Croatia, Russia, and the Balkan Great Game

Why the West Needs Zagreb

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

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.


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

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