Croatia

Semi-Consolidated Democracy
54
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 54.17 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 4.25 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
54 100 Semi-Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Executive Summary

By Tena Prelec

In 2019, Croatia’s democracy continued its long period of stagnation—in fact, the country could be viewed as sleepwalking through a slow, sometimes imperceptible, yet steady decline in democratic governance.

Politically, the year was characterized by intense infighting within the main political parties. On the left, the so-far unsuccessful experience of new party formations has allowed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to reconsolidate after numerous defections and a few years of radically declining ratings. Especially significant in 2019, however, was the internecine fight that took place within the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the country’s main conservative, and ruling, party.

The HDZ has long been a “big tent” party uniting more moderate right-wingers and a powerful hard-right section. The glue of the party is provided by entrenched patronage and clientelism, made possible by the HDZ’s extended period of rule in Croatia (21 of the country’s 27-year history).1 In this sense, the corruption scandals that regularly hit Croatian politicians—and usually HDZ members more than others, as was the case in 2019—are to be seen as a continuation of a well-rehearsed machinery that not even European Union accession (Croatia became an EU member state in 2013) and the jailing of a former prime minister for grand corruption (Ivo Sanader in 2012) have managed to eradicate.

The European Parliament elections held in May 2019 were considered largely free and fair, in spite of an assessment by the electoral commission that abuse of public resources by the controversial Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić (running with his Bandić Milan 365–Labor and Solidarity Party, or BM 365) had amounted to an infringement of law—the first such official statement at the national level. The election results returned four seats each to the two mainstream parties, SDP and HDZ, but this was seen as a bad result for the HDZ, which had hoped to capture as many as six seats. The realization that HDZ had lost votes to smaller parties further to the right likely forced the government to keep several HDZ far-right backers in the cabinet with the July 2019 reshuffle. However, HDZ’s more moderate wing managed to keep the hard-liners at bay, retaining control of the party.

The leading representative of this “moderate wing”—the man at the helm of Croatia’s government, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković—has held his position since October 2016. The events of 2019 should be viewed in the context of this slightly longer period, which has seen moments of crisis, from the fall of Croatia’s largest company, Agrokor, in 2018 (the most significant political-economic event of the decade) to the teachers’ strike in late 2019. At these and other critical junctures, Plenković, a former diplomat and member of the European Parliament, went well beyond his previous image as a polished Brussels “Eurocrat.” In mercilessly disposing of coalition partners and weathering scandals that would have sunk less capable politicians, he showed leadership (as well as ruthlessness).

The same resolve and callousness were applied on more than one occasion in 2019. Among the PM’s most concerning tendencies was his attempt to curtail the independent Commission for Conflict of Interest, even as the body scrutinized his role in resolving the Agrokor affair, as well as his appointment of a close personal friend as ambassador to the United Kingdom. Although successfully challenging the far-right wing of his party by supporting the United Nation’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women (ratified in the Sabor, Croatia’s unicameral parliament, in 2018), Plenković could not be described as a human rights champion in 2019. He withheld concessions to teachers striking for better working conditions, and remained conspicuously silent on the thorny issues of media and judicial independence, migrants’ rights, and the shrinking space for civil society.

Particularly dire is the state of Croatia’s public broadcaster, HRT, whose deep politicization became even more entrenched during the year. Croatia is now the only EU member state where the public broadcaster has sued its own employees,2 a sweeping assault carried out in 2019 by the highest public authorities in an atmosphere of “oppressive silence.”3 On this move, both PM Plenković and President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović issued statements that ranged from downplaying the problem to the outright undermining of media independence.

The civic sector was also under attack during the year as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to hold Croatian politicians accountable, such as smears accusing GONG (Citizens Organized to Monitor Voting) of “working against the Croatian candidate” for merely posing open questions to Dubravka Šuica during her European Commission campaign. As a result, the overall impression of civil society and media workers is that “the restriction of freedoms is now done in velvet gloves, but it is as insidious [as earlier] and in fact it has gotten worse.”4 In this picture, the tenacious publication of hard-hitting journalistic investigations by a handful of intrepid media outlets, unearthing one corruption scandal after another, is a testament to their professionalism and resilience in the face of hardship.

Actions by law enforcement also pointed to an atmosphere of heightened alertness and restricted civil liberties. Police arrested a man holding a sign that read “ćaća” (a reference to disgraced former prime minister Ivo Sanader) while standing in a crowd greeting PM Plenković’s arrival on the island of Korčula.5 In Pula, individuals were served with an arrest warrant because they wore T-shirts with the slogan “HDZ—thieves.”6 Even more worrisome, police have made headlines in connection with the migrant crisis as human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concerns over the use of violent force to push back migrants at the Croatian-Serbian and Croatian-Bosnian borders.7 The arbitrary deportation of two Nigerian table tennis players to Bosnia was harshly criticized throughout Europe for its underlying racism.8 Again, Croatian leaders were largely silent on such mistreatment.

The first round of the presidential elections held in December saw a tripartite race: the HDZ incumbent, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović; Social Democrat Zoran Milanović; and a folk singer running on a hard-right platform, Miroslav Škoro. SDP’s Milanović came out on top, subsequently winning the January 5, 2020, runoff and thus setting a scene in which both the head of state (Milanović) and head of government (Plenković) represent the most centrist option within their respective parties. Public friction between the two is a forgone conclusion, but the question on everyone’s mind is whether they will find an understanding behind the scenes, beyond the media posturing.

Looking ahead, there were indications of positive opportunities. Preparations for Croatia to host the Presidency of the EU Council in 2020 for the first time seemed to be going well. European Commission officials in Brussels expressed satisfaction with the Croatian team’s level of preparedness, saying that it exceeded their experiences with previous presidencies. The capacity of Croatia’s representation in Brussels has increased, while the Zagreb summit in May 2020 was expected to provide the venue for the agreement on a new methodology for EU enlargement. And the year 2020 is set to be an important one for the city of Rijeka, as holder of the title of European Capital of Culture.

As for domestic politics, the main race to watch is the parliamentary elections in the second half of 2020. Despite the HDZ’s apparent setbacks in 2019, the party is known for its ability to mobilize its electorate and is positioned to maintain its dominance. This does not preclude some changes on the horizon, however. One of the most consequential issues in the coming period is likely to revolve around the slightly off-center éminence grise of Croatian politics—Milan Bandić. With the many accusations of clientelism and corruption, the six-term mayor of Zagreb embodies what is most despised by much of the Croatian public. Bandić has maneuvered himself to be politically indispensable to the ruling HDZ, but in 2019, his game was increasingly laid bare by fiery opposition members in the Zagreb city assembly. Filmmaker Dario Juričan helped put Bandić under the national spotlight by spoofing his candidacy during the December presidential election, with anti-Bandić protests ensuing in the capital. Bandić’s fall from popularity may signal that politics as usual is no longer welcome in Croatia.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 4.254 7.007
  • The internecine battle within the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was the most significant party competition in Croatia in 2019. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, leader of the HDZ, continued to be embroiled in a long-haul struggle with the far-right wing of his party. The first noticeable crack in party unity occurred in August 2018 over ratifying the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s member state agreement on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention’s ratification, strongly advocated by Plenković, took place in the Sabor (Croatia’s unicameral parliament) with the votes of opposition parties, while 17 HDZ parliamentarians either voted against or abstained.1
  • While much of HDZ’s intraparty conflict in 2019 likely took place behind the scenes, clear evidence was on display in November with the proposal by Josip Đakic (from the party’s far-right wing and chairman of the parliamentary War Veterans Committee) to amend the Law on Public Holidays by removing the Day of Anti-Fascist Struggle from the list—a difficult position for the party’s moderates—in the midst of the presidential election campaign.2 This controversial amendment was later withdrawn.3
  • The prime minister fielded fresh faces as candidates for the European Parliament elections in May, aiming to embellish the party’s moderate façade on the European stage (an effort that won him plaudits with such figures as Germany’s Angela Merkel).4 But the moderates’ poor showing at the elections and the realization that the party had clearly lost ground to the far right filled the hard-liners’ sails (see “Electoral Process”). In a government reshuffle on July 17, it appeared initially that Plenković would get rid of much of HDZ’s ultra-conservative old guard, whose involvement in corruption scandals had made the PM an easy target, among them health minister Milan Kujundžić, whose attempt to buy expensive equipment by supplying doctored evidence had been exposed by the press.5 The PM, however, eventually opted for a compromise, keeping Kujundžić and others on board while removing other ministers (such as the disgraced Gabrijela Žalac, see “Corruption”) in less politically costly moves.6 Critical voices complained that poorly performing ministers were “rewarded” with vice-presidential functions or a more substantial portfolio.7
  • After a few years of ratings in free fall, the main center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) punched above its weight at the European Parliament elections. This was partly luck, as the various progressive parties in the fold—Možemo! (“We can!”) and Pametno8—failed to come together, while the anti-corruption party START’s initial good standing in the polls faded away. Yet, much of the SDP’s success was owed to the sheer strength of its candidates: veteran MEPs Biljana Borzan and Tonino Picula enjoy high regard for their continued engagement on the European stage, and their names alone led the way for an unexpectedly good outcome (see “Electoral Process”). Aside from the Amsterdam Coalition (comprising the regionalist Istrian Democratic Assembly, with a strong presence in the Istria region, and other minor parties), which managed to get hold of one seat, the SDP dominated among left-leaning voters. After a rocky 2018, Davor Bernardić managed to keep hold of the SDP leadership.9
  • Less successful was Croatia’s main Euroskeptic party, Živi Zid (Human Shield), whose mere 5.6610 percent of the European Parliament vote was underwhelming when compared to earlier projections of 10 percent just a few weeks before the elections.11 It is likely that much of their support was passed on to the new populist in town, the independent Mislav Kolakušić, who combined a generalized antisystem message with an anticorruption flare. The indications that Euroskepticism in Croatia reflects disillusionment with the domestic mainstream more than anger towards the EU were therefore confirmed.12
  • The number of parliamentarians swapping parties has continued to grow over the course of the Plenković government. By July 2019, it was estimated that 31 members of the Sabor had shifted their allegiance, making this parliamentary composition the most changeable in the country’s history.13 Special movement was recorded in the party BM 365, led by Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić: from only one seat, Bandić managed to expand his club into a 13-member strong group.14 Most of these changes occurred in shadowy circumstances, indicating likely conflicts of interest15 (such as relatives of politicians who jumped ship only to be hired on in the Zagreb public administration16). This situation is mutually beneficial for the HDZ and Bandić. While the Zagreb mayor holds the key to the parliamentary majority, he cannot control the capital’s city council without support of the ruling party, hence this parliamentary game of musical chairs must be viewed within a larger framework of political horse-trading.17
  • Croatia was heavily criticized by international institutions and NGOs for its treatment of migrants during the year, specifically, the violent pushbacks at the Bosnian and Serbian borders. Police have anonymously admitted to the press that they routinely pick up migrants (not only on the border but throughout Croatia) and deport them back to Bosnia, in a well-organized action that has the tacit approval of the upper echelons of law enforcement and even higher authorities.18 This criticism resurfaced19 after the European Commission approved Croatia’s application to join the Schengen Area in October 2019,20 and intensified in December when two Nigerian table tennis players (legally in Croatia to participate in a competition) were mistakenly deported to Bosnia.21
  • In foreign policy, much of 2019 was geared towards preparations for Croatia’s Presidency of the EU Council from January to June 2020. The country started to take a more active interest in such issues as EU enlargement, in the expectation of hosting a high-level EU summit in Zagreb in May 2020. Relations with most neighboring countries were generally tense, especially with Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the HDZ presidential incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović raised eyebrows with such campaign statements as Croatia reaches “from Vis to Kupres” (the latter a city in the FBiH).22
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 5.005 7.007
  • Croatia’s electoral processes held steady during a year that saw two nationwide elections. The European Parliament elections, held on May 26, 2019, brought success to two political “outsiders”—the ultra-conservative party Suverenisti, led by former HDZ MEP Ruža Tomašić, and an independent newcomer with heavy populist appeal, the judge-turned-anticorruption-campaigner Mislav Kolakušić.1 Each scooping up about 8 percent of the vote and ensured one seat apiece, they managed to squeeze out other newcomers on the right and left side of the spectrum, as well as keep below the threshold the party Most Nezavisnih Lista (Bridge of Independent Lists), which, until recently, was the third-strongest political option in Croatia.
  • While Tomašić and Kolakušić established themselves as surprise candidates, it was also true that the center held. Eight out of Croatia’s twelve EP seats (eleven seats pre-Brexit) were won by mainstream parties. Those eight seats are evenly distributed between the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP)—which, respectively, have been the right- and left-wing heavyweights in Croatia since the country’s independence. This was seen as a disappointing result for the HDZ (which had been expected to gain as many as six seats) and a positive result for the SDP.2
  • Watchdog groups assessed the elections as generally free and fair, but with some caveats. A report by GONG, which specializes in election monitoring, characterized the EP polls as “abiding to the legal norms and the international standards of electoral good practice,” yet also noted as “very worrying”’ the fact that over the past two decades “only minimal technical corrections for the improvement of the electoral process were implemented, by which the Republic of Croatia lags considerably behind other EU member states.”3 Discussions continued over the need for a unitary electoral law to replace the country’s current host of different legal provisions that hinder clarity and encourage misuse. Particularly troubling is the ongoing abuse of state resources and unethical conduct, neither of which are well defined in the legislation. According to GONG, this wide “grey area” leaves plenty of space for manipulation.4
  • The State Electoral Committee (DIP), in its 2019 report on campaign financing,5 recognized—for the first time at the national level—the abuse of state resources during the EP elections by several political parties, including the SDP and BM 365, as an infringement of law.6
  • Consultations over a new rulebook on campaign finance reporting7 raised hopes that the issue of social media spending by political parties would become better regulated.8 Amendments to the law on financing electoral activities implemented in October,9 however, did not address this particular issue. Critics stated that the law represents “a step back in terms of transparency” as it “does not regulate social media campaigns . . ., allows for multiple donations to the same party, and removes the obligation of parties to declare how much of their own resources they invested.”10
  • Croatia’s presidential elections were held in two rounds, on December 22, 2019, and January 5, 2020. Of the 11 candidates taking part in the first round, 3 achieved more than 20 percent of the vote: the HDZ incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (26.65 percent), former prime minister Zoran Milanović of the SDP (29.55 percent), and singer Miroslav Škoro, a right-winger with populist appeal (24.45 percent).11 Škoro’s first-round result, while not enough to project him into the runoff, sent shock waves across the HDZ. Ahead of the runoff, Grabar-Kitarović tried to represent the first-round result as a majority vote for the country’s right-wing forces.12
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 5.255 7.007
  • In 2017, Croatia announced a strategy for developing the civic sector meant to span the next five years.1 But the strategy’s publication has been continually delayed,2 and as of October 2019, the sector was half-way through a four-year cycle without a roadmap for structural and financial development.3 Such disregard shows, at the very least, that the Croatian government is not serious about developing the country’s civil society. NGOs criticized the recent public call for the funding of anticorruption projects, arguing that this approach showed the government lacks sufficient understanding of the role of civil society; the call’s requirement that civil society organizations (CSOs) partner with local governments was considered highly problematic, given the scandals involving numerous mayors over the past years.4
  • Hate crimes against the Serbian minority and Serbian citizens continued in 2019. In February, water polo players from the Serbian club Crvena Zvezda were brutally attacked in the center of Split.5 In August, a café owner and several patrons in Knin were injured and insulted in an attack that had ethnic connotations.6 Less clear was the alleged beating of an elderly Serbian citizen over a parking disagreement in the outskirts of Rijeka, in which all charges were dropped against the accused in late August.7 The Serbian minority party SDSS saw most of its campaign posters vandalized during the EP elections.8 In reaction, SDSS leader Milorad Pupovac stated, “Croatia is becoming a factor of instability on the territory of former Yugoslavia, because it is promoting intolerance against other populations and helping rehabilitate Ustaša ideology; in this, a prominent role is played by members of the Catholic church, some political parties and war veteran associations.” War veteran groups proceeded to sue Pupovac over this statement, asking for compensation of HRK 3 million ($450,000).9 The charges were eventually dropped by the County Attorney’s Office in Zagreb.10 The opposite trend was evident in the town of Supetar, on the island of Brač, where Mayor Ivana Marković quickly and forcefully responded when seasonal workers from Serbia were targeted during the summer, to widespread public applause.11
  • The annual “March for Life” was held on May 18, attracting 15,000 to 20,000 demonstrators, according to organizer estimates.12 The political influence of pro-life groups, chief among them U Ime Obitelji (In the Name of the Family), headed by Željka Markić, was somewhat muted in 2019 after such groups lost the battle over ratifying the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s member state agreement on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention’s approval by the parliament in April 2018, supported by Prime Minister Plenković, was vigorously resisted by staunch conservatives and other segments of the wider population in Croatia.13
  • Two cases of physical and sexual assault (one long-term) perpetrated against underage girls in Zadar—as well as the justice system’s failure to convict the perpetrators—caused public outrage during the year. On October 19, a wave of demonstrations under the banner “Justice for the little girls” saw protests arise in 15 Croatian cities aimed at raising awareness about sexual abuse and demanding a retrial of both cases.14 These protests led to the detention on remand of the five suspects in one of the prominent rape cases, following a decision that overturned the initial ruling to release the suspects.15
  • Primary and secondary school teachers and college lecturers went on strike in November and December after their unions failed to negotiate acceptable deals earlier in the year. The unions had demanded a pay raise corresponding to an increase in the job complexity index of 6.11 percent, to close the pay gap with other public sector employees. PM Plenković initially did not balk and thus faced considerable opposition.16 A compromise with the government was eventually reached, with a gradual increase of the job complexity index to 3 percent by December 1, 2019; an additional 1 percent by June 1, 2020; and a further 2 percent by January 1, 2021.17
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 3.754 7.007
  • Despite pressure from the government and the use of lawsuits to silence journalists, the independence of Croatia’s media landscape remained relatively unchanged in 2019. Still, the overall picture is one in which mainstream media are losing their independence while new and fringe media have fought back with hard-hitting investigations. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in its 2019 World Press Freedom report, ranked Croatia 64th out of 180 countries. While this is a jump of five spots since 2018, RSF warned that journalists who “investigate corruption, organized crime or war crimes are often subjected to harassment campaigns” and that “physical attacks, along with threats and cyber-violence, continue to be a major problem for journalists in Croatia.”1
  • The country’s public broadcaster, Croatian Radio Television (HRT), continued to work under incessant government pressure.2 Even more worrisome, HRT management, which is appointed by the parliament,3 resorted to lawsuits against those employees who complained about problems at the outlet, even bringing a complaint against the Association of Croatian Journalists (HND). In March, hundreds of protesters marched through central Zagreb to decry the stifling of media freedom.4 The demonstration was not taken seriously by authorities, and PM Plenković stated succinctly that he “did not see a problem with media freedom in his country.”5
  • According to the HND, there were 1,160 ongoing lawsuits against journalists in Croatia as of spring 2019.6 Out of the 188 cases concluded over the past 4 years, only 22 found journalists guilty; this ratio suggests the heavy use of SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) actions to silence critical voices.7 Hrvoje Zovko, who was fired from HRT in late 2018 and then sued by his former employer on three counts between 2018 and 2019, said, “These lawsuits have a draining and harassing effect, they are directed against those who dare raise their voices against the heavy deterioration of freedom of speech and professional deontology at HRT.” This wave of lawsuits has drawn condemnation from the European Federation of Journalists,8 the Council of Europe,9 and the OSCE.10
  • In May, Velimir Bujanec, a recognizable TV presenter and sympathetic figure to the far right, attacked and spat on journalist Daniel Majić as he was covering an annual pilgrimage by Croatian nationalists to the Austrian town of Bleiburg.11 In this case, as in others—including hateful graffiti on media buildings, slashed tires, and throwing eggs at a journalist’s car—there was no reaction from Croatian authorities.12
  • The country’s generally uneasy climate for journalists was not helped, and in some cases worsened, by official figures. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović issued worrisome statements in July, saying, “Don’t follow foreign media, I don’t know in whose interests they work,” prompting a condemnation by the Croatian Journalists’ Association stating that the president had labeled their foreign colleagues as enemies of Croatia. The president said that her comments were improperly reported by the Swiss media, to which TV RTS replied that the interview was done according to all professional standards.13
  • In September, Index.hr journalist Gordan Duhaček was arrested by the Croatian police in response to two Twitter posts, one of which featured a satirical poem and the other the acronym “ACAB” (a stand-in for a derogatory slogan commenting on a police attack against fast-food workers in Zadar). Duhaček was found guilty in the second case, fined, and released the same day.14 The case drew condemnation from the OSCE.15
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 4.254 7.007
  • The parliament adopted a new law on local and regional government in September 2019 that extends the scope of activity of municipalities, cities, and, most significantly, counties.1 These institutions are to take over the tasks of the State Administration Office, which will be disbanded starting January 1, 2020. Though it is yet to be seen whether this will have positive or negative effects, the official rationale for the change was decentralization and cost-cutting.
  • The new local duties include the categorization of touristic accommodation, the administration of claims related to the restitution of property confiscated under communism, the organization of work and recruitment in the education sector, and a series of other economic, social, administrative, and legal tasks. It is still not certain how these new operations will be funded, although experts agree that these changes will increase the financial burdens on local governments.2 According to media reports, the State Administration Office was still hiring new employees despite getting ready to close, so local governments could be forced to absorb significantly more people than anticipated.3
  • The powerful six-term mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić, has had an increasingly difficult time keeping his hold over the capital. Since entering the Zagreb city assembly in 2017, a group of four councilors representing Zagreb Je Naš (Zagreb Is Ours) has acted as a formidable opposition and won important victories, such as overturning the mayor’s decision to tender the maintenance of the city’s storm drainage infrastructure to private firms.4 In July, there were indications that even HDZ members within the city assembly were starting to undermine Bandić’s projects, opposing changes to the Zagreb urban plan.5 Bandić first became Zagreb’s mayor in 2000, and has been hit with numerous corruption-related controversies during his time in office. While he made his first steps in politics among the ranks of the SDP, he later created his own party, BM 365. The weakening of his power carries significance for both the local and national levels, as Bandić’s group of MPs has helped the HDZ in the national parliament, while the mayor has been receiving the ruling party’s backing in the city assembly (see “National Democratic Governance”).
  • The intercultural school Dunav (“Danube”) in Vukovar, initially conceived in 2014 by the center-left government to host a multicultural program with Serbian and Croatian children in the same classrooms, was dropped in July 2019.6 The concept had been funded with €1.3 million from the Norwegian government, which the Croatian government returned in 2019 after the project failed to attract a single application. The termination of the project signaled the failure of an initiative that was supposed to provide postwar dialogue in Vukovar, an eastern city that was heavily hit in the 1990s.7
  • In late September, the Rijeka City Council approved a loan for the reconstruction of Josip Broz Tito’s presidential ship Galeb, for the amount of HRK 44 million ($6.5 million). The proposal was passed thanks to three representatives of the political party Lista za Rijeku, which occasionally provides external support to the center-left government of the city. The significance of the move rests in the fact that it prevented an early election in Rijeka, which is the most recognizable bastion of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), as well as averted a potentially significant hit to the city budget, as EU funding for the restoration of the Galeb was linked to a loan that benefits the redevelopment of another important city building.8 Regional municipalities in Croatia have been relying on EU funding to spur development; nevertheless, Croatia is second to last among EU member states in the utilization of structural funds.9
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 3.504 7.007
  • The state of the judiciary, a relentlessly thorny issue in Croatia, did not show any improvements in 2019. The public’s view of the justice system remains poor; in fact, the perceived independence of Croatia’s courts and judges is the lowest in the European Union, according to the latest EU Justice Scoreboard.1
  • The case of Ivan Turudić, the influential Zagreb Regional Court judge who was caught speeding on several occasions, became emblematic of systemic problems in the Croatian judiciary as a whole, namely, its politicization and corruption. In this instance, Turudić refused to stop his car when alerted by the police, did not appear at judicial proceedings, accused both the police and the judge who ruled on his case of lying, and claimed (falsely) not to have received court notices at his address.2 Turudić was defended by two powerful figures, President of the Constitutional Court Đuro Sessa and Minister of Justice Dražen Bošnjaković. The former refused to initiate a disciplinary procedure against the speeding judge,3 while the latter was seen having informal meetings with Turudić, after which he minimized the judge’s culpability.4 Commentators opined that Sessa and Bošnjaković, in their actions, were “providing clear instructions to the citizens on how to avoid the law in similar occasions.”5
  • The former Dinamo football club boss Zdravko Mamić, who fled Croatia after being convicted of fraud in 2018, finding refuge in neighboring BiH,6 made allegations concerning six high-profile judges, accusing them of corruption. According to the weekly Nacional, this included Constitutional Court president Sessa, three judges at the Osijek court, and two more from Zagreb.7
  • Croatian Ombudsman Lora Vidović sought to advance her candidacy as European Ombudsman but failed to collect enough signatures from MEPs, most significantly, HDZ MEPs who refused to support her.8 This conflict exposed a full-blown crisis between Croatia’s ruling structures and the ombudsman. In late 2018, Vidović stated that she was no longer being given data on migrant crossings and mistreatment from the Croatian police.9 The legality of this situation is disputed and underscores another gray area of the police enforcing procedural technicalities and delaying the publication of information.10
  • Miljan Brkić, deputy parliament speaker and vice-president of the HDZ, was under investigation during the year for unlawfully monitoring four women’s electronic communications, along with his brother Jozo, his friend Blaž Curić, and former police computer expert Franjo Varga. In October, however, it was announced that none would be indicted because the official investigation had not supported the offense in question.11
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 3.754 7.007
  • In April, the Croatian government issued its Anti-corruption Action Plan for 2019 and 2020, a part of the overall Strategy for the fight against corruption for the period 2015–20. In summary, the plan aims at “strengthening the transparency, responsibility and integrity of civil servants and officials, the effectiveness of the public bodies through the definition of clear rules of conduct and integrity for civil servants and officials, and at eliminating the remaining deficiencies in the organization of the system and of the legal framework in sectors that are defined as priority.”1 However, the European Commission’s annual macroeconomic monitoring report (November 2019) stated that “corruption risks remain largely unaddressed, most notably at the local level.”2
  • The Commission for Conflict of Interest, an independent state institution that scrutinizes the possible clash of private and public interest in the work of public officials, experienced further political pressure in 2019, as the government—and PM Plenković in particular—repeatedly tried to limit its powers. In May, Plenković asked for the president of the commission, Nataša Novaković, to be removed from working on a case that would have examined the PM’s role in relation to the Agrokor affair.3 In October, the commission found that the PM had abused his office in appointing Igor Pokaz—at whose wedding Plenković served as best man—as Croatia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.4 This prompted a heated reaction from the PM, who called the move “absurd.”5
  • Cases of political corruption abounded in 2019. One concerned former public administration minister Lovro Kušćević, who resigned in early July, a week before the cabinet reshuffle and after he had already been hit by scandal.6 The Croatian State Prosecutor’s Office for the Suppression of Organized Crime (USKOK) started an investigation against Kušćević for having abused his office as mayor of Nerežišća, on the island of Brač, by changing the city’s urban plan to repurpose his stable into land suitable for the construction of inhabitable buildings, as well as arranging underpriced purchases of government-subsidized apartments for his relatives.7 It also emerged that Kušćević kept working on the scheme while he was in government, as the construction and physical planning minister, in 2016.8
  • Milan Bandić, the long-standing mayor of Zagreb, continued to be rocked by scandals during the year. In October, the Regional Court in Zagreb confirmed an indictment against him and his associates in a case concerning garbage disposal in the capital city (the “Agram” scandal) for a contract worth HRK 6.2 million ($920,000). Bandić and Slobodan Ljubičić, president of the public service enterprise Zagreb Holding at the time of the events, both stand accused of having abused their offices to guarantee that the tender was won by a connected businessman.9
  • In September, during the approval of the new composition of the European Commission, PM Plenković accused the Croatian organization GONG of campaigning against the Croatian nominee, HDZ’s Dubravka Šuica, for questioning the origins of her substantial wealth obtained during her career in the public sector.10 Šuica, who was eventually confirmed to the post of Commissioner for Democracy and Demography despite a “shaky performance” at her confirmation hearing,11 had her fortune of about €5 million (which includes opulent houses, a yacht, and three cars) probed by the Croatian media.12
  • Media reports accused Gabrijela Žalac, former minister of regional development and EU funds, of embezzling public money; it was reported that, under her watch, a contract worth HRK 13 million was given to a company with only one employee,13 and on another occasion the same service was twice rewarded, once with HRK 6.6 million and later with HRK 14 million.14 Žalac had to leave her post during the cabinet reshuffle in July, in disgrace, after provoking a car accident in which a 10-year-old girl was injured and revealing that Žalac was driving without a valid license.15

Author: Tena Prelec, Research Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR), University of Oxford.

Note

The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0–100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

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