- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Arab freedom wave has now hit the shores of Europe and in the most unlikely of places: the Balkans. Croatia, an Adriatic nation that straddles the civilizational fault line between Central Europe and the Balkans, has been seething with public unrest and protests.

For weeks, thousands of demonstrators have been assembling almost daily in the capital, Zagreb, and across other cities in this country of 4.4 million. They are demanding that the government step down and call snap elections. The situation is volatile - and could turn violent.

The protests should come as no surprise. Croatia is on the verge of entering the European Union. Accession talks - a key step to joining the EU - are expected to conclude this summer. The ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union, known by its acronym HDZ, has staked its reputation on EU membership. Yet, its EU-at-all-costs policy serves to obfuscate the regime’s abuse of power and incompetence.

Croatia’s previous prime minister, Ivo Sanader, is facing charges of embezzlement and corruption. He is accused of stealing millions of dollars. The HDZ ruling cadre has erected a mafia state. The regime’s arm reaches into every sector of Croatian society. It exerts considerable influence upon the media. The courts are routinely manipulated by political officials.

The result is that Croatia has become a Balkan-style kleptocracy. Cronyism is a way of life. HDZ leaders have plundered public assets, siphoning off at least $1 billion - a staggering amount for such a small nation. Schools, roads and hospitals are underfunded. Crushing taxes and burdensome regulations cripple economic growth. Unemployment is at 18 percent - and rising. The national debt is staggering. In short, the HDZ has driven the country to the brink of collapse.

Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor says she is different from her predecessor, Mr. Sanader. She vows to clean up the political cesspool and kick-start the sluggish economy. And she claims to have a silver bullet: EU membership.

Mrs. Kosor is wrong. She is a venal, vacuous politician, desperately clinging to power. She must call national elections by the end of this year or early 2012 at the latest. Every poll shows the HDZ will get trounced. She wants to complete the EU accession negotiations and then portray the HDZ as the “party of Europe.”

Yet this strategy represents the final betrayal of Croatia. Mrs. Kosor has been intimately involved with the ruling HDZ clique - its corruption, state-sanctioned theft and vast nomenklatura. She is not a modernizer or moderate reformer; rather, she is a power-hungry apparat-chik who seeks to preserve the HDZ’s parasitical regime. Mrs. Kosor and her party have bled Croatia white. They now hope to devour the billions they believe will be coming in future EU subsidies. It is larceny masquerading as foreign policy.

Zagreb’s political elites have sold out their country in their mad rush to join the pan-European project. Foreigners own large swaths of Croatia’s economy. Fishing and agricultural interests have been abandoned to appease the Euro-conglomerates. Like Romanians and Bulgarians, Croatians are about to learn - painfully - that fast-track EU membership is not a panacea. Instead, it will relegate them into permanent third-class status within a European superstate.

For decades, Croatia suffered under Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. It is now a vassal of Brussels instead of Belgrade. Croatia has simply exchanged one lord for another. And this raises the question: Can Zagreb truly stand on its own two feet as a self-respecting, self-reliant and sovereign nation?

Croatia’s historical curse has been its geographic location. It has been the borderland between clashing powers and civilizations. Croatians have been ruled by numerous imperial masters - Austrians, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks, Venetians and Serbs. Croatia’s successful and bloody bid for independence from Yugoslavia was a great victory for the forces of democracy and national self-determination. Like other long-subjugated peoples - Slovaks, Ukrainians, the Irish - Croatians showed it is possible to triumph eventually over multinational empires.

Yet the curse lingers. Having been conquered for most of its history, Zagreb instinctively looks to foreign capitals to help govern its internal affairs. Croatia is still not so much a country as it is a remnant province of old Austria-Hungary. Predominantly Catholic, conserv- ative and Central European, it has the potential to become a Balkan Switzerland. However, its neocolonial mindset and the refusal or inability to defend its long-term national interests is crippling the country. The obsession to join the EU at any price is reckless and an abdication of leadership - a public acknowledgment of failure to address the country’s growing financial and social crisis.

EU membership has not saved Greece and Ireland from going bankrupt; it will not save Croatia, either. Most Croatians understand this. Opinion polls show that 70 percent support the protests, while over 60 percent want early elections. Demonstrators encompass nearly every segment of society - war veterans, workers, small-business owners, middle-class professionals, students, fishermen and farmers. In other words, the Croatian heartland is in revolt.

This movement is neither left nor right; it represents a populism that wants to put Croatia first. It seeks honest government, openness, genuine market reforms, and, above all, the end of HDZ misrule. It is a cry for real political liberalization and economic renewal - the fulfillment of the 1991 democratic revolution. Croatians no longer simply want a national state. They want to succeed at nation building. This means entering the EU only when and if the country is ready - not on any leader’s manufactured timetable.

The Croatia-first revolution threatens to sweep away the decrepit old guard. It has shaken Zagreb’s ruling class to its very foundations. The people have had enough of lies, betrayal and corruption. This regime must fall.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.