History of Civil Society in Croatia

Croatia declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. But unlike Slovenia, Croatia was the subject of a bloody civil war that lasted for four years before finally ending in December 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement[1] (Gaetas, 1996). The combination of a war torn history, the autocratic regime of nationalist Franjo Tudjman[2], a high-level of organized crime and corruption as well as poor cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia[3] in the 1990s, identify to be the main reasons to have significantly influenced Croatia’s European integration and slowed down political and economic reforms (Grbic, 2010). Of the reasons mentioned above, the country’s poor cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was a major obstacle to its membership to the European Union. During the 1990s and under the rule of Franjo Tudjman, Croatia was prepared to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia only if it was recognized as a victim of war and if its military operations “Flash” and “Storm” were exclusively under Croatian jurisdiction and not that of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (Fischer & Simic, 2016, p.83). As a result, in 1999, the president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia reported Croatia to the United Nations Security Council for failure to cooperate and collaborate in investigations of these military operations. A new government led by Prime Minster Ivica Racan, was however elected in the year 2000, and was determined to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in order to come closer to membership to the European Union (European Stability Initiative, 2012). However, again, Croatia failed to fully cooperate with the Tribunal when Croatian military generals were being indicted. Eventually, as Croatia started to cooperate with the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in 2005, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Chief Prosecutor assessed Croatia and reported that the country was now fully cooperative. This then led to the European Council concluding that the last remaining condition for starting accession negotiations was met. As a result, the country’s accession negotiations to the European Union were launched on the same day (European Commission, 2016).


Civil Society Organisations in Croatia that were active during the period of the late 1980s and the 1990s were most notably humanitarian organisations who aided in addressing issues related to the war, specific social problems and needs (Bežovan & Matančević, 2011). As a result, civil society in Croatia became largely characterised by the presence of foreign organisations, humanitarian work and a high level of cohesion during this volatile period. However, by the second half of the 1990s, this solidarity in the third sector of the country was noted to have clearly decreased and civil society started to face the negative eye of the public. The relationship between the Croatian Government and civil society was now branded by a mutual distrust while a negative attitude was also cultivated towards Civil Society Organisations. Most infamously, the Croatian Government in this period had used the media to de-fame Non-Governmental Organisations. This had thereby contributed, by a great extent, to the negative attitude that citizens had towards Civil Society Organisations. Remnants of this cultivated negative attitude are still said to be present to this day, in smaller towns in Croatia. On the whole, it can be asserted that civil society in Croatia was developed from a top-down approach where initiators were principally Civil Society Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations. Additionally, the political environment in which the state’s civil society had operated in over the years was found to be mostly unfavourable, restrictive and not stimulating (Bežovan & Matančević, 2011, p.15). The literature on civil society in the late 1990s in Croatia identifies a number of problems of civil society development, of which some are still present (Bojicic-Dzelilovic, Ker-Lindsay & Kostovicova, 2013). The authors go on to explain that some of these problems included inadequate funds for sustainable development, lack of professionalism and trained leadership, limited organisational transparency and membership levels, poor networking and a low level of cooperation between the organisations themselves and with the population at large. From the late 1990s, however, things started to take an upturn when the newly elected Croatian government had affirmed its commitment to cooperate with civil society by including civil society representatives in different governmental advisory boards (Bežovan & Matančević, 2011, p. 15). Several institutions on the side of the state such as the Government Office for Associations, the Council for the Development of Civil Society, the National Foundation for Civil Society Development were set up to allow for the functioning of civil society, demonstrating the willingness of the state to recognize civil society as credible factors for the implementation of common policies and accomplishment of broader societal goals (Petričušić, 2008, p. 98). Furthermore, with civil society representatives having both a consultative role and direct participation in governmental advisory boards, civil society was able to have its say and effectively include its input in various areas. In October 2001, Croatia signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement in preparation to be considered as a candidate country to accede to the European Union. The country was formally accepted as a candidate country in February 2003. In 2005, war crime fugitive Ante Gotovina was arrested and this ultimately had opened the door for European Union accession negotiations now that the country was found to be fully cooperative with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (Deutsche Welle, 2005).


[1] After four years of conflict which cost almost 300,000 lives and can be viewed as the worst conflict in Europe since World War II, the Agreement put a term on hostilities. Held at Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio, a breakthrough was reached after a three-week negotiation marathon. The final text was signed in Paris on December 14, 1995.

[2] Franjo Tudjman was a Croatian politician and historian. Following the country’s independence from Yugoslavia he became the first President of Croatia and served as president from 1990 until his death in 1999. In 1995 he authorized a major offensive known as Operation Storm which effectively ended the war in Croatia. In the same year he was one of the signatories of the Dayton Agreement that put an end to the Bosnian War.



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