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Lessons from Croatia’s fight to exist show the way to EU for Ukraine

President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Brussels
Brussels, Belgium. 13th June, 2018. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council welcomes then President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic at European Council headquarters. Credit: Depositphotos
Lessons from Croatia’s fight to exist show the way to EU for Ukraine
Article by: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, former President of Croatia
Going from occupied to EU member in 15 years, Croatia is the EU country that most resembles Ukraine’s path and will push against “expansion fatigue,” its former president says.

Croatia’s past is much like Ukraine’s present. But I hope that our futures will soon be the same and I hope that Ukraine soon will be where Croatia is today. When I look back at the 1990s, I see how much we have accomplished. Our neighbors in Central Europe had somewhat of an easier time because they did not have war.

Croatia was undergoing multiple transitions: transition from a war-torn economy, country, and society, to a peacetime economy, country and society; from an authoritarian system under communism to a democratic system; and from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy.

These processes had to happen fast. But there was another transition – from almost a denial of the right for Croatia to exist – into a full recognition of the existence of our country.

Historical context

When Croatia was part of Yugoslaiva, we kept our statehood by having our parliament (which was not democratically elected until the 1990s) and a viceroy who governed Croatia. There were attempts to restore independence. A lot of people know about the Prague Spring, but not so many know of the Croatian Spring, which evolved approximately at the same time, and was unfortunately crushed by the Communist authorities.

External circumstances for our independence became favorable in the early 1990s with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We started the process again.

However, at that time, most of the international community thought that Yugoslavia should be kept together, as if it had existed forever.

Yugoslavia indeed played a role as a non-aligned country during the Cold War. But at that time, it had already lost its geopolitical significance. It was impossible to stop the self-determination of nations that had existed as Yugoslav republics.

The 1974 (Yugoslav) Constitution gave all of us the right to self-determination, including secession, but Serbian leadership declared that we had lost our right to self-determination by staying in Yugoslavia.

Therefore, we had difficult times following our first democratic elections. On 30 May 1990, the first Croatian Sabor, our democratically elected Parliament, came into power. At that time, we were not internationally recognized. We had to fight for our right to exist. However, we were able to secure the recognition.

On 25 Jun2 1991, we declared independence but we were forced by the international community to impose a moratorium on independence for a few months.

That moratorium expired in October 1991. Meanwhile, the rebellion of parts of the local Serb communities, supported by the so-called Yugoslav National Army, had already grown into a full-fledged war by the end of 1991, with the battle for Vukovar, similar to Ukraine’s battle for Mariupol.

Territories controlled by the Republic of Srpska and Republic of Serbian Krajina in 1993. Photo: Wikimedia commons
Territories controlled by the Republic of Srpska and Republic of Serbian Krajina in 1993. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Although Vukovar fell, it essentially defended the rest of the country and stopped further Serbian aggression in Croatia.

A UN peacekeeping mission was deployed due to the continuous attempts to start negotiations in the early 1990s. At that time, the conflict in Croatia had become a frozen conflict with occasional skirmishes, with people still dying along the front line.

But we were determined not to become another Cyprus. And we kept saying to the international community that we were determined to reintegrate the occupied areas.

Photo from the time of operation Storm. Credit: ~
Photo from the time of operation Storm. Credit:

In January 1992, Croatia finally received international recognition.

During that process in the 1990s, we built the military, the foreign service, and other state institutions. But institution-building under conditions of war is a difficult process.

Image: Wikimedia commons
Image: Wikimedia commons

In the 1990s, the occupied territories amounted to about a quarter of our country and we were preparing to take them back. We started with smaller, limited operations, and then in 1995, we carried out two major operations:

  1. “Lightning,” to liberate and reintegrate Western Slavonia;
  2. “Storm,” during which we liberated and reintegrated the largest occupied area popularly known as the Krajina.

The remainder of the occupied territory (Eastern Slavonia region) was peacefully reintegrated in 1998.

About the war economy

Throughout the years of war, we actually did not have a war economy. We were pursuing the path of transition along the lines that I mentioned in the beginning. We were incredibly driven and motivated.

When we declared our independence, we also declared that we wanted to join NATO and the European Union. Most people, especially in the international community, thought this was impossible. Our disadvantages originated from our challenges in the 1990s: fighting for the right to exist and institution-building under conditions of war.

Because of the war, Croatia was getting little, if any, foreign investment. What investment it did get mainly came from people who trusted Croatia for personal reasons, or from people who once lived there, or from those who just wanted to help.

We also missed the EU assistance for countries in transition that existed at that time, such as the PHARE program, because we were deemed politically ineligible.

The number of displaced people in Croatia, along with refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the height of the Bosnian War, amounted to about one million. That equaled a quarter of our population. We cared for the refugees mostly just with our own resources, placing them in homes, hotels etc., rather than refugee camps. Financing of this process put a huge strain on the economy.

Croatian experience of reintegration

With the liberation of occupied areas, we needed to complete several processes. Most of the territory was mined and for people to be able to go back to work on their land, to resume normal lives, these areas had to be demined.

The reintegration process is very difficult in terms of reconciliation. People had lived through the occupation, with many supporting the occupiers or even fighting against Croatia. Those who remained in the liberated territories had to be reintegrated as well.

Reconciliation is a difficult process in which you must give people back their jobs, pensions, and homes – even if they had fought against you.

This is something Ukraine also will face while reintegrating its occupied areas. Croatia can share a lot of experience about what good practices to follow and what we did not do so well.

Privatization process and corruption

Before 1991, we mainly had a centrally-planned economy, and most companies were state-owned. Thus, the privatization process was necessary, but it was not done in the best possible way. In large part, it was non-transparent, and corruption and nepotism was involved.

The economic strategy of the political leadership relied on the old-fashioned thinking that, “we just need several hundred families, or people, who would carry the process forward.”

Many companies were ruined because they were taken over by people who had no idea how to develop them and move the economy forward. Corruption was an overwhelming problem, as well as war. We had to deal with both simultaneously, especially during the process of European integration.

Development of institutions

Yet we continued to open Croatia to the world, to invite investors and to develop conditions for safe and secure investment, as well as to pursue the European integration process, aligning our legislation with the acquis Communautaire, (European law) and most importantly, implementing it.

We started building the appropriate institutions, paying much attention to the criteria that we had to fulfill.

  1. First, we dealt with the Copenhagen political criteria of stable democratic institutions, a stable and impartial judiciary, etc.
  2. Second, we addressed the economic criteria of full integration and being able to withstand the competitive pressures of the common EU market, which is much larger than the Croatian economy.
  3. Then, there were direct criteria for building institutions. This is an area where we could have done much better, and which you need to keep in mind throughout the process.

Once you accede to the European Union, you are going to start losing a lot of people – not only because of the freedom of movement (since your citizens will get the opportunity to study and work in the EU) – but simply because, with the accession, you will have to send a number of your civil servants to Brussels.

And they will leave for Brussels because the economic advantages of living in Brussels will be greater than living in Ukraine.

Therefore, you need to make sure that after accession, you have the proper institutional frameworks because this isn’t just about harmonization of legislation.

Implementation of the adopted laws is even more important. You need to have proper structures in place, and people who are knowledgeable and experienced enough to carry the process forward. The further you go, the more complicated the process becomes.

The process of Croatia’s EU integration was more complex and complicated than for any other country before us. Perhaps on your path forward, there will be additional criteria that will deal with the consequences of Russian aggression against Ukraine, among them reconciliation and resolving issues.

This is the path to stability, peace, and prosperity – not just for Ukraine – but for the whole region.

European integration

By the end of the 1990s, Croatia was not really a darling of the international community or the EU.

We were perceived by many as a semi-autocratic state.

One must remember that we were a country that had just emerged from communism and hadn’t the time to develop free institutions before we had to start fighting for our survival. We were a country that sometimes had to act against the will of the international community to overcome the impasse of occupation and failed peace negotiations.

However, since 2000, with the change of government, Croatia fully opened to the world, and the world opened to Croatia.

We were determined to apply for EU membership. Many discouraged and dissuaded us by saying, “You’re not ready. Don’t even try to do that because the result will not be positive.”

However, we soldiered on. We were so committed to prove that we were willing and able to do it, that when we applied in 2003 and received the questionnaire, we filled it out in a record time — in just a couple of months (Ukraine filled out such a questionnaire as well in April 2022 — editor.) We started the process against all odds and the expectations of many.

Sometimes, you face unpredicted hurdles.

In our case, the start of negotiations was postponed several times. The EU demanded our full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. One of those charged was from Croatia and was on the run. We were told, “Unless you arrest and deliver the person to the court in the Hague, which is the only meaning of full cooperation with ICTY, you’re not going to start negotiations.”

Ultimately, the process was resolved, and we started negotiations on 3 October 2005. I was the head of the state delegation for negotiations and led the process until I left the government.

The term “negotiations” is misleading because much of the process is about determining the time framework for the adoption and implementation of the acquis.

You negotiate about very few issues, such as exemptions, or the funding you will receive from the EU. I am certain there will be additional reconstruction funding for Ukraine.

Council of the EU illuminated with the Ukrainian flag on Europe Day in Brussels in 2022. Image by European Union.

The process can become complicated by factors beyond your control. There were 32 chapters of the acquis when we negotiated. We presented our position for the first chapter: it was about education, which had already been aligned. Thus we had no objections and stated that we would fulfill our obligations before the date of accession. We did not ask for any exemptions or transitional periods, etc. It took the EU about six months to accept our position.

Accordingly, you need to have people who will be your allies in this process, and who will be driving the process forward.

You will have to work politically. Please don’t be shy to ask for advice and learn from other people’s experience. To us, it was essential to have our colleagues from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and other countries, share their own experiences with us so that we could avoid the mistakes they had made.

We stand ready to work with you and share our experience. Out of all the member states that have joined the European Union so far, Croatia’s experience most resembles what Ukraine will be facing.

Advice for Ukraine from Croatia: never take “no” for an answer

There are many lessons learned in this process, and one of the most important is using accession for the advantage of your own country — Ukraine.

The best way forward is not to try to convince with words, but instead, to show what you have done and to focus on Ukraine and what needs to be done in Ukraine and for Ukraine.

The EU accession is ultimately about creating a better life for everyone in a better Ukraine, so use the process to your own advantage.

Whatever you do, always keep in mind that you are doing it for yourself, not because Brussels demands something, but because you want a better life for Ukrainians: better institutions, more transparency, a stable and competitive economy, and a stable legal system fighting against corruption.

For Ukraine, one of the biggest challenges is to re-establish that integrity and to earn the trust of the international community so it can invest in all the processes of reconstruction, rebuilding, clearing mines, creating new technologies, new industries, etc., the basis for your future economy.

Always explain the process to Ukrainian citizens.

Negotiations also require an educational and information campaign. You need not only to keep citizens on board for eventual accession but also to prepare them for what they can expect from future EU membership and how they can make the best of it for themselves.

For some, the changes and transition can be overwhelming, especially in rural areas and traditional industries where people tend to cling to the old practices. It is important to note that the EU does not want to destroy tradition, but preserve it while introducing new practices that respect health, safety, and other standards, as well the principles of good governance.

My second piece of advice is never to take “no” for an answer.

Do not argue, but proceed with what you want to do. Had we listened to our colleagues from the EU in the early 2000s, that we were not ready to apply and start the process, who knows whether we would be a member of the EU, even today.

I think that at that time, we caught the last train.

Today, Russia’s aggression has changed the geopolitical situation in the EU to a more favorable environment for expansion, not only for Ukraine’s fight for EU accession but also for the countries in the Western Balkans.

Don’t say you are ready, but demonstrate that you can take the necessary steps forward. Always insist that the appropriate formal steps towards EU membership will follow your progress.

My next piece of advice — please, use any assistance you can get. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Don’t think that anybody is trying to patronize you. We have so much experience that we are ready to share with you.

Finally, always expect the unexpected.

There will be hurdles that you have not foreseen. So, be creative in this process. We will be working with you to help push the accession process forward to dissipate whatever expansion fatigue has developed around Europe.

In my case, pushing for Ukraine’s accession is not just for Ukraine, but also for my own region – the countries in the Western Balkans – because I do believe that a united Europe gives us the best preconditions for lasting peace, security, stability and prosperity.

A strong European Union will be a stronger actor on the world scene. By strengthening our common policies and by strengthening the Union with new members, I believe that the European Union can really become one of the main actors on the world stage that stands for rules-based societies and rules-based economies. Europe can be the largest area of peace and prosperity in the world.

I look forward to the moment when we welcome Ukraine as a full EU member.

Viktoriia Ahapova helped transcribe this speech. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, former president of Croatia, spoke about lessons from Croatia for Ukraine on May 19 at the conference, Forward and Upward: Reforming Ukraine during the War, organized by VoxUkraine, with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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