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Europe diary: Croatian unease
26 January 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell describes a visit to Croatia, which officially became a candidate for EU membership in December.

The diary is published every Thursday.

It's -10C at mid-day in Zagreb. The wind cuts like a knife of ice. And during the short walk to the low, squat building that is my destination, I can feel my body heat leaking away.

Snow in Zagreb
Zagreb: Body heat leaks away
Still, in the veterans' club it's warm, inside the fog of tobacco smoke, even if the men clustered around small tables radiate cold wariness.

Croatia is next in the queue to join the European Union after Romania and Bulgaria. It hopes to be in by 2009.

The way ahead is clear, after the Croatian government helped with the capture of Gen Ante Gotovina, who is now in The Hague waiting to be tried for war crimes: the murder of Serb civilians and the destruction of their homes.

For the men here, that's an outrage. In one of those spontaneous gestures that can never be recaptured on camera, the barman lifts a small snapshot of the general to his lips and kisses it with reverence. Along one wall of the bar, high up in a straight line, are colour photographs of burly, tough men in camouflage.

At least the Croatians have allowed their alleged war criminals to be tried, which is more than some other countries
Nigel Myal, Spain

Some are dead. Some are in The Hague. All, for the people here, are heroes.

They feel bitter, and angry that the people who saved their country and fought off the Serbian invaders are seen by their own government as criminals.

It is, perhaps, an extremely good thing that soldiers of a country that was victorious - in a war which most of the world regarded as just - can still be brought to account. It's pretty rare.

One of the seated veterans, a distinguished-looking man with silvery hair, wears a broad-brimmed black hat, a black leather jacket and black trousers, and looks for all the world as though he is auditioning for a morally ambiguous role in a psychological western.


Most of his comrades, grizzled men also wearing black from head to toe, remind me of good old boys from the Mid-West. Above the bar, in English, is a sign: "Thank God I'm Croatian."

Their reasons why Gen Gotovina should not be tried in The Hague are much the same as the United States' reasons for rejecting the International Criminal Court - that any crimes committed are those of individuals, not military leaders, and should be tried in their own country.

Pro-Gotovina rally
Gen Gotovina is widely regarded as a war hero
But the feeling of unease is not confined to war veterans. Many people tell me that Croatia is part of Europe, and the European Union should not be demanding so many changes.

For the political classes the worry is that the EU itself will change its mind. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and others are making it clear that the EU can't get any bigger unless the rule changes in the constitution are brought in.

I am not sure whether they are using the constitution as a stick to beat enlargement, or enlargement as a lever to bring back the constitution.

Technically they are right that the Nice Treaty does not allow for more than 27 members.

But in Croatia the political classes worry that if the carrot of EU membership is taken away, reform will stop and extreme nationalism will return.

Blue sky

A day later we nearly fall victim to the bura - not some sinister organisation but a ferocious wind which whips down a range of mountains.

We are going to Zadar, on the coast, to meet some British businesspeople.

Hills near the Dalmatian coast
The bura sweeps over these slopes
Because of the bura, the motorway is closed. Because of the bura, the police will not let us take the second route.

With no evidence of wind, we are forced to make a three-hour detour, across the bleak high plains.

Only the beauty of a snow-capped range and the strings of wrecked and shattered villages relieve the monotonous landscape.

We are beginning to think that the bura is a traveller's tall tale, a myth, especially when at the coast the sky is blue, the sun bright, the temperatures rising to a balmy freezing point.

The interviews under our belt, the return journey is different. The bura cuffs and slaps at our van.

In one stretch of a few hundred yards, we see three vehicles much like our own, ripped and toppled onto their sides.

The police debate with the driver, but reluctantly let us through to the high pass road.

The driver says it's perfectly safe. He adds that it would be perfectly, perfectly safe, if we put a few hundredweight of rocks inside the van.

We decide on being perfectly, perfectly, perfectly safe and turn back to the long way round, where the risk is merely being blown over, not blown down a deep ravine.

Eventually, we made it.

Last week you made lots of interesting comments about plans to ban the burqa, what about banning the bura?

Watch Mark Mardell's report from Croatia


Mark Mardell Mardell's Euroblog
The Europe Diary is now a Euroblog - click here for the latest post





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