Antonio Bronic / Reuters A Croatian guard looks out at the Croatian–Serbian border in Nijemci, July 2013.

Croatia, Russia, and the Balkan Great Game

Why the West Needs Zagreb

After Croatia’s ruling coalition split this April, it looked as though the country might witness a repeat of last summer’s political crisis, in which then Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic was ousted by a vote of no confidence. But Croatia dodged that bullet in June, when Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic formed a new parliamentary majority, preventing instability in the EU’s newest member. This narrow escape from impending political chaos largely went unnoticed; yet Croatia’s stability, or lack thereof, has far-reaching implications for both the United States and Europe. It can tilt the balance within the already shaky EU and influence the deteriorating situation in the Balkans, marked by economic troubles, political corruption, and rising nationalism. Most important, Croatia’s moderate government is currently the West’s strongest ally against Russian expansion in the region.

CROATIA'S WINNING STREAK

Only one year ago, it looked as if Croatia might be heading toward the same political dysfunction that has made its Balkan neighbors so susceptible to Russian influence. An impasse between corrupt parties of the left and the right had taken the country to the brink of chaos. In June 2016, The Economist called Croatia “an economic and political basket-case” and doubted whether the country, with its incompetent politicians then accusing one another of fascism and communism, could find its “winning streak.”

In elections last September, however, Croats voted to replace leading politicians from the major right- and left-wing parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, respectively. They also gave 13 seats in the parliament to the centrist newcomer Most (“the Bridge”), which entered a coalition with the HDZ. With its legislative majority guaranteed by the Bridge, the HDZ, led by Plenkovic, was able to turn away from its nationalist, ultraconservative base, moderating its rhetoric while focusing on economic recovery and pursuing a less aggressive foreign policy vis-à-vis the country’s Balkan neighbors. For instance, since the election Croatia has reduced tensions with Serbia by unblocking the latter’s EU accession talks. Plenkovic’s government has also adopted a policy of noninterference regarding Bosnia’s Croats, with whom Croatian nationalists have formed links in the past. In addition, Croatia has been a leading voice for unity within the EU, despite its territorial dispute with Slovenia over the Gulf of Piran. Croatia’s moderate government is currently the West’s strongest ally against Russian expansion in the Balkans.

Yet a government shakeup in May seemed to put Croatia’s progressive path into question. After a controversial bailout of Agrokor, the country’s too-big-to-fail food giant, the Bridge’s ministers broke with the ruling coalition, raising the possibility of snap elections that could unseat the moderates within the HDZ leadership. To avoid this, Plenkovic formed a surprising, even more centrist coalition with the liberal Croatian People’s Party.

Although Plenkovic survived the challenge to his leadership, neither his position nor the direction of his party is certain. The main threat comes from the party’s right. Conservative HDZ members have left in protest to form a new party, and within the HDZ former Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier is signaling his intent to challenge Plenkovic’s leadership from the right in the party’s internal elections this fall. These developments raise the question of whether Croatia’s moderates can prevail and keep the country on its progressive course. For now the prime minister is in a strong position, but he will have to outmaneuver several opponents to stay at the helm. 

Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic at an EU summit in Brussels, June 2017.

Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic at an EU summit in Brussels, June 2017.

A NEED FOR MODERATION

For the rest of Europe, a lot is riding on the Croatian government’s stability. Under Plenkovic, Croatia has led by example and rejected the kind of nationalism brewing along the EU’s eastern borders, particularly in Hungary and Poland. Plenkovic’s government has kept calm and advocated for greater EU unity in light of French and German proposals for a “multi-speed Europe”—the idea of a tiered membership that has emerged partly in response to the EU’s economic crisis and partly due to tensions with Hungary and Poland over migration policy. This dangerous trajectory of divergence within the EU, along with the challenges posed by Brexit, terrorism, and the threat of Russia, means that Europe needs momentum from moderate, pro-unity governments if it is to survive.

More important than its pro-EU influence, however, is the role of a politically moderate Croatia in stabilizing the Balkans. The retreat of democracy in other former Yugoslav republics, such as Serbia and Macedonia, has made the region susceptible to Russian interference. Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken full advantage of national cleavages and socioeconomic weaknesses to revive his country’s traditional Balkan sphere of influence. The Kremlin’s primary goal in the region is to keep Balkan nations out of Western institutions, namely NATO and the EU. Its secondary objective is to control the region’s energy sources in order to make Balkan countries entirely dependent on Russia.

The Balkans are especially important given eastern Europe’s attempts to achieve more energy independence As Poland and Ukraine build their own regional gas hub, Putin is responding with a gas pipeline through the territory of the former Yugoslav republics. In 2016, Russia completed a $75 million section of pipeline in Macedonia, covering the full cost. And in Bosnia, Russia is planning to bypass the central government and build a gas pipeline in the autonomous, Serb-majority Republika Srpska.

Putin is using divide-and-conquer tactics to achieve his goals. In Macedonia and Montenegro, Russia has stoked ethnic violence, leading both countries to the brink of a civil war. In June, The Guardian reported that Russian agents “have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia,” in part by supporting Mafia-style politics and encouraging government-sponsored violence against the country’s Albanian minority. In Montenegro, too, divisions between Montenegrins and ethnic Serbs have made the country vulnerable to Russian interference. In October 2016, two Russian agents allegedly tried to assassinate Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic as part of an attempted coup, which would have empowered the pro-Russian, ethnic Serb opposition and prevented Montenegro from joining NATO. Djukanovic survived and Montenegro joined NATO this June, but the country remains broken. Debates about Russia’s role in the attempted coup have only deepened public mistrust of Montenegro’s institutions and further divided the country along ethnic lines. And in Bosnia, Putin’s financial support for Republika Srpska has emboldened their president, Milorad Dodik, to push for secession. This would set a dangerous precedent of redrawing the map of southeast Europe while reviving the Balkan conflicts from the 1990s.

Nikola Solic / Reuters Mount Medvednica, overlooking the Croatian capital, Zagreb, December 2009.

HOLDING THE FORT

Croatia, with its economic and cultural weight, is now the leader in southeast Europe, and its politics have a great impact on regional dynamics. Zagreb’s attitude matters especially to neighboring Bosnia, where, in reaction to the demands of Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats are calling for their own autonomous entity. Although Bosnian Croats are looking to Zagreb for support, Plenkovic’s current government is not providing it. In turn, Croatia’s policy of noninterference is keeping Serbia at bay. But should the country’s politics once again become polarized, hard-line conservatives could revive Croatia’s support for Bosnian Croats—who can legally vote in Croatia’s elections and tend to support the nationalists. 

So, too, is Zagreb’s new anti-Russian foreign policy pushing the region away from the Kremlin. Earlier this year, Croatia created the Adriatic Trilateral initiative along with Albania and Montenegro—a regional association with the aim of strengthening cooperation between the three countries. Speaking at the Atlantic Council conference in Washington, D.C., this spring, the three countries’ foreign ministers said their top priorities were security in the region and preventing Russian incursion, as well as helping Albania and Montenegro with EU accession.

Regarding Russia’s broader global game, Croatia has taken an even more assertive position. In 2016, the government organized a working group with Ukraine to share its experience with Krajina—a  short-lived Croatian Serb breakaway republic that formed in the 1990s—in order to help Ukraine eventually reintegrate Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. In addition, Croatia has entered discussions with Ukraine about a possible gas pipeline connecting Croatia, Hungary, and Ukraine. Croatia has led by example and rejected the kind of nationalism brewing along the EU’s eastern borders.

Croatia’s energy supplies and main economic sectors, like those of its neighbors, have recently been eyed by state-backed Russian companies, as Moscow seeks to build a gas pipeline in Croatia’s Slavonia region and take over Agrokor and the energy giant INA. But although central European countries such as Slovenia have succumbed to Russian business proposals and adopted a pro-Russian foreign policy, Croatia’s new government has remained a staunch ally in the West’s campaign to resist Russian expansion in the Balkans. Plenkovic has resisted Russian influence, for example, by building a floating liquefied natural gas terminal in the northern Adriatic to prevent the EU’s energy dependence on Russia, as well as by rejecting an offer from Russian banks to swap Agrokor’s debt—of which they own one-third—for equity in the company. Croatia’s leader is aware that handing control over its largest firm to the Russians would endanger regional security. 

THE POWER OF DEVOLUTION

Croatia’s ability to check Russia’s regional ambitions will largely depend on the stability of the current government and the outcome of the HDZ’s internal elections this fall. A loss of power by the moderates would undoubtedly be bad for the region and for the West. But if Plenkovic can stay in charge of his own party, the moderates have a fair chance of steering Croatia forward. 

Still, it is important to remember that Croatia’s long-term progress cannot be secured by one administration, however moderate, but must emerge from a dynamic and multipolar political system. Unlike in its Balkan neighbors, where political power generally rests with one person, in Croatia power is now devolved—split between Plenkovic, conservative HDZ members, the president, and the parliamentary opposition. Ironically, the chaos that led to the rise of new politicians resulted in better power sharing. This in turn produced more moderate politics and reduced the country’s vulnerability to Russian influence. Croatia shows that supporting robust political systems, rather than individuals, is the West’s best guarantor of stability in the Balkans. 

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