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Croatia Comes in from the Cold

After years of isolation, Croatia is flavour of the month in European political circles.
By Drago Hedl

Following the demise of its nationalist regime, Croatia is basking in the warm glow of international good will.


Ideologically rehabilitated, the former Yugoslav state is rapidly becoming a premier destination for diplomats and statesmen while its new political leaders are getting just as many invitations in return.


The contrast with the past decade, when the country was internationally isolated, could hardly be greater. Then Zagreb officials explained away Croatia's pariah status as punishment for its desire to be independent and self-sufficient.


Following the death of President Franjo Tudjman and the election defeat of his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), most Croats now realise that isolation served the former leadership's interests, enabling it to grow wealthy at the expense of the population at large.


Whereas western countries made a point of staying away from Tudjman's funeral, last month's inauguration of new Croatian President Stipe Mesic was packed with foreign dignitaries eager to be seen supporting the new administration.


The international seal of approval acknowledges not only the HDZ defeat at the ballot box, but also the change in policy towards neighbouring Bosnia. Despite popular anger at the 45-year sentence imposed by The Hague Tribunal on Bosnian Croat Tihomir Blaskic last week, the new administration remains committed to reversing Tudjman's interventionist policy in the neighbouring state.


Western countries also seem to be aware that, although Croatia's new leadership is at present popular, it will not remain so merely by arresting and prosecuting individuals responsible for corruption during the HDZ's decade in power.


For the new liberal administration to prosper, Zagreb will need not only strong political support but also financial assistance in order to reform the economy, invest capital and create jobs.


Whereas Tudjman spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying lobbyists to arrange a state visit to Washington, Mesic and his prime minister, Ivica Racan, have both been invited to the United States capital without angling for the privilege. Moreover, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has visited Croatia twice in just one month to demonstrate Washington's approval of the new Zagreb administration.


Racan and Mesic have also received invitations from most European capitals and will soon be visited by the European Union's new High Representative for security and foreign policy, Javier Solana, to discuss accelerating Croatia's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.


Meanwhile, an Italian economic delegation visited Zagreb promising substantial investment and was almost immediately followed by Executive President of the American Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Kirk Robertson, who announced that the United States is ready to invest $1.3 billion in Croatia in the near future.


Germany and Italy have forecast a 50 per cent increase in the number of tourists planning to spend their summer vacations on Croatia's Adriatic coast, stressing that the principal reason for this upturn lies with the political changes in Zagreb.


In the wake of so much good news, many ordinary Croats appear confused - not by the changes but by their rapid pace, since Croatia has been transformed overnight from Europe's whipping boy into her golden boy.


The rapid international response can be attributed to growing fears over the situation in Serbia, which remains critical to regional security. The message is that if Serbs follow the Croatian example and turn their backs on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, they too stand to benefit from international largesse.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor from Croatia.


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