- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

ZAGREB, Croatia — Prime Minister Ivica Racan believes Croatia’s future as a fully integrated European state is on the line in today’s general elections, the first since nationalists were ousted from power almost four years ago.

He told AFP in a recent interview that only a government led by his Social Democrat Party is capable of reaching the Holy Grail of European Union membership by 2007.

“Unlike us, the opposition thinks that it is possible to negotiate with the EU in a way that they can choose to implement the reforms that they like and disregard those that they dislike,” Mr. Racan said.

“Everyone supports reform and change, but when it comes to making concrete moves, there is strong opposition.”

The prime minister said his government had faced a massive task after it swept to power with a crushing election victory over the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in the 2000 elections.

At that time, the Balkan country was internationally isolated, rotten with corruption and on the brink of economic collapse because of mismanagement and the costs of the 1991-95 war with Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs.

“When we took over, the country was in crisis — isolated, unliked, with its economy devastated,” Mr. Racan said.

The moderates’ 2000 election triumph was a milestone for Croatia, ending a decade of rule by the HDZ under the late autocratic hard-liner Franjo Tudjman.

The HDZ had guided Croatia to independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but its years in power are now regarded as undemocratic and damaging for Croatia’s international relations.

Mr. Racan said his government had restored democracy, revived Croatia’s economy and ended its isolation by putting it on a fast track to EU membership.

Economic growth last year was 5.2 percent in real terms, with inflation of 2.3 percent.

Croatia applied for EU membership in February and hopes to start negotiations next year and join the bloc in 2007, along with Bulgaria and Romania.

“We appreciate the considerable and impressive progress made in Croatia during the last four years,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said on a recent visit to Zagreb.

But in a clear reference to the former HDZ regime, he said Croatians “should not forget there was a reason why” the country was not among the 10 central and southern European countries due to join the European Union in May.

Despite its successes, the SDP was trailing the HDZ in opinion polls leading up to today’s election.

Mr. Racan acknowledged that the government had failed to deliver on some of its electoral pledges — notably to reduce unemployment, which stands at around 18 percent, and to punish corrupt officials from the 1990s.

“We could and should have done more in punishing economic crime and corruption and strengthening the rule of law,” he acknowledged recently.

“We had a difficult and rather unpopular job left by the HDZ.”

Surveys show the HDZ is the strongest single political group in Croatia, but the next government is likely to be a coalition because no party is expected to win a majority in parliament.

The electoral debate has focused on Croatia’s EU membership, a goal shared by all the major parties including a reinvigorated HDZ, which has been trying to transform itself into a modern, conservative party.

But Mr. Racan said the new-look HDZ is a fake.

“The HDZ is far from being reformed and democratized enough,” he said, adding that his opposition was still an “old Tudjman-style, arrogant party which equates itself with the state and the nation.”

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