‘A Freeway To Europe’

Just a decade ago, tiny Croatia was in ruins. Now this star of the Balkans is on track to join the EU.

The new A1 highway in Croatia winds 416km from near the capital, Zagreb, south, offering breathtaking views of the mountainous terrain and the Adriatic Sea. Built in six years, at a cost of €3 billion, it has been hailed as a "national pride," a "masterpiece" and the "freeway to Europe." Indeed, the A1 is more than just a pretty highway. It is a symbol of everything that has, of late, gone right in the Balkan country.

A little more than a decade ago, Croatia was torn apart by wars that left an economy in ruins and more than 13,000 Croats dead. But now this nation of 4.4 million people is on track to become the newest member of NATO and the European Union. Its economy is growing at a respectable 4.8 percent, and Zagreb is making "very strong progress" implementing economic, political and defense reforms, according to a senior NATO official unable to comment publicly. On Nov. 25, Croatia is holding parliamentary elections. The three leading parties all share, generally speaking, a common vision for the country that will solidify the gains of a free-market, rule-of-law democracy. Robert Bradtke, U.S. ambassador to Croatia, says political stability has turned the country into "a model in the region." Last month Croatia was elected a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and is on track to enter NATO by April, and join the exclusive EU club in 2010 or 2011.

Croatia's success is all the more remarkable when compared with its neighbors. Macedonia won't join the EU before 2012 at the earliest. The region's other hopefuls remain, in EU jargon, "potential candidate countries." Bosnia and Serbia in particular still suffer from the legacies of the 1990s: brain drain, inept bureaucracies, poor infrastructure and, in some cases, lingering bitterness that undermines cooperation. But Croatia eliminated the "regulatory guillotine" that spooked investors, says Foreign Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, and in some ways is even overtaking Slovenia, which was relatively untouched by bloodshed and joined the EU and NATO in 2004. In Slovenia, insufficient road building is now a "bone of contention" with the EU, according to Charlotte Ruhe, at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Helga Konrad, Austria's ambassador to Croatia, calls Slovenia's road bottleneck "a horror." But Croatia's public works projects have gone well. The A1 construction was particularly important because it proved the nation had the political stability to bring together large sums of money and technical expertise, and foster cooperation among public and private entities—all without the allegations of corruption that dog so many projects. The country's stable institutions and expanding infrastructure also help the economy. Tourism is up, and this year foreign direct investment will top €4 billion, up from €2.7 billion last year.

Croatia still has work to do. Krisztina Nagy, a European Commission spokeswoman, says it must "step up efforts" to unclog courts and respect minorities from other Balkan countries. The A1's success notwithstanding, corruption is still a problem. Police officers often turn a blind eye to infractions in exchange for bribes. And while sweeping anticorruption measures were passed this year, the number of prosecutions remains limited, according to a November EU report on Croatia. But wrongdoing is decreasing, according to Transparency International, due in part to judiciary training and EU financial assistance. If that continues, Croatia will join the EU soon enough, an achievement that will mark the end of a very long road.