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June 15th, 2018

Croatia's Reform of its National Defence Strategy

After fighting a war of independence from the former Yugoslavia, and following the death of President Tuđman in 1999, a reformist government came to power under the presidency of Stjepan Mesić. It initiated a reform of Croatia's defence system at a time when the country's military institutions were still shaped by its wartime experiences. With an overstaffed Ministry of Defence, active military personnel holding political positions, and military expenditures exceeding the means of the state, Croatia's defence system was unsuited to the changing security environment of the 21st century.

Through a strategic reform of the military system as a whole, the government sought to make the defence system more efficient and, in the longer term, to join both NATO and the EU. Effective policies, profound personnel changes, and strong political commitment led to a successful restructuring of the defence system as a whole, and Croatia was able to achieve NATO membership in 2009 and to join the EU four years later.

The initiative

After the elections of 2000, the political triad of President Mesić, Prime Minister Račan, and Minister of Defence Radoš began to reform Croatia's overstaffed and ineffective wartime defence system and started adapting its military capabilities to the new global challenges. Thus the reform aimed at a higher efficiency and professionalism of the Croatian armed forces. One of the main focuses of the reform was the long-term plan of joining international organisations and strengthening international cooperation and interoperability with allied forces. Membership of the EU and NATO were the main national and strategic objectives.

The Strategic Defence Review (SDR), published in 2005, played a major role in guiding the continued reforms for increasing the effectiveness of Croatia's security and defence mechanisms. One of the major objectives of the SDR was to increase public confidence and trust in policies developed by the Ministry of Defence, which until then had operated mainly behind closed doors.[5] The principal goals outlined in the review were as follows:

  • Downsizing the military, reducing CAF staff numbers to 16,000
  • Improving the transparency of military budgeting
  • Depoliticising the Ministry of Defence
  • Eliminating obligatory conscription
  • Diminishing presidential powers over the CAF
  • Cutting the defence budget to match the means of the state.[6]

Additionally, several defence-related legal and constitutional reforms were passed, including the Defence Act and the Military Service Act, "both of which helped establish appropriate civilian control of the armed forces and security agencies”.[7]

The challenge

After the new reformist government came to power in 1999, threat and risk assessments indicated that Croatia's new security environment would be shaped by a world which increasingly faced "new forms of threats. International terrorism, smuggling of narcotics, weapons and human beings, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction create enormous challenges for most states, thus becoming global concerns."[1] These challenges required a greater focus on international collaboration, and one of the main purposes of the reform was for Croatia to join NATO and the EU. At the time, the country fell short of several NATO standards, which required civilians to coordinate defence budgeting and lead the development and execution of defence policies.[2]

Croatia's development of policy and planning “occurred primarily in the general staff - the group of officers and enlisted military personnel responsible for military administration, operations, and logistics."[3] To accomplish these requirements, fundamental changes in the Croatian Armed Forces (CAF) and the defence system as a whole were necessary. A severe "housecleaning" had to take place, so that civilians could assume control of the defence ministry.

Against the opposition of several military officials, President Mesić, Prime Minister Ivica Račan and Jozo Radoš, president of the Ministry of Defence, had to call for public and governmental support to implement the National Defence Strategy, which furthermore comprised a radical downsizing of CAF personnel in just a few years - from more than 100,000 to just 16,000. Besides that, cutting the defence budget from more than 11 percent of the GDP to about 2 percent, while still improving the defence system and at the same time maintaining public support was one of the major challenges.[4]

The public impact

Through the adoption of a National Security Strategy and a Defence Strategy in 2002, as well as issuing the SDR, Croatia could reach “important milestones” for its defence and security structure. “From 2000 to 2003, the Račan government and President Mesić launched reforms that transformed Croatia's defence institutions and put the country on course towards NATO accession. Active duty military personnel were no longer allowed to participate in politics, civilians controlled the defence ministry and managed long-term strategy, and the army had shrunk significantly in both size and influence. Active duty soldiers no longer held political offices or publicly supported political parties after 2000.”[8]

After these constitutional and legal reforms, “General Staff, defence minister, president, government, and parliament all played a part in drafting, assessing and adopting these strategic documents. Although there may still be shortcomings both in their substance and in the process by which they were prepared, the effort invested and the learning experience have been extremely positive. The fact that Croatia now possesses these strategic documents adds coherence and efficiency to the state's activities in this area and future versions will no doubt be improved with the benefit of experience.”[9]

Between 1999 and 215, Croatia cut its military expenditure from more than 11 percent of GDP to 1.54 percent,[10] and CAF personnel from 101,000 to 18,550.[11] These measures, combined with a successful depoliticisation of its military institutions, led to greater transparency, effectiveness, and public trust in Croatia's defence system. They enabled Croatia to join NATO in 2009 and the EU in 2013.

Written by Johanna Hopp

Stakeholder engagement

In 2000, after the death of the president, Franjo Tuđman, the previous year, Croatia elected a new government led by President Stepjan Mesić. In collaboration with Prime Minister Račan and Minister of Defence Radoš (replaced in 2002 by Zeljka Antunović), Mesić  initiated a reform of the government's military institutions by implementing a new national defence strategy.

From the beginning, the steering committee responsible for implementing the strategy reached out to several stakeholders, particularly delegates from the Office of the Prime Minister, the Office of the President, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other governmental bodies. In this way, the government succeeded in fostering support for the structural changes to the country's defence system.[12]

One of the government's main ambitions after the 2000 parliamentary elections was to strengthen civilians' role in overseeing defence spending and developing strategic documents for increasing trust and professionalisation within the military. As a means of achieving that goal, the group of stakeholders involved in drafting the SDR extended beyond the General Staff - an exclusive group of military personnel with close ties to the former Tuđman regime.

Hence, the government engaged diverse stakeholders for the entire drafting process and sought their consent to the decisions concerning the reforms. Several cross-governmental working groups were established to draft the amendments. Roundtable discussions were held with experts, members of the national security committee, and NATO representatives. Eventually, the draft was presented to the government, at that time led by President Mesić, who - together with the prime minister and parliament - agreed on the design of the reform.[13]

Professional advice had been provided by a group of former officers, military leaders, and defence scholars who had published a book entitled The Croatian Army 2000, which served as a fruitful source for the new policymakers and addressed the main objectives of the reform.[14]

Political commitment

The new government which pioneered the defence reforms displayed a high degree of commitment, particularly the president, the prime minister and the minister of defence, who were powerful and determined agents of structural change. They reached out to other governments and various NATO institutions to foster international collaboration and gain first-hand advice, bringing the nation closer to membership of NATO and the EU. “Račan and Mesić were determined to reform Croatia's government institutions while building new relationships with the outside world.”[15]

President Mesić, in particular, showed strong political commitment, despite public opposition from conservative military staff, for example to the government's decision to hold trials of war crime suspects in The Hague. “Depoliticisation was really painful. The actions of Stjepan Mesić, who was president during that time, were very important.”[16]

Furthermore, Jozo Radoš, who was the first civilian politician to be minister of defence, was attacked by conservative military officials at the ministry, who tried to undermine the reforms by leaking information from early meetings with the parliamentary committee in 2000. As Radoš explained, “'I came to the defence ministry without military experience, without being a Croatian defender,' (a term for describing those who fought in the war) ... 'I was a member of parliament during the war, and I was very young. I don't think generals understood how I could be the main person leading the defence ministry, including military policy.'”[17]

Igor Tabak, a Croatian defence analyst, reiterated Radoš's views of the military: “The former most influential group in defence started to take issue with its personal decline in power.”[18] Despite that, Radoš unwaveringly followed the government's objective “to strengthen the civilian role in defence policy, planning and oversight”.[19]

In 2002, however, Radoš resigned from his position as defence minister, feeling that he had lost the political support necessary for the job. Despite the change of cabinet, with Zeljka Antunović succeeding him as the new defence minister, the initiative kept its high priority on the Croatian government's political agenda. There was opposition to the reform from veterans, who were "really a stone around [the Račan government's] neck” and impeded progress towards a feasible reform agenda.[20] Nevertheless, Antunović successfully guided the reforms through to completion after having replaced Radoš.

Public confidence

Despite the efforts made by the new reformist government, one incident triggered public and political opposition: in cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Croatia's newly-elected government decided to hold trials of war crime suspects from the time when Croatia had fought for independence. Twelve generals who had enjoyed privileged roles under the Tuđman regime now openly attacked the new defence policies of the Račan government. Through this, they initiated protests against the government's decision in November 2000 to work with the ICTY on war crime prosecutions. There were more than 100,000 protesters against the enactment of the constitutional amendments.[22]

However, despite the "close media attention to the antigovernment protests, much of the public supported the government's reform agenda and the need to cooperate with the tribunal”,[23] and the protests did not diminish the public's confidence in the new government and the military reforms. “President Mesić and the minister of defence had support from the majority of people in the defence system, and the public was on the side of these institutions,” said Vlatko Cvrtila, professor at the University of Zagreb and advisor to the Croatian president.[24]

Clarity of objectives

The reform aimed at a higher efficiency and professionalism of the Croatian armed forces, however, the overarching strategic objectives were to join NATO and the EU.[25] To that end, the SDR set out a number of goals, such as downsizing the CAF and eliminating compulsory military service (see The Initiative above).[26]

Some of these objectives were modified over time. “Comparing the personnel projections in the original SPECTRA (Separated Personnel Care and Transition Programme) document of 2002 with current numbers provided by the TO (Transition Office), there seem to be some irregularities. Even the numbers of actual strength on 2002 and 2003 of the CAF have been changed in the current documents.”[27]

However, not all the objectives had consistent metrics. Objectives such as downsizing the military were subject to change, with several numbers being released as the drafting of the reform and its policies went along. In early 2002, Radoš announced his intention to cut the number of military and civilian personnel from 40,000 to 25,000 by the end of 2003.[27] The SDR also contained vague objectives, such as “key doctrines, consistent with those of NATO, will be adopted by the end of 2007”.[28]

Strength of evidence

During the independence war of the 1990s, Croatia's Ministry of Defence had been exposed to several direct military threats. The declaration of independence and the end of the war created a changed security environment, while new global threats emerged, such as international terrorism, environmental degradation, and the illegal trade in weapons. The military reforms were the first opportunity to move from a wartime to a post-conflict military in Croatia. Hence, in Croatia itself, such a reform was unprecedented. Before starting the reform process, the Ministry of Defence carried out a strategic assessment of the current security environment and future threats and risks.[30]

Jozo Radoš sought advice from other post-conflict and post-Soviet Bloc states, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, and consulted other NATO governments. Technical experts with experience in reforming a deficient defence ministry arrived from abroad and helped develop feasible policies.[31] “They knew better than we did”, said President Mesić about NATO's help in carrying out the reform, and the cooperation “was absolutely positive and welcome to me and the defence ministry".[32]

For certain policies introduced by the reform, studies were conducted to identify the weaknesses and strengths of particular changes. “To help find the best option for Croatia, the Croatian government has commissioned a study on the maintenance of a fully professional armed forces structure. The study shall be developed in cooperation with academic experts and civilians by the end of 2003.”[33]


The SDR, which was intended to guide the reform of the CAF and the military system as a whole, includes an assessment for determining the policies' feasibility. Through an in-depth analysis of the CAF's capabilities at the time of the initial phase, a conceptual basis for reframing CAF's tasks and missions was set out. Together with a reformed budget structure, which intended to allocate 20 percent of the reduced military budget to modernising its equipment, 30 percent to operational costs, and 50 percent for personnel costs, the SDR aimed to ensure the future smooth operation of the CAF. Calculations “based on reasonable projections of future defence expenditures indicate that the proposed force structure will be able to maintain the necessary capabilities within the relative bounds of this preferred budget structure”.[34]

Despite these calculations, the ambitious cuts in military expenditure were in conflict with several cost-intensive reform mechanisms. One example is the SPECTRA initiative from 2003, which comprised psychological assistance, severance payments, and retraining courses for discharged personnel. “We believe that in the future, we will be able to stop the downward trend and keep the defence budget at 2.2 percent of GDP. However, this factor alone will not suffice to finance the reform of the CAF in an optimal way. It will be of the utmost importance to determine priorities and carry out radical reassignment of resources within the defence budget.”[35]

President Mesić and his government tried to establish a solid legal framework for implementing the defence reform and redistributing political power. “The New Defence Law establishes responsibility over the defence system in a much more balanced and detailed manner amongst the highest institutions of the government, emphasising the issue of democratic control of the Armed Forces through a more accurate division of authorities and responsibilities among the key players involved in the defence structure.”[36] However, after Mesić had declared the reform of the defence system, it still took two years before the legislation was passed.[37]

In terms of the general scope and timeframe of the reform, certain political circumstances, such as the fact that many of the comprehensive policies encompassed more than one legislative period,  hampered the feasibility of the reform and were not sufficiently evaluated beforehand. “There is a general lack of civilian expertise on military and security matters in the Croatian parliament. Due to the limitation of a four-year mandate, it is difficult for parliamentarians on the committee to build up this capacity adequately enough to perform any serious oversight and control function. This also holds true for the NGO and research community in Croatia, where there is currently not enough expertise on security issues.”[38]


The initiative was led by Croatia's reformist government of the early 2000s. Even though no specific reporting system was established, there were nevertheless sound mechanisms in place to ensure that progress was made.

The significant downsizing of military personnel and the restructuring of the defence system could have created significant managerial challenges. However, through setting up “clear and understandable criteria that make sense and establishing a good support system”,[39] retirements and retraining were successfully managed under Antunović's direction throughout the rapid process of downsizing. “'One of my goals was that through reductions in the number of people, some funds would be freed up and used for pay raises for those who remained ... That was one of the factors that led people within the system to gain confidence in me. It allowed reforms to move on without excessive friction within the system,' said Antunović."[40]

The close cooperation with NATO experts and NGOs also played an important role in guaranteeing constant progress in implementing the reforms. Vlatko Cvrtila, advisor to President Mesić, said that “NATO's participation was crucial in getting Croatia to take on small and manageable commitments that moved towards meeting NATO requirements rather than attempting a sweeping overhaul”.[41] Project managers from the International Migration Office joined ministry offices in Zagreb, Osijek and Split to provide additional support for the management of the three different severance and retirement packages offered through SPECTRA.[42]


For some of the objectives mentioned in the SDR, performance indicators were monitored by external organisations. For instance, the World Bank provided data on the total number of CAF personnel between 1999 and 2015, and tracked Croatia's military expenditure as a percentage of GDP over the same period.[43]

However, no details were available of any government initiative for setting up a monitoring system to measure the actual public impact or of integrating findings from external organisations, and it seems that no attempt was made to ensure that public impact could be measured.


Throughout the implementation of the reform, aligning the different interests of the stakeholders required particular attention. From the start, Jozo Radoš was facing the challenge of reforming a largely conservative and partisan military cabinet, whose officials objected to their personal decline in power and tried to undermine the reform by leaking sensitive information and triggering public protests. However, through creating incentives such as financial compensation and pensions for generals, veterans and other staff, even the challenging objective of reducing military expenditure and drastically cutting personnel could be achieved. Mobile Transition Teams, comprising sociologists, psychologists, economists and lawyers, assisted discharged soldiers with retraining and reintegration into the labour market.[44]

Antunović, Radoš's successor, sought to reassure people working in the defence sector that they would not be forced out, and generous compensation contributed to the relatively peaceful restructuring of the personnel policies. CAF personnel were successfully reduced from 101,000 in 1999 to 18,550 in 2015[45] and more than 4,000 left the military voluntarily.[46]

President Mesić and his government colleagues operated strategically to ensure the alignment of public interests with the reformists' aims. At times of diminishing public trust in the defence reforms, an emphasis on the goal of NATO membership fostered political support. According to Vlatko Cvrtila, “it was not so popular to be against NATO membership - especially if you were a member of the defence sector ... It was a promoter and vehicle of defence reform.”[47]

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