- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

There could be a strong backlash against the West across the Balkans if Croatia’s bids to join the European Union and NATO are rejected, the country’s foreign minister warned in an interview.

Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul said other states of the former Yugoslav federation are watching closely as Croatia’s newly installed center-right government makes its pitch to join the two organizations.

Once considered a long shot for both the European Union and NATO, Croats argue that the country’s difficult economic reforms and efforts to move past the bloody ethnic feuds of the 1990s have made it a strong candidate.

“I fear [rejection] would be very dangerous not just for Croatia but for the entire region,” Mr. Zuzul said Tuesday during a Washington visit.

“It would be exactly the way to destroy the vision of a way forward for countries such as Serbia and Bosnia,” he said. “A signal that we are welcome in the EU, on the other hand, I think would be very crucial to the stability of the entire region.”

Croatia has been lobbying hard in recent months to obtain official status as a candidate country at an EU summit in June, leading perhaps to full membership in three years. The primary stumbling blocks have been Zagreb’s economic reforms, its treatment of Serbs and other ethnic minorities and its cooperation with The Hague tribunal investigating war crimes in the fighting after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The activist group Human Rights Watch earlier this month said Croatia still must take concrete steps to allow Serbian refugees to return home and bring to justice suspected war criminals such as fugitive former Croat Gen. Ante Gotovina. Britain and the Netherlands have put an effective hold on Croatia’s EU hopes, demanding to see more cooperation with The Hague panel.

The ruling party of new Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has its roots in the authoritarian political machine built up by the late Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman. But the new government has embraced a wide-ranging, pro-market economic policy and says it wants to cooperate with The Hague investigators seeking suspects believed still at large in the country.

Mr. Zuzul said the new government, which took power a month ago, is attempting to depoliticize the war-crimes issue, leaving it to justice and law enforcement officials in the new administration to coordinate policy with The Hague.

A party headed by ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj took a plurality of the seats in Serbian parliamentary elections earlier this month. Mr. Zuzul expressed confidence that the party would not be invited to join a coalition government in Belgrade, but said the result was worrying nonetheless.

“You have to have concerns when you have a major party in a neighboring country claiming half of your territory,” he said.

The Croatian diplomat said domestic support for the European Union and NATO is the highest in the region, with 80 percent backing the country’s EU bid and more than 60 percent supporting NATO. He said Croatia is small but would be a reliable ally for Washington in a troubled region, and could help bridge recent trans-Atlantic tensions that crystallized during the Iraq war.

“We want to join Europe, but we are also very comfortable with the United States. We have never accepted the idea that you have to choose between the two,” Mr. Zuzul said.

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