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Croatia Cautious Over Balkan Summit

Croatian Prime Minister Racan hesitates over French initiative for Balkan-European Union summit in Zagreb.
By Dragutin Hedl

French President Jacques Chirac's proposal that the Croatian government host a summit in Zagreb this November bringing together the leaders of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and the 15 European Union, EU, states has become a political hot potato for the Croatian government.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic welcomed the suggestion, which was made during his official visit to Paris in May.

The summit would be the largest event of its kind to take place in Zagreb. Given the summit itself has yet to be confirmed, the possible agenda is far from finalised. But Croatian diplomatic sources suggest the meeting would have three objectives - to clearly articulate EU policy towards the Balkan countries and their eventual integration into the Union, to define the pace and principals underscoring that integration, and finally to address the thorny problem of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

To welcome the EU leaders to Zagreb would finally seal recognition of Croatia's new political direction and confine to the past the isolationist policies of late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

Since the January 3 elections support for Croatia's integration into the EU has soared. A July survey by the Ministry for European Integration pointed to 77.6 per cent in favour and only 7.9 per cent against.

Nevertheless Racan's response to the idea has been muted to say the least.

Racan said he would "seek to clearly define the goals and agenda for the meeting" and that "there are still some things to be clarified and explained."

The prime minister, increasingly in the firing line for excessive caution over reforms, seems afraid of nationalist right's probable objections. Radicals in the HDZ, for example, are clamouring the summit would mark the beginning of moves to reunify former Yugoslavia.

Racan's position as leader of a six-party coalition government is made all the more difficult by the line taken by his largest coalition partner, Drazen Buudisa, leader of the Croatian Social Liberal Party. Budisa too constantly criticises any initiatives, which can be related to the "reunification of Yugoslavia".

Budisa, for example, attacked Mesic for making his first state visits to Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, simply because all three are former members of the Yugoslav Federation.

Throughout the ten year Tudjman era, the bogeyman of a reunified Yugoslavia was wheeled out at every opportunity. The fear remains a factor in the minds of a large proportion of the population.

Even Mesic's recent meeting with former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic provoked a storm of protest from officials in the HDZ.

Anto Djapic, leader the Croatian Party of Rights, added to Racan's woes by claiming the Zagreb meeting was a forerunner to linking Croatia once again with Serbia and Montenegro. Djapic even suggested the summit would result in cheap labour from Albania and Bulgaria forcing Croatian workers out of their jobs. In a country with a 20 per cent unemployment rate, such scare mongering can fall on fertile soil.

But political analysts suspect Racan's main worry is possibility of Serbia turning up for the summit, and that this is in fact Chirac's principal objective. Should September's elections in Serbia deliver an opposition victory, the analysts argue, the international community would rapidly move to bring Belgrade back into the fold. In such circumstances an invitation to the new authorities in Serbia to attend the Zagreb meeting would be a logical step.

Such a 5+1-1 formula - (Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, plus Albania, minus Slovenia) - would merely add fuel to the nationalist's attack on Racan's government.

With local elections scheduled in Croatia early next year Racan could do without such a hot potato during the campaign.

Meanwhile Mesic and Croatia's dynamic Foreign Minister Tonino Picula see only positive results for the country should the summit go ahead - particularly more rapid integration into the EU.

Perhaps Racan too would do better to take a positive stand on Chirac's initiative rather than fret over explaining away the tired, empty threats of a reunited Yugoslavia.

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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