POPE John Paul II's planned Sept. 10-11 visit here represents another political dividend for the Croatian government for its participation in the US-sponsored reconciliation between Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslims and Croats.
With economic hardship and endemic corruption seriously eroding its popularity, the government will be able to proclaim the visit a new milestone in its crusade to lead Roman Catholic-majority Croatia out of almost 50 years of Yugoslav communism.
Croatian officials, however, privately concede the pontiff would not be coming if President Franjo Tudjman were still sponsoring the Bosnian Croat attempt to carve territory out of Bosnia and join it to Croatia.
Coerced by threats of United Nations sanctions, President Tudjman in February began withdrawing thousands of troops he had sent into Bosnia and prodded his Bosnian Croat proxies and their supporters in Zagreb into accepting peace with the Muslim-led government.
The US-brokered Washington Accords led in April to the formation of the Muslim-Croat federation. Croatia has since been rewarded by a major expansion in international political and economic dividends since its bloody 1991 secession from former Yugoslavia.
Other benefits include unanimous international rejection of the independence demands of the Belgrade-backed minority Serb rebels, who control about one-fourth of Croatia, captured in the 1991 war.
Croatia's relations with the Muslim world have also blossomed. It has signed a multimillion-dollar ships-for-oil accord with Iran and lucrative trade and cooperation pacts with Turkey.
Egypt has unfrozen a petroleum sales agreement suspended during the Croat-Muslim fighting in Bosnia and a breakthrough in relations is anticipated with oil-rich Arabian Gulf states.
Most important has been the improvement in ties with the United States, which resisted recognizing Croatia's independence because of its role in former Yugoslavia's violent collapse until it was forced to follow the European Union's (EU) lead in April 1992. Since the Washington Accords, the Clinton administration has signed trade, science and technology, education, and nontechnical military-assistance pacts with Croatia and is planning an expansion in funds for democratization projects.
A NATO team is expected next month to discuss Croatia's admission to the Partnership for Peace program.
US advocacy won Croatia a $128 million World Bank loan last month and $400 million more is expected soon. A US-backed $250 million International Monetary Fund loan is also pending.
While all this represents considerable progress, the Balkan state of 4.5 million remains a long way from full international acceptance, especially its dreamed-of integration with Europe. ``Nobody in the West loves Croatia,'' notes a Western diplomat.
Perhaps out of contrition for its hasty recognition, the EU has yet to sign one major accord with Croatia. Nor has any individual EU member, including Germany, which sponsored its recognition.
The EU first seeks improvements in Croatia's dismal human rights record, especially an end to discrimination against thousands of Serbs who refused to join the 1991 uprising. The EU also wants the Communist-era legal system overhauled, an end to state media control, harassment of Tudjman opponents, and genuine political liberalization, including a dilution of the powers given to the president under the constitution drafted by his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
Washington has been the most vocal foreign critic of the government's communist-bred authoritarian political style. It has also warned Croatia that it could lose its newly won benefits should it carry out renewed threats to use military force to recover rebel Serb-held areas that were placed under UN protection as part of the cease-fire that ended the 1991 war.
Croatian officials say that while they understand such concerns, they pose a serious dilemma: Absent strong international action, the Serbian rebellion will persist and strengthen HDZ hard-liners who are demanding military force over negotiations.
These elements also oppose the political and economic reforms demanded by the US and its European allies. ``If the world fails us, these people will take over. The only thing the international community could do then is put a cordon sanitaire [a barrier restraining free movement] around this region and come back six months later and see who is dead and who is alive,'' one official says.
Another threat is the slow implementation of the Washington Accords and delays caused by the Bosnian Serbs' rejection of the ``contact group's'' peace plan.