By Kathy Kemper – 07/02/13 02:45 PM ET
On Monday, Croatia became the 28th country to join the European Union. While its accession may not appear that significant—it is home to only 4.5 million people and is not even as large as West Virginia—it demonstrates the ongoing attraction of joining a powerful bloc. The New York Times reports that “the incentive of joining the union pushed it to revamp a statist post-Communist economy, pass more than 350 laws and arrest more than a dozen Croatian and Bosnian-Croat war criminals.”
Given current conditions in Croatia—unemployment is close to 20%, youth unemployment is over 50%, and the country’s credit rating has been “junk” as of this past December—some Croats believe that they can only benefit by integrating into the EU. That judgment, however, is far from universal. In the coastal city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO world heritage site where my family and I have been visiting the past few days, virtually all of the people I’ve spoken with—young and old, occupying a wide range of professions—were either indifferent or opposed to the move. In fact, despite (or perhaps because of) the heightened scrutiny that’s being foisted on Croatia, many of them sounded like they wanted nothing more than to be left alone.
Some fear that Croatia is effectively ceding its sovereignty less than a quarter of a century after declaring independence from the former Yugoslavia. A young student captured that feeling well in an interview with USA Today: “If we spent hundreds of years fighting for independence with Turks and Serbs, I don’t understand how we can sell it once again, 20 years after winning sovereignty, to a bigger and more powerful union where we are going to be marginalized.”
Others seem to have trouble overcoming painful memories. The disintegration of Yugoslavia led to a series of wars, including Croatia’s own war of independence from 1991 to 1995 (during which Dubrovnik was shelled). Some go even further back, talking about the glory days of the Republic of Ragusa (which would become Dubrovnik), which, in its heydays in the 15th and 16th century, was regarded as a rival of Venice. Today, by contrast, much of Dubrovnik is in disrepair. Nearly two decades after Croatia’s war of independence, many of the city’s hotels lie in ruins, and those who worked there are out of a job for the most part, reflecting a lack of labor mobility. And yet, despite their understandable disenchantment, the locals don’t seem agitated to do much (then again, a few months before the Arab Spring, I remember thinking that the Egyptians I was meeting and talking with didn’t seem agitated to do much despite being frustrated with the status quo under Hosni Mubarak). Only time will tell if Croatia chooses to live in the past or make the most of its newfound access and opportunities.
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