstrations and lobbied politicians, but to no avail. The message was: “This is the new reality, get used to it”.

A handful of former staff have now started a co-operative, with second-hand equipment acquired as donations. Its president, Durda Erozaija, a 56-year-old widow with two children, said: “All of us suffered. There was often no money coming into the families at all, so we had to sell possessions. In my place all we have got left are bare walls. But we have started this thing now and all we can do is hope.”

Ms Erozaija is unfazed by Ms Merkel’s no-show. “She has better things to do, [to] get on with her job. Women are more sensible about this than men.” She also has high hopes about the effect of the EU and the funds it will bring to Croatia to ease its integration with established members. The country is supposed to receive €1.6bn (£1.4bn) over the next three years. “We have had no help from politicians here, apart from the Mayor [of Zagreb] who has said some nice things. The EU gives grants to small businesses, so maybe we shall get something. This is not a big company with corrupt businessmen and politicians, so maybe we’ll qualify.”

The women have, in the meantime, got a contract – to produce Croatian flags for the accession celebrations. Just how many people turn up to wave them on the night remains to be seen. In a poll, just 7 per cent said there should be fireworks; 42 per cent said no ceremony was necessary at all.

But there was hope, albeit cautious, in Zagreb’s centre in the sunshine yesterday. Ivana Peric, a 22-year-old language student who has just returned from visiting relatives in Chicago, said: “This must seem like a central European city to you, not a Balkan city. We are trying to get away from [our past]. Most young people know that the future lies with the West – we don’t want to go back to the Balkans, to the old days. I don’t think it’ll suddenly be great, but we must be in, not out.”

Tihomir Kordic, 57, a former comrade of Ms Canjuga, says future generations will feel the benefit of EU membership. “I don’t have any illusions that I will suddenly get a job abroad,” he says. “But I hope my daughter will have new opportunities. In any event, We need to look to the future.”

Ms Canjuga, the eurosceptic, acknowledged that need. “What is important is not whether Angela Merkel comes or not. What’s important is that Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo, is coming, Nikolic, the President of Serbia, is coming. That is a step forward, to get away from the violence of the past. That is really important, whatever happens to us in the EU.”

Defence group bosses charged with bribery


Prosecutors in Finland said yesterday that they would charge three former executives from defence group Patria with bribing government officials in Croatia.

The case is part of an international investigation into allegations that former executives at the Finnish company bribed foreign government officials in countries including Croatia, Slovenia and Egypt to secure arms deals.

The prosecutor general’s office said the three defendants, who were not named, paid €1.5m in bribes in exchange for an armoured vehicle deal in 2007 worth over €50m. It said the suspects had also promised and partly paid out bribes worth five per cent of the deal. The suspects have denied all charges.

A court in Slovenia earlier this month sentenced former prime minister Janez Jansa to jail for taking bribes from Patria.