The process of the emergence of the contemporary Croatian state began with the crisis of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the strengthening of democratic movements and the restoration of multi-party systems. Such movements, from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic, proved to be aligned on the side of national demands for self-determination, which in turn led to the collapse of multi-national socialist states and the independence of their federal components. In Croatia, this process had many specific aspects and was not accomplished by peaceful means, much against the will of the Croatian people. For them, the struggle for democracy also meant the struggle for a Croatian state.
The struggle for independence
After the death of President Josip Broz Tito in 1980, Yugoslavia descended into an economic and social crisis; political confrontations between the leaders of the republics were renewed regarding the issue of ordering the state, political pluralism, the republic's economy and other matters. Different national demands were expressed more strongly, as was unitarian Yugoslavism, particularly in Serbia, some federal institutions and the top ranks of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA).
At the end of 1989, the reformist tendency in the leadership of the League of Communists of Croatia (SKH) prevailed, which led to calling the first free, multi-party elections. These were held in April and May 1990, and the winning party was the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a party that guaranteed the protection of national interests. The leader of HDZ, Franjo Tuđman, was elected in the Parliament as President. This was followed by the adoption of a new Constitution (22 December 1990) and following a referendum (19 May 1991), the Declaration on the Proclamation of the Sovereign, Independent Republic of Croatia was adopted (25 June 1991). There followed the adoption of the Ruling on the abrogation of public law relations with the remaining republics and provinces of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), i.e Yugoslavia as an entity (8 October 1991).
Through the disintegration of the SFRJ and the growing crisis, which it had itself incited, the political leadership of Serbia, headed by Slobodan Milošević, implemented Greater Serbian policies, calling for all Serbs to unite in battle. By manipulating the position of the Serbian population of Croatia, in late July and early August 1990 Milošević incited a rebellion by Serbian extremists, who on 25 July 1990 proclaimed the Declaration on the Sovereignty and Autonomy of the Serbian People, and on 21 December the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina, which on 1 April 1991 declared its secession from Croatia and annexation to Serbia. The ethnic divisions were also encouraged by the rise of national intolerance on the Croatian side.
Armed conflict broke out in March 1991, as the JNA gradually joined the Serb rebels. On 26 June 1991, the Parliament adopted the Defence Act, by which the Croatian armed forces were organised. They were considerably weaker than the JNA, which had confiscated arms meant for the Territorial Defence in Croatia in 1990. From August 1991 onwards, initial skirmishes grew into direct aggression by the JNA, Serbia and Montenegro, so that Croatia was forced to fight a defensive war, known as the Homeland War, in which 14,000 soldiers and civilians died on the Croatian side by the war's end in 1995.
From the end of 1991, about 26.5% of Croatia (an area of some 15,000 km²) was controlled by Serb rebel forces; the 'Republic of Serbian Krajina' was declared in part of that territory (19 December 1991). The Croatian population was terrorised and driven out; by the end of 1991, there were about 550,000 expelled persons fleeing the armed conflict, joined later by a further 200,000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During the autumn of 1991, many Croatian towns and cities were exposed to artillery and mortar attacks (Vinkovci, Osijek, Karlovac, Sisak, Gospić, Zadar, Šibenik, Dubrovnik and others). Vukovar was particularly severely damaged, where between the end of August and the middle of November 1991, about 2,000 people were killed in attacks by the JNA and Serbian paramilitary forces (about 1,100 of these were civilians). Although the Serbian forces eventually occupied Vukovar, it became a symbol of the Croatian struggle for independence through the heroic defence mounted by its people.
In order to resolve the Yugoslav crisis, the European Community (EC) initiated a peace conference in September 1991, and its Arbitration Commission concluded on 29 November 1991 that the SFRJ was 'in the process of disintegration'. Therefore, the EC members decided on 16 December 1991 to acknowledge the independence of the Yugoslav republics within existing borders, on the condition that they fulfilled certain democratic principles. Thus, on 15 January 1992, the independence of Croatia and Slovenia was recognised, and on 22 May 1992 they were admitted to the United Nations (UN).
After about fifteen failed attempts, a mutual truce between the Croatian forces and the JNA was achieved on 2 January 1992. This enabled the UN to set up peace operations in Croatia. UN protection areas (UNPA) under the auspices of the UN peacekeeping force (UNPROFOR), with an additional belt that was to be demilitarised (the so-called pink zones), were established in the area with a majority Serb population and in neighbouring areas that were also occupied. The JNA withdrew from Croatia and provided strategic support for Serbian forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H), where war broke out in early April 1992. This war produced added complications for the geopolitical and strategic circumstances in which Croatia was defending her independence, since the rebel Serbs in Croatia had aligned their war operations with Serbian forces in B&H, and in the political sense, with the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska.
The winner of the parliamentary and presidential elections in August 1992 was the HDZ and its presidential candidate, Franjo Tuđman (he was re-elected in 1997). From May 1990 to his death in late 1999, President Tuđman was the key player in Croatian internal and foreign policy.
Military and political events in Croatia in the first half of the 1990s were mostly linked to what was happening in B&H. The joint resistance of Croats and Bosniacs was accompanied by differences and disagreements, which grew into armed conflict in 1993–94. Influenced by the United States of America (the signing of the Washington Agreement on 18 March 1994), a strategic alliance of Croatian and Bosniac leadership in the B&H was established. Croatia also signed a Memorandum on cooperation in defence and military relations with the USA. Successful military operations by Croatian forces in the western B&H followed, which also weakened the position of the Serb rebels in Croatia.
The rebel leadership rejected Croatian and international initiatives to end the war in Croatia by reaching a settlement (a plan for wide autonomy for the areas with majority Serb populations was rejected in January 1995). After a series of unsuccessful attempts at negotiation, in 1995 Croatia took back most of the occupied areas by military means – in the limited operation known as Flash (1 and 2 May) and the wider-ranging operation known as Storm (4–7 August), in which the Serbian rebel forces were definitively defeated. As they retreated towards the B&H, the Serbian population began to flee en masse – it is estimated that more than 150,000 Serbs left Croatia during Operation Storm. Operation Storm was also caused by events in B&H: genocide committed by Serbian forces against Bosniacs in Srebrenica, in spite of UN surveillance, and the threat of renewed crimes in Bihać near the border with Croatia.
After these operations, the only part of Croatia still under occupation was the wider Danube region along the border with Serbia (about 4.5% of the territory). A process of peaceful integration was agreed in November 1995, during negotiations between the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian sides in Dayton (mediated by the USA and the international Contact Group); the agreement was signed on 12 November 1995 in Zagreb and Erdut (Basic Agreement on Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srijem, known as the Erdut Agreement). Next, the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) was established, which, in cooperation with the Croatian authorities and a part of the local Serb population, allowed the area to be reintegrated into the Croatian state and legal system. This was the first UN mission in the former Yugoslavia to be completed within the given deadlines.
Thus, a difficult period of military and political trials (1991–98) came to an end for Croatia, during which the country defended its independence and territorial integrity. Disputes remained with her neighbours, countries which came into being as a result of the collapse of Yugoslavia (Slovenia, B&H, Montenegro and Serbia), regarding individual border issues, which however did not seriously disrupt the establishment of interstate and regional cooperation. The most complex issue proved to be the maritime border between Croatia and Slovenia.
The road to the European Union
Since declaring independence in 1991, the key goal of Croatian foreign policy has been rapprochement to the EC and inclusion in the processes of European integration. As a central European and Mediterranean country, in the transitional area towards the Balkans, and given its historical experiences, Croatia maintained that gravitating to the West was the most natural geopolitical choice. On the eve of the collapse of Yugoslavia and during the Homeland War, EC member states at first encouraged regional negotiating processes, then organised humanitarian and financial aid for Croatia, and supported her independence (in January 1992). However, relations between Croatia and the EC (from 1993 the European Union – EU) during the next few years were at a low level. Croatia was viewed in the context of the general instability in the post-Yugoslav region: it was criticised for a lack of progress in the development of human and minority rights, and accused of violating the laws of war. There was also criticism because of allegedly insufficient cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (established in 1993 at Croatia's initiative; it finished its work in 2017 with the remaining cases being taken over by the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals). Consequently, the process of acceding to the EU was drawn out.
The political influence of the HDZ weakened after the death of Franjo Tuđman (1999). At the presidential elections held in 2000, the victor was Stjepan Mesić, who was re-elected in 2005 and remained in office until 2010. A coalition of democratic parties came to power following the 2000 elections. Their government held a left-of-centre position until the end of 2003, during which time the Prime Minister was Ivica Račan, president of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP; in the early 1990s, Račan had spearheaded the reformation of the League of Communists of Croatia as the SDP). Constitutional amendments adopted in 2001 abandoned the semi-presidential system; the powers of the president were reduced and the role of the Parliament and government strengthened.
The early years of the new millennium were a period of post-war democratisation and more intense activity directed towards accession to the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Croatia strengthened strategic cooperation with the USA and NATO in May 2000, by entering the Partnership for Peace programme.
Progress in Croatian relations with the EU was marked by the signing of the Agreement on Stabilisation and Association on 29 October 2001 (entered into force on 1 February 2005). After the Croatian Parliament unanimously called for the government to submit Croatia's request for EU accession, the application for membership was submitted on 21 February 2003.
The continuity of integration efforts was maintained after a change in government. In 2003 and 2007, HDZ again won the parliamentary elections, and the prime ministers from their ranks were Ivo Sanader (2003–09) and Jadranka Kosor (2009–11). Ivo Josipović, the SDP candidate, won the presidential election in 2010. At parliamentary elections in December 2011, a coalition of four left-of-centre parties won, and the president of SDP, Zoran Milanović, became prime minister.
Croatia was given the status of candidate country for EU membership on 18 June 2004, and accession negotiations began on 3 October 2005. Croatia achieved an important foreign policy goal on 1 April 2009, by becoming a member of NATO. At the end of June 2011, the accession negotiations were formally completed and, on 9 December 2011, the Agreement on the Accession of Croatia to the EU was signed (entered into force 1 July 2013). A referendum held on 22 January 2012 showed that two-thirds of those who voted (66.27%) were in favour of accession. At the end of 2011, the fifteen-year work of the Organisation for European Security and Cooperation (OESC) came to an end, which had been initiated in order to process war crimes committed in Croatia between 1991 and 1995, and supervise the return of refugees and the exercise of their rights. EU membership places responsibility on the Croatian government to accept the values and principles as well as to apply the laws and procedures on which the political and economic stability of the EU is based. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, a candidate of the centre-right HDZ, became President of Croatia in 2015 and was succeeded by SDP candidate Zoran Milanović in 2020. The HDZ has been in power since 2016, forming coalition governments after the parliamentary elections in 2015, 2016 and 2020, where it won the majority in Parliament. Andrej Plenković (HDZ leader since July 2016; he was confirmed leader at the intra-party elections in 2020) has been the Prime Minister since October 2016. His current goals include Croatia's joining of the Schengen Area (the European Commission confirmed it had met the technical conditions in 2019) and its adoption of the euro (the letter of intent for joining the European exchange-rate mechanism in 2020 has been accepted). Structural and fiscal reforms, the lowering of the public debt and a budgetary surplus, have helped the economic recovery of Croatia and led to increased investments, higher employment rates and salaries as well as the improvement of credit rating.
International recognition and membership of the UN in 1992 enabled Croatia to adopt an independent approach to foreign policy, which until the mid 1990s was overshadowed by the events of war. It has only been post-war circumstances that have allowed the stronger international affirmation of Croatia, as confirmed by its membership in NATO (2009) and the EU (2013).
Participation in Euro-Atlantic security and economic integration has been the most momentous goal of Croatian foreign policy. In this context, bilateral relations have been developed with the countries of the EU and the USA. At the same time, Croatian foreign policy has included other aspects of bilateral and multilateral activities, and many interstate relations have been established throughout the world. Membership in all important international organisations and institutions has been achieved (OSCE, WTO, etc). As a country with a dramatic experience of war, Croatia has continued to contribute within the framework of the UN to peaceful conflict resolution in the world – in 2008–09, Croatia was a non-permanent member of the Security Council.
After the end of the Homeland War, Croatian involvement in the processes of regional cooperation and stabilisation has been through the Central European Free Trade Agreement, the Central European Initiative (Croatia presided over it in 2018), the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, separate initiatives of the countries of the Danube Region (Croatia presided over the European Strategy for the Danube Region from 1 November 2019 to 1 November 2020, and the Danube Commission from 1 June 2017 to 31 December 2020) and of the Mediterranean, etc. Croatia developed diplomatic relations with most neighbouring countries immediately after international recognition (Italy, Hungary, Slovenia and B&H). In 1996, diplomatic relations were also established with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and, after its collapse, with Serbia and Montenegro.
The participation of Croatia and other post-Yugoslav countries in the processes of regional political stabilisation make the historical burdens of the past, including war, more complex. This has been particularly expressed in the relations between Croatia and Serbia, while on the other hand, there has been greater success in restoring relations with Montenegro. The legacy of the Yugoslav period includes issues such as individual border disputes, complex proprietal relations between the newly-formed states, the problems of returnee refugees, etc. Croatia is attempting to address these issues in accordance with international law and on the basis of mutual inter-state agreements. This approach has facilitated Croatia's membership of the EU, among other things.
Since 1999, Croatia participated with 6,000 troops in around twenty UN, NATO and EU peacekeeping operations and missions throughout the world. From 2005 to 2007, Croatian General Dragutin Repinc was the commander of an observer mission (UNMOGIP) on the disputed border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. In 2018, about 70 members of the Croatian armed forces participated in three UN missions (the majority in Lebanon, while the others were deployed in Kashmir and in Western Sahara). Croatian soldiers were deployed under NATO command in Afghanistan 2003–2020, at first as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and then in the Resolute Support Mission. In late 2018, there were 106 Croatian soldiers in Afghanistan. Since 2009, Croatia has contributed to the international Kosovo Force (KFOR, 35 members in 2021), from 2017 in Lithuania and Poland (Enhanced Forward Presence; 188 and 80 members in 2021, respectively), and from 2018 in Iraq (6 members in 2021), also under NATO command.