In the year which will be remembered for global travel restrictions due to the COVID pandemic, Croatia entered the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which makes it possible for Croatians to travel to the United States for business or tourism purposes without visas, after obtaining approval via the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA.
Croatia formally entered the VWP on 23 October, after meeting strict conditions.
For a country to enter the VWP, it must meet criteria regarding the fight against terrorism, law enforcement, immigration, document security, and border management, and the percentage of rejected visa applications must be below 3%, which Croatia met only recently.
EU says Croatia fulfills conditions for the application of Schengen acquis
On 9 December, EU member states agreed on the text of draft conclusions confirming that Croatia has fulfilled the necessary conditions for the application of the Schengen acquis, which paves the way for a final decision on accession to the area without internal border controls.
The final decision could be adopted in about six months during the French EU Presidency. It requires the consent of all Schengen member states.
Also, as of 1 January 2022, Croatian nationals will have the same status as citizens of other European Union member states on the Swiss labor market, which will provide fresh impetus to Croatian-Swiss relations, it was said at a meeting of the two countries foreign ministers in Bern on 23 November 2021.
Macron’s visit, Rafale purchase
In 2021, Emmanuel Macron visited Croatia as the first French president to pay an official visit to Zagreb since the country gained independence.
During his stay in Zagreb on 25 November, a deal was signed on the purchase of 12 Dassault Rafale F3R used multipurpose fighter jets – ten single-seats and two two-seaters – for €999 million, to be paid in five installments from 2022 to 2026.
Macron said in Zagreb that he supported Croatia’s entry into the passport-free Schengen Area and added that Croatia had implemented all the necessary reforms for its entry into the euro area.
The French head of state and Prime Minister Andrej Plenković signed a strategic partnership declaration.
In October, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited Zagreb as the first Spanish head of government to visit Croatia.
On 8 July, European Commission President Ursula von der Layen arrived in Zagreb to convey the Commission’s approval for Croatia’s recovery and resilience plan (NPOO), worth €6.3 billion, which could significantly boost the country’s Gross Domestic Product and create 21,000 new jobs by 2026.
Under the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility, Croatia has €6.3 billion in grants and 3.6 billion in favorable loans at its disposal.
On 6 July, Seychellois Foreign Minister Sylvester Radegonde arrived in Zagreb and opened an honorary consulate.
In September, Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović was in Zagreb for an official visit and after his talks with his Croatian host, Zoran Milanović, Đukanović warned that “Serbian world” is a euphemism for Great Serbia policy.
Crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina
During their bilateral meetings with their counterparts in 2021, Croatia’s diplomats raised the issue of the situation in the southeast of Europe, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Croatia’s diplomatic offensive was launched in 2021 ahead of the election year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In October 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina are due to hold general elections. Election reform is needed before that and negotiations on it are currently underway.
The Croats, one of the three constituent peoples in the country, want to avoid a repeat of the scenario in which Bosniaks actually elect senior officeholders who are supposed to represent the Croats, the least numerous constituent people.
The crisis is further deepened by the Serb representative in Bosnia’s three-member presidency, Milorad Dodik, who is implementing “a creeping” secession of the country’s Serb entity.
In March 2021, Croatia’s Foreign and European Affairs Minister, Gordan Grlić Radman, outlined Croatia’s non-paper for its southeastern neighbor. The paper, which was also supported by EU member-states Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and Cyprus, highlights the importance of adhering to the principle of the three constituent peoples.
Throughout 2021, some of the political actors in Sarajevo accused Zagreb of trying to violate the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Željko Komšić, who sits on the BiH Presidency as the Croat representative although he won the post thanks to the votes of Bosniak voters, accused Zagreb of the construction of a gas pipeline under the River Sava to connect Slavonski Brod and Bosanski Brod in the Serb entity. Some politicians in Sarajevo also disapproved of Zagreb’s decision to declare an exclusive economic zone in the Adriatic.
In July, Zagreb Mufti Aziz Hasanović said that current bilateral relations between Croatia and Bosnia were worse than during the Croat-Bosniak conflict in the 1992-1995 war.
However, visiting Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said in Sarajevo on 13 December that the bonds between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are unbreakable and that Croatia remains Bosnia and Herzegovina’s greatest friend and advocate in the European Union.
At the end of the year, on 19 December, President Zoran Milanović’s visit to central Bosnia was canceled for security reasons against a background of discussions provoked by Milanović’s comments on the application of the term genocide for the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995. Bosniak politicians bear a grudge against Milanović who in return calls them unitarianists.
The issue of protection of the status of the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become another bone of contention between Milanović and Plenković, with Milanović resenting the government’s failure to make sure the Council of the EU conclusions on enlargement incorporate the term “constituent peoples” in the Bosnia and Herzegovina section of the document.
Relations with Serbia
Tensions in relations between Zagreb and Belgrade traditionally become heightened in August when Croatia celebrates Victory Day in memory of the 1995 Operation Storm when Croatia’s military and police forces liberated a majority of areas held by Serb rebels since 1992.
This year, things got worse in September when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić called on all Serbs to display the Serbian flag on Serbian Unity, Freedom, and National Flag Day, observed for the first time this year, on 15 September.
However, Croatian Serb leader Milorad Pupovac called on ethnic Serbs to respect the laws in Croatia which ban the display of foreign countries’ flags by individuals.
For us it was important to make it clear in which circumstances individuals in Croatia and individuals in Serbia could display flags of other countries. It is important for us that the Serbs in Croatia can be sure that they can display their ethnic flag on holidays concerning their institutions or on important holidays on official events, Pupovac said at the time.
Also, relations between the two countries were adversely affected by the decision of the city council in Subotica, where Vučić’s Serb Progressive Party holds a majority, to declare the Bunjevci dialect an official language in that northern Serbian city despite opposition from the Croat community in Vojvodina and from Croatia.
The demand for declaring its speech an official language in Subotica was made by the Bunjevci community, which denies its Croat ethnic background.
The initiative was strongly opposed by the DSHV party of local Croats, the Croatian National Council in Serbia, the Croatian Language Institute, and other Croatian science institutions, and it prompted the Croatian Foreign Ministry to send two protest notes to Serbia.
They all say there is no legal basis for the initiative and that the Bunjevci speech is a dialect of the Croatian community in Vojvodina’s northern region of Bačka and not a standard language.
Furthermore, in October Plenković asked Vučić to address the issue of Serbian grammar books that negate the existence of the Croatian language.
No progress has been made in the provision of information by Serbia about sites of mass graves from the 1991-95 war.
Relations with Slovenia at the highest level ever
Croatia’s political leaders have underscored that the Zagreb-Ljubljana relations are at the highest level ever. Plenković and his Slovenian counterpart Janez Janša seem willing to settle all the bilateral issues.
The friendship between the two neighbors was evidenced by ceremonies held on 18 October when the two presidents, Milanović and Borut Pahor, unveiled a monument to a leader of the Croatian National Revival, Ljudevit Gaj, in Ljubljana and to a Slovenian poet, France Prešeren, in Zagreb’s Bundek Park.
Croatia and Italy declared exclusive economic zones in the Adriatic, and they included Slovenia in the process.
In February, the Croatian parliament proclaimed an exclusive economic zone in the Adriatic, giving Croatia additional rights in relation to the Ecological and Fisheries Protection Zone declared in 2003 to build artificial islands and exploit the sea, wind, and currents in that zone in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Concerning Croatia-Hungary relations, the most important event was the ruling of Croatia’s Supreme Court upholding the guilty verdict against Hungarian executive Zsolt Hernadi in a graft scandal implicating former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and business relations between MOL and INA. Croatia’s Justice Minister Ivan Malenica expects Budapest to extradite Hernadi who was given two years for white-collar crimes.
Frictions in relations with Bulgaria and Austria
Milanović’s criticism of how Bulgaria treats North Macedonia on its journey towards the European Union prompted the Bulgarian government to summon Croatia’s ambassador in Sofia in mid-May.
Ambassador Jasna Ognjanovac was summoned at the request of Minister Svetlan Stoev, and was received by the Director-General for European Affairs, Rumen Alexandrov.
The reason for the meeting was Milanović’s statement after a summit of the Brdo-Brijuni Process at Brdo Pri Kranju, in which he sharply criticized Bulgaria’s policy towards the European integration of North Macedonia. Milanović warned that North Macedonia “is in an impossible position” and that one EU member state demanded that North Macedonia “define its national genesis in the way requested by the neighboring state” in history textbooks. He said that he would “openly oppose” that within his powers.
His statement was an allusion to Bulgaria, which is rejecting a negotiating framework for North Macedonia because, as Sofia claims, North Macedonian textbooks “revise and negate their common ethnic and linguistic history.”
Milanović’s comments on Austria’s decision to lock down unvaccinated persons prompted Vienna to summon Croatian Ambassador Danijel Glunčić.
Glunčić declined to reveal details of the discussion but according to a statement from the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Glunčić was called over “highly unusual statements by the Croatian president,” which were “sharply rejected”.
“Comparing the measures against the coronavirus pandemic to fascism is unacceptable. It is our responsibility to protect the citizens of Austria and we are acting accordingly,” the Austrian ministry said, as quoted by APA news agency.
Austrian media quoted the Croatian president as saying after an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican that the Austrian decision to impose a lockdown on unvaccinated people was “reminiscent of the 1930s” and called it foolish. On 22 November, the Croatian President’s foreign affairs advisor, Neven Pelicarić, held talks with Austrian Ambassador Josef Markus Wuketich. Earlier that day, President Milanović said in the town of Našice that he had apologized for his statement.
“I said that what was happening in Austria reminded me of fascism. I apologize,” Milanović said in a statement to the press.
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