An Update on Croatia: the EU Accession Process
and the Presidential Elections
February 28, 2005
Staff-prepared summary of the EES discussion with Ivan Grdesic, Professor of Political Science, University of Zagreb, and Former Ambassador to the United States

Just a few weeks before EU accession negotiations were scheduled to begin (March 17, 2005), the Commission surprised the Croatian government by announcing that unless it complied fully with the ICTY by arresting General Ante Gotovina, negotiations would be delayed. In comparison to its neighbors, Croatia has thus far had an easy cooperation with the ICTY, since it began its cooperation with individuals and issues that it did not see as contentious. Now that these less contentious issues have been exhausted, it has become more difficult since compliance with the ICTY now comes down to one man who enjoys relatively high public support. At the same time, Croatia is closer than ever in its progress towards European integration. Ivan Grdesic asserted, therefore, that this period is extremely critical for the country.

Cancelled or postponed negotiations with the EU will have unfortunate consequences for Croatian reformers. The recent presidential elections revealed that there still are political elements that believe that Croatia can live without the support of EU and NATO who are ready to weaken the current path to reform. The accession negotiations are widely seen as a "reward" to the pro-EU forces in Croatian politics, which is necessary if reformers are to continue to block the extreme Right. The right-of-center Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has made substantial efforts in reforming its political program to jibe with EU accession goals. Thus, if negotiations are postponed, anti-reform elements in the party may gain a foothold and challenge reformers.

HDZ leader, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, has amassed quite a bit of power in the country. The presidential elections revealed an attempt by the party to downplay the importance of the institution of the presidency, by holding a short campaign. The electoral law also worked to diminish the importance of the office of the presidency: because the threshold for support of individual candidates is so low, there were many candidates for the job, some of whom should not have been seriously considered. Moreover, the current electoral law allows Croatian diaspora to heavily influence the outcome of elections, which Grdesic asserted should be restricted.

One important candidate was Boris Miksic, a member of the diaspora who returned to Croatia to run an independent campaign protesting EU/NATO integration. He successfully mobilized the young, conservative, Christian protest vote, garnering 18 percent of the vote. When this support was insufficient to bring him to the next round of elections, Miksic called the result unfair and invited his supporters to go to the streets to protest the "stolen" election. Happily, no protests ensued, but the event shows that undemocratic forces still enjoy some support in the country.

Ultimately, incumbent president Stjepan Mesic and HDZ candidate Jadranka Kosor made it to the second round. Grdesic was pleased that these two candidates launched a mature campaign, based on their respective parties' platforms rather than competing against each other as individuals. Moreover, both parties were strongly supportive of European integration, which demonstrated a wide consensus for EU and NATO accession in the country. Grdesic recommended that President Mesic's reelection will mean that for the next five years, he will need to be strong, despite the relative weakness of the institution of the president. This brave and strong face will be particularly important in making sure that the new ICTY requirements do not reinvigorate the extreme Right and derail critical reforms.