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Explaining Politics: Croatia

Explaining Politics: Croatia

This summer, over 6 million people will flock to Croatia to visit the ancient towns and clear waters of the Adriatic. Many will be completely unaware of the bloodshed and conflict that has blackened the country’s recent history.

Coming into official existence in 1991, Croatia is the world’s 6th youngest state. The Croatian democratic system consists of a prime minister who leads the government, a unicameral legislature and an independent judiciary. An elected president is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, although this is a largely symbolic position.

This framework was only adopted in 1990 when a new constitution was adopted in line with Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia. But ultimately, the potential for the independence of Croatia was created many years before. 

Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War 1. In 1918, Croatia joined the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which was eventually renamed Yugoslavia in 1929 (‘jugo’ meaning ‘south’ in Serbo-Croatian). This newly formed country was a federal republic, meaning that each state retained some independence – a crucial fact that eventually led to the collapse of Yugoslavia.

During the Second World War, the so-called ‘Independent State of Croatia’ was a Nazi puppet government, governed by the fascist Ustaša organisation. During this period, approximately 340,000 Serbs, and virtually all the 25,000 Roma population were systematically murdered. Nearly 90% of the Croatian Jews in the country shared the same fate. There is an ongoing debate in Croatia surrounding how much responsibility the government has accepted for such atrocities. 

With the end of the war, Croatia was, again, viewed as a state of Yugoslavia – now a one-party socialist republic. Led by the compelling Communist Partisan Josip Broz ‘Tito’: a man who managed to both woo Richard Nixon and turn away from Joseph Stalin, without being knifed in the back. Yugoslavia embarked on a period of reconstruction. Tito was keen to distance himself from Stalin and the Eastern Bloc, and was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement – a collection of countries that were not formally aligned with a major power bloc. Yugoslavia was also one of the first communist countries to open its borders to the outside world, in what was a period of peace and relative prosperity. The world’s largest state funeral, at the time, was held after Tito’s death in 1980.

The death of Tito marked the start of a prolonged period of tumultuous unrest for Croatia and Yugoslavia. Immediately after Tito’s death, Yugoslavia adopted a collective presidency system in which a member of each state of Yugoslavia was elected to be president for a year in rotation. In 1990, Yugoslavia had its first free elections for 50 years. In Croatia, the communists lost and Franjo Tuđman, head of the centre-right nationalist group HDZ, became the first president of Croatia. Following a referendum, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on 25th June 1991.

What followed was the violent culmination of the fractious nationalism that had been brewing in the region since the death of Tito. The Yugoslav Wars, which came after the collapse of Yugoslavia, led to around 140,000 deaths and 4 million civilians were displaced from their homes. The wars were a series of separate conflicts throughout the 1990s and included the ‘Homeland War’ on Croatian independence, the Bosnian War and Kosovo War. Various crimes against humanity, including genocide, ethnic cleansing and war rape, have been found to have occurred during this period. A period which is, arguably, Europe’s bleakest since the Second World War.

Croatia has consequently sought to create a certain level of stability after such hostilities. Since 2003, Croatian foreign policy has focused on its accession to the EU. During the negotiations, Croatia cooperated with the International Court of Justice in matters concerning the war crimes in the Yugoslav Wars. This resulted in a 2012 referendum on European Union Membership. The country voted by a two-thirds majority to join the Union. Croatia joined the EU as the 28th member state on 1st July 2013. Croatia formally requested to enter the Eurozone in July 2019. The EU has stated that Croatia has a year to meet the requirements for entry to the Eurozone, which include maintaining of positive fiscal performance and the stability of the banking system.

On the back of a flourishing tourist industry, Croatia has made positive steps to continue the process of becoming a successful independent state which began in 1991. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović became the country’s first female president in 2015 with pro-European moderate Andrej Plenković as the prime minister since 2016. The latter’s election shows a stark, optimistic change to the Eurosceptic wave that has swept across many recent local European elections. Plenkovic has brought the HDZ party back to the centre-right after the group previously adopted a far-right nationalist stance. He has sought closer ties with Bosnia and Serbia and pushed for the protection of Bosnian Croats’ rights.


So, if you ever find yourself meandering around Dubrovnik, or having a drink in Zadar, you might find it hard to believe that, not 30 years ago, these were the sites of some of the fiercest violence Europe has seen since 1945.

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