BALKAN BLOG: Croatia displays its split personality

By bne IntelliNews June 20, 2011

Guy Norton in Zagreb -

What a difference a day makes.

On June 10 Croatia received the news it has been waiting to hear for the best part of six years when the European Commission announced it is recommends the conclusion of EU accession negotiations.

That means Croatia is scheduled to become the 28th member of Europe's elite political-economic club on July 1, 2013. A bright, new future seemingly beckons for the country. Just a day later however, 10,000 demonstrators spent the afternoon hurling cobblestones, flowerpots and tear gas canisters at 400 or so Gay Pride marchers in Split, illustrating a darker side.

The shameful events in illustrated just how much work remains to be done if Croatia is to be seen a truly upholding the liberal social values that lie at the heart of the EU project.

The incident has already drawn opprobrium in European circles, with the Dutch ambassador to Croatia noting that it shows the need for strict monitoring of the country in the two years before it joins the club, especially in the field of human rights and the treatment of minority groups. In recent years, Jewish, Roma and Serbian associations have all complained that the authorities in Zagreb pay no more than lip service to their grievances.

Although the country's popular president Ivo Josipovic fiercely condemned the events, calling them a demonstration of Croatia's 'non-European' face, Zeljko Kerum - the controversial mayor of Split who refused to endorse the march in the first place - suggested that it had passed off better than expected given that: "Croatia is one of the most Catholic countries in the world."

In Kerum's mind the Croatian brand of Catholicism is clearly of the 'fire and brimstone' Old Testament variety rather then the 'love they neighbour' New Testament kind. To put recent events in context, on the same day that the riot police had to rescue a small band of gay rights activists from a lynch mob in Split, just across the Adriatic, hundreds of thousands attended Rome's Gay Pride gathering, with hardly a carabinero in sight. Is the Italian brand of Catholicism so much more tolerant than its Croatian counterpart? The Croatian theologian that claimed the Gay Pride participants in Split 'got what they asked for' suggests so.

What could bring the lesson home in Zagreb is that such incidents threaten to have real economic consequences for a country that has been mired in recession for the last tow and a half years. Split, the self-proclaimed capital of Croatia's Dalmatian coast, promotes itself as a 21st century metropolis and is the key tourist gateway in a country where that industry accounts for nearly a quarter of gross domestic product, and almost half of all foreign currency revenues. As tourist minister Damir Bajs recently admitted, the anti-gay riots were a poor advertisement and threaten to undermine efforts to promote Croatia as a tourist mecca open to all.

While the Croatian tourist board slogan: 'Croatia - the Mediterranean as is once was,' is intended to conjure up images of unspoilt nature and stunning architectural treasures, the chaotic images from Split point to a darker picture - one characterized by social attitudes from the Dark Ages rather than the 21st century.

Croatia will certainly need to do some work on the diplomatic front in Brussels if it is to convince the EU authorities that it should be allowed to join the bloc in 2013. While individual events such as those in Split are unlikely to derail Croatia on its journey towards EU membership, failure to protect the rights of its minorities could potentially cause a delay, which would cost Croatia billions of euros in EU funding and a further loss in investor confidence. And as the flagship for further EU expansion into the rest of the former-Yugoslavia, Croatia's experiences on the road to the European Union will affect the progress of its neighbours.

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