- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Feb. 21 (UPI) — Croatia Friday formally applied to join the European Union, less than a decade after the end of a bloody civil war with its rebel Serb minority.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan handed the former Yugoslav republic's application to start membership talks to Greek premier Costas Simitis, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

"United Europe is an unprecedented challenge of the new era and Croatia has a right to participate in this magnificent process," Racan said in Athens after presenting Zagreb's membership bid.

Croatia, which is the first western Balkan state to apply to join the European Union, hopes to join the Brussels-based club in 2007, along with EU hopefuls Bulgaria and Rumania.

Ten Central and Eastern European countries, including neighboring Slovenia, are set to become EU members next year in the bloc's biggest ever expansion.

Although Croatia won its independence from Belgrade in 1991, it was shunned by the international community for much of the decade because of the country's four-year civil war and the aggressively nationalist stance of late President Franjo Tudjman.

Zagreb was welcomed back into the European fold in 2000 when Racan ousted the nationalists and embarked on a series of radical reforms aimed at preparing the country of 4.4 million people for EU membership.

"Croatia has changed," Racan said Friday, admitting: "We don't have illusions — we have to do more."

On the plus side, Croatia is richer than several of the former communist states due to join the EU next year. The European Commission and EU leaders also regard it as something of a Balkan success story.

But relations with the 15-member bloc remain strained because of Zagreb's failure to hand over war crimes suspects, such as retired Gen. Janko Bobetko, to The Hague's International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia.

The Balkan state, which is famed for its island-studded Adriatic coastline and medieval walled towns such as Dubrovnik and Rovinj, also has a long way to go to meet the EU's strict political criteria, Brussels officials say.

EU President Simitis welcomed Croatia's application, saying it created "a dynamic that opens up new paths for the countries of the Balkan region."

The European Union has said that in addition to Croatia, it hopes in the future to integrate Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro into the ever-expanding club.

Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino Picula is due to meet his EU counterparts in Brussels Monday to discuss the country's membership prospects. However, commission officials said it was likely to be over a year before the bloc delivers a verdict on the application.

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