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EU Focus: Sanader's Belgrade Overture Aimed at Impressing Brussels

Croatian premier’s move to bolster neighbour’s EU ambitions seen as way of consolidating Croatia’s own membership bid.
By Drago Hedl

Croatia’s declared intention to help Serbia and Montenegro join the European Union are as much about winning friends in Brussels as Belgrade, analysts say.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader signalled Zagreb’s desire to assist Belgrade last week during his visit to the Serbian capital, the first by a Croatian head of government since the former Yugoslavia imploded violently in 1991.

His remarks about Europe overshadowed most other aspects of the historic visit. These included a bilateral agreement to improve the position of minorities in both states, a continuation of their visa-free regime and Belgrade’s agreement to return Croatian art works and land registers lost or stolen in the 1991 war.

Sanader told Serbian television, RTS, the day before his visit to Belgrade, that Croatia was ahead of its neighbours in the race to Brussels now it had official candidate status and was expecting a date to start formal membership talks.

Zagreb would encourage Serbia and Montenegro to push forward with their own candidacy, as all countries in the region had a common European future, he added.

In his meeting with the president of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, Sanader again spoke of their common future in a united Europe, predicting that talks on Croatia’s membership would start next March with a view to joining the EU in 2007, he said.

“I deliberately say this in Belgrade today, because the sooner Croatia becomes an EU member state, the faster Serbia and Montenegro will join the organisation, too,” Sanader said.

President Marovic agreed, adding that Croatia’s example had been an “instructive as well as a valuable experience”.

A source close to the Croatian leader told the IWPR that close ties with its former foe were now a cornerstone of Zagreb’s foreign policy.

“Sanader realises that relations between Belgrade and Zagreb are vital for stability in this part of Europe,” the source said.

“He wants to show the two countries, though torn apart by a bloody war, can overcome their traumatic past in the same way Germany and France did after

World War II.”

Davor Gjenero, a political analyst in Zagreb, told IWPR that Sanader’s messages was intended for an audience in Brussels as much as in Belgrade. “It’s his best and only way of reinforcing Croatia’s position with the European Union,” he said.

“Europe wants stability in this region, so Sanader is playing this card. But he may be making a mistake with a patronising-sounding offer of Croatia as the state that should set European standards in Serbia.”

Sanader’s emollient message to Belgrade follows other concrete signs of growing cooperation between Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro, turning once mortal enemies into regional partners.

Just before heading to Belgrade, Sanader ceremonially reopened a power station at Ernestinovo, near Osijek, in eastern Croatia, re-linking continental Europe’s electricity network with that of south-east Europe.

“This isn’t just about carrying power,” Sanader remarked at the ceremony. “We are bearing a message about mutual ties and cooperation.”

Zagreb and Belgrade scrapped visa requirements between themselves some years ago. Serbian newspapers are again on sale in Croatia, while holidays in Croatia are once more promoted on billboards in the Serbian capital. Cultural exchanges have also picked up in the field of art, theatre and music.

Significantly, the two states have ever-closer economic relations. Croatia is among the five biggest investors in Serbia; its investments there grew strikingly from 5.2 million euro in 2002 to 34.4 million last year.

Goran Masnec, chief Belgrade representative for the Croatian Chamber of Commerce, said the Zagreb-based Agrokor, which recently bought up Serbia’s Frikom ice cream plant, was a leading example of a Croatian firm investing in the Serbian market.

Serbia and Montenegro is one of Croatia’s most desirable economic partners, especially in the food industry and machinery production. It is also one of the few countries with which Croatia has a positive foreign trade balance.

Trade between the two states was valued at 268 million US dollars last year, of which Croatian exports to Serbia and Montenegro accounted for 191 million and imports from the latter worth 77 million.

“Serbs and Croats want to live in the same country once again, only with the capital in Brussels and not Belgrade this time,” Branko Mijic, a political analyst commented in the Rijeka newspaper Novi List.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor based in Osijek.