Zagreb - Croatia on Friday marked the 10th anniversary since joining NATO, with senior officials saying that the alliance's defence umbrella ensured long-term stability for the country.
Croatia became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on 1 April 2009 together with Albania, becoming one of the greatest advocates of NATO's eastward expansion.
Since NATO's establishment in 1949, the number of its members has increased from 12 to 29, with Montenegro joining in the seventh enlargement round in 2017 as the newest member.
Since 2003, over 6,700 Croatian soldiers have participated in NATO-led operations, missions and activities.
President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović says that NATO is the most successful security alliance, one that shares the same values. "However, our primary task is to develop our own defence forces which must be the backbone and guarantor of our security," she told the press before a special reception in the Westin Hotel in Zagreb.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said that Croatia had proved to be a reliable ally and would continue its present policy. "It's good for our security and our contribution to security both regionally and globally," he said.
Parliament Speaker Gordan Jandroković said that joining NATO was an important episode in the development of the Croatian state. "It put us in the company of the world's most developed nations and helped us secure long-term stability," he said.
Defence Minister Damir Krstičević highlighted the role of Croatian soldiers in NATO missions. "The Croatian soldier is well respected. We are ambassadors and guarantors of peace and security of Croatia," he said.
The 10th anniversary of NATO membership is being marked at a time when relations between the alliance and Russia have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War and the US is exerting pressure on its European allies to increase their defence budgets.
The minimum level of defence spending of two percent of GDP, which the allies set themselves in 2014, has not been observed by most member states, including Croatia. After allocating 1.3 percent of GDP for defence for years, last year Croatia increased its defence budget to 1.7 percent of GDP, according to NATO's data from March this year.
Croatia established institutional relations with NATO in 2000 through the Partnership for Peace programme and began membership preparations in 2002 through a Membership Action Plan.
The political decision to invite Croatia, together with Albania, to join the alliance was made at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when the then US President George Bush personally came to Zagreb to announce the invitation. A formal invitation was sent on 30 March 2009 by the then NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer after the accession protocol was ratified by the parliaments of member states and by the Croatian parliament on 25 March 2009.
The protocol was deposited with the US State Department on 1 April 2009 by the then Croatian Ambassador to the United States, the current President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, whereby Croatia became a full member of the alliance.
The first NATO summit that Croatia attended as a member took place in Strasbourg and Kiel on 3 and 4 April 2009.