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Croatia is Preparing For a Future With the EU - 2004-07-06

Last month the small central European country celebrated 14 years of independence. Few traces of its 1991-95 independence war remain to be seen as the country prepares to enter the European Union this decade. On a recent trip to Croatia’s Adriatic coast and its capital Zagreb, VOA’s Zlatica Hoke found Croatians looking toward the future with a mixture of optimism and apprehension.

Church bells announcing a noon mass in Dubrovnik are drowned by cheerful band music entertaining throngs of tourists in front of St. Blaise church. The historic core of the city, completed in the 13th century, remains virtually unchanged to the present day.

It is surrounded by city walls and has only two entrances, both leading to the Stradun, the city's main promenade. In 1991 and 1992, after Croatia proclaimed its independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs shelled the city causing considerable damage. But thanks to local effort and international aid, the old town has been restored to its former glory.

While in the past visitors used to come and go, nowadays many want to stay. With Croatia expected to enter the European Union in less than a decade, foreign investors are flocking to acquire property on its coast or one of its more than a thousand islands. Prices of real estate and almost everything else are rocketing, prompting some resentment toward the European Union and the free market economy.

"The European Union is one large melting pot. The best Croats will leave Croatia for other countries, while elderly English, French and Germans will take over the Adriatic coast." These “last famous words” of Stipe Suvar, a former head of Yugoslavia’s Communist Party and founder of the new Socialist Workers Party, who died last week, were published in Croatia’s news weekly Nacional.

Ivo Pukanic, president of the board of the NCL Media Group, which owns the magazine, says its polls show that earlier enthusiasm about joining the European Union has dropped significantly: “Two years ago my answer to this question would be one hundred percent of the Croatian people want to go to the EU, but now I think less than fifty percent want to go to the European Union.”

Mr. Pukanic says today many Croatians believe they would do better making decisions about their country by themselves rather than follow the rules of the European Union. Public works economist Branka Ruzic from Zagreb is one.

Ms Ruzic believes Croatia has natural and human resources that can make it a prosperous country. Croatians are getting an understanding of what it may mean to join the union. For example, tasteless, mass produced food from other European countries is replacing healthier local product. Cheap electronic and other gadgets flood store shelves, and real estate prices are out of reach of average Croatians.

Ms Ruzic says since Croatia’s transition ten years ago, workers have lost their union protection. They can be fired at any time if their manager does not like them, something that happened to her colleague Romina Veljaca two years ago.

However, Ms Veljaca says, privatization has enabled her to start her own business and she is now doing much better.

Croatia has a heavy backlog of civil cases, mostly involving land ownership. The lack of proper documentation makes buying and selling real estate complicated. Ms Veljaca has specialized in helping buyers and sellers obtain the necessary paperwork.

Mario Kopic, a political analyst and philosopher from Dubrovnik, says Croatia’s legal system is in disarray now, but that will have to change before it joins the European Union. And membership will confer other benefits, such as more jobs.

Croatia’s economy, fueled in great part by increased tourism, started growing in 2000 and exceeded five percent in 2002, but the unemployment rate at more than ten percent remains high. Mr. Kopic says in a Europe that is uniting, Croatia cannot stand alone.

“We need not be either Euro-phoric or Euro-skeptical. We need to be Euro-critical and above all Euro-creative,” says Mr. Kopic.

And that’s what most Croatians seem to be. With an occasional nostalgic look to the past, the nation is marching confidently to the future.