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 Score changes in 2021

No score changes.

As a result, Croatia’s Democracy Score remained unchanged at 4.25.

header2 Executive Summary

By Tena Prelec

The year 2020 saw no real improvement in Croatia’s democracy. The COVID-19 pandemic threatened not only lives but also the lifeblood of the Croatian economy: tourism. Further exogenous shocks came in the form of devastating earthquakes in March and December, which killed or injured dozens and resulted in billions of euros in property damage. In an effort to salvage part of the country’s GDP and increase their own chances in the early parliamentary elections, the political leadership took questionable approaches to these crises. An initial strong response to the pandemic in the spring was followed by a sudden relaxation of public safety rules at the beginning of the summer and the rapid spread of the virus in the second half of the year. The slackening of restrictions coincided with early parliamentary elections, which were timed to favor the ruling coalition. As a consequence, the COVID-19 crisis was mismanaged, underpinned by poor political choices: the politicization of the COVID-19 taskforce, the rushed declaration of “victory” over the virus to prepare the ground for the early parliamentary elections, and revelations of high officials breaking pandemic restrictions all contributed to an atmosphere in which citizens’ trust in institutions decreased sharply along with their inclination to follow the rules.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) consolidated its power in Croatia’s unicameral parliament, in the July elections. With its strong showing, the HDZ limited the influence of the Homeland Movement, a new far-right formation led by singer-turned-politician Miroslav Škoro. This was a personal victory for Plenković, who is considered to be representative of the moderate wing of the party. The more meaningful inclusion of minorities in the governing coalition and efforts to step up postwar reconciliation efforts were two bright spots in 2020. However, in contrast to Plenković’s moderate image, the prime minister’s steel-fisted leadership style became even more evident in 2020. During his premiership (since October 2016), Plenković has disposed of a range of enemies both within and outside his party, establishing himself as the uncontested leader of the center-right as well as the European Union’s (or at least the European People’s Party’s) main point of reference in Croatia. This domineering style could be observed in his increasingly heavy-handed interactions with the press as well as the country’s newly elected president, former Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Zoran Milanović.

President Milanović’s election in January did not bring a more open, conciliatory tone to the office of the head of state. Far from leading by example, the president was caught in several scandals, the most significant of which concerned his flouting of pandemic restrictions in order to frequent an illegal private club owned by a corruption indictee amid the country’s lockdown. Exactly what Milanović stands for as president is unknown, as in 2020 he spent most of his time in office attacking anyone who dared criticize him—and the prime minister in particular. This cycle of attack and counterattack between the two most powerful politicians in Croatia created distractions rather than any progress on issues the presidency has purview over, including national security and aspects of regional foreign relations. While the new president is not a supporter of extremist right-wing views—unlike his predecessor, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who often flirted with the far right—there was little positive effect from his occasional conciliatory moves, which were drowned out by his recurring statements and social media posts attacking journalists, commentators, and (aside from Plenković) mostly left-wing politicians. This combative style was well liked by Croatians on both ends of the political spectrum, and Milanović closed the year as the most popular politician in the country.

The Social Democrats (SDP) lost further ground, while new challengers on the left entered the parliament. One surprise of the elections was the relatively strong showing by the green-left coalition Možemo! (“We Can”!), which exceeded expectations by obtaining seven seats in the parliament. However, by the end of the year, the coalition had already lost a member, the far-left Workers’ Front, over a disagreement regarding the 2021 municipal elections. To a certain extent, this was an unsurprising split, and it made Možemo! a more ideologically compact formation. The center-left SDP continued to suffer from outdatedness, lack of diversity, and an overly bureaucratic structure. The party is struggling to renew itself. Changes attempted under the party’s new leader, Peđa Grbin, have yet to bear fruit.

The appalling treatment of migrants and refugees crossing into Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina at the hands of the Croatian police continued in 2020, revealing a well-established pattern of abuse, yet the Croatian government showed no intention of intervening. Assistance to migrants and refugees is provided by resource-strapped nongovernmental organizations (NGOs): in this, as in other cases, the situation of civil society remained more or less unchanged. The HDZ-led government continued to delay the rollout of a national strategy for supporting civil society, preferring instead to keep the civic sector weak. Likewise, the media sphere remained relatively unchanged during the year. However, government pressure on media independence continued in 2020 and even stepped up a notch, as shown in the frequent attacks on the press by leading politicians.

The COVID-19 lockdown put long-standing problems in local government under a magnifying glass. Croatia has many more local municipalities than are needed, a situation driven in part by clientelistic hiring procedures. This made it even more difficult for citizens to secure basic services, which their home municipalities may have lacked when the lockdown was put in place. Talk of a new reform decreasing the number of local municipalities gained momentum but did not take concrete shape by the end of the year. Doubts abound as to whether the political will for such a move exists.

In 2020, the Croatian judiciary convicted former prime minister and HDZ leader Ivo Sanader, as well as the HDZ itself, on corruption and money-laundering charges. These convictions came more than 10 years after the crimes were committed and may yet be appealed. Sanader and the HDZ had previously been convicted in 2014, but those sentences were later overturned.

The year was marked by notable cases of grand corruption, including a major preelection scandal involving the high-ranking HDZ official and former Knin mayor Josipa Rimac. Alongside a dozen other important political figures, Rimac stood accused of favoritism in assigning a lucrative wind farm contract. The aforementioned illegal private club in Zagreb frequented during the COVID-19 lockdown by politicians (including the president) was run by Dragan Kovačević, former CEO of the state-owned oil transport company JANAF. Under his leadership, JANAF mismanaged public procurements, and Kovačević was found to have personally accepted large bribes. These and other instances demonstrated a pattern: unless scandals come to the surface through journalistic investigations or other means, Croatian institutions do not wholeheartedly pursue inquiries into grand corruption.

As a result, PM Plenković’s moderate vision for the HDZ—namely, a brand-new world with only clean faces1—has not yet come to pass. This reality is reinforced by cases of corrupt mayors who were reconfirmed by the HDZ as party leaders in their municipalities. These “bad apples” are eliminated only when it is politically unsustainable to keep them on board; otherwise, they are a feature that is part and parcel of the system. Until a different path is taken by the country’s leadership, it is unlikely that Croatia’s democracy will fundamentally improve.

  • 1. “HDZ objavio program, Plenković uputio pismo uoči izbora: ‘Sad je bitno nastaviti graditi bolju i sigurnu Hrvatsku’” [HDZ announced a program, Plenković sent a letter before elections: “Now it is important to continue building a better and safer Croatia”], Jutarnji List, 20 April 2021, https://www.jutarnji.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/hdz-objavio-program-plenkovic-…
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
  • In the first half of 2020, Croatia held, for the first time, the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), whose agenda had to be substantially refocused to address the mounting COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On the domestic front, the government’s handling of the pandemic was very uneven during the year. In the spring, Croatia acted quickly to implement strict measures. As a result, cases were kept very low, and the daily increase in cases reached zero in April through May. However, with summer approaching, the government decided to wholly reopen society. In doing so, it managed to save part of the all-important summer tourism season, but, predictably, cases increased sharply toward the end of summer and throughout the fall.1 In mid-December, Croatia recorded the worst infection rate in the whole of the EU.2
  • Parliamentary elections were called for early July, a few months ahead of schedule. While the official reason for moving up the elections was fear of a second wave of the pandemic, it was nevertheless apparent that the timing suited the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Prime Minister Andrej Plenković sought to capitalize on the government’s initially successful handling of the COVID-19 crisis. After public confidence in state institutions peaked in May,3 the deterioration of the epidemiological situation from June onwards underpinned a decrease in public optimism. Still, the long tail of the government’s early successes helped Plenković grow the HDZ’s representation in the parliament on July 5 (see “Electoral Process”).
  • While PM Plenković continued to sideline the far right within his party, attempting to bring it closer to the professed standards of the European center-right, individuals from the HDZ’s radical right-wing fringe joined forces with other far righters, founding the Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret). This political formation was led by folk-singer-turned-politician Miroslav Škoro, who made a strong showing in the first round of the presidential election in December 2019, placing third. The much-discussed possibility of the party forming an alliance with the HDZ ahead of the parliamentary elections (thereby pushing the next Croatian government further to the right) did not materialize.4 After the elections, Plenković was able to form a government without the Homeland Movement, relying only on parties representing ethnic minorities.5 Unable to “take over” the HDZ from the right, the Homeland Movement’s presence in the public sphere was muted for the remainder of the year, with the party dropping in the polls.6
  • The poor performance of the Social Democrats (SDP) was in line with a six-year downward trajectory for the party. After the SDP candidate, former prime minister Zoran Milanović, won the presidential run-off in January 2020, beating HDZ incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, there was some hope that the mainstream center-left party had recovered ground and would be able to mount a challenge to the HDZ in the parliamentary elections. This was not the case: on July 5, the SDP’s showing was disastrous, its worst result to date since the 1990s. SDP leader Davor Bernardić resigned after this debacle. Internal leadership elections in September installed Peđa Grbin—a political outsider who obtained a large number of preferential votes in July—as the party’s new leader.
  • Otherwise, the biggest surprise of the parliamentary elections came from the green-left coalition Možemo! (“We Can”!). Born as a civic activism platform, the Croatian green movement built upon its success in Zagreb, where greens have been present on the city council since the 2017 local elections. Three years on, these activists-turned-politicians joined forces with left-wing parties, winning a remarkable seven seats in the parliament in their first showing. Later in the year, however, tensions within the coalition came to a head with a disagreement over the 2021 local elections, and the far-left Workers’ Front (Radnička Fronta) was expelled from the group.7 A hoped-for agreement with the SDP on uniting forces behind a single candidate (Možemo!’s Tomislav Tomašević) for the 2021 Zagreb municipal elections did not materialize.8
  • After winning the January presidential elections with the slogans normalno (“sensibly” or “decently”) and predsjednik s karakterom (“a president with character”), newly elected president Zoran Milanović promised a change in tone as head of state. In time, it became abundantly clear that the latter slogan would leave a much bigger mark on his presidency than the former. Questioned by the media in connection with the JANAF scandal (see “Corruption”), Milanović unleashed verbal attacks against journalists, political opponents, experts, and civil society groups.9 His skirmishes with PM Plenković increased as well.10 Nevertheless, he ended the year as the most popular politician in the country, having garnered support on the political right as well as consolidating his appeal among center-left voters.11
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
  • Two national votes were held in 2020: the presidential run-off on January 5 (following a first-round election in late December 2019) and early parliamentary elections on July 5. On the whole, the conditions for both votes were mostly free and fair.
  • Zoran Milanović, former president of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), won the second round of the presidential vote with 52.66 percent against the incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (HDZ) at 47.34 percent.1 No major electoral issues were identified during or after the vote, but there were a few minor complaints about poll workers being unfamiliar with change-of-residency procedures.2
  • In summer 2020, Croatia was one of the first countries in Europe to hold national elections during the pandemic. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the parliamentary elections were “professionally managed, competitive and pluralistic despite challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.”3 The report also remarked that voters were provided with a wide range of political choices and adequate information but raised caution over “the absence of regular review of constituency boundaries together with deviations in the size of in-country constituencies,” stating that these deviations undermined the equality of the vote. The COVID-19 crisis had an adverse effect on turnout, which at 46.9 percent was the lowest in Croatia’s modern history.
  • The parliamentary elections delivered a resounding victory for the HDZ, and PM Plenković in particular, as it was achieved in spite of several high-profile individuals leaving the party for the far-right Homeland Movement (see “National Democratic Governance”). Out of the 151 seats in the parliament, the HDZ-led coalition scooped up 66 seats (37.26 percent of the vote), followed by the SDP-led Restart coalition with 41 seats (24.87 percent). The far-right Homeland Movement won 16 seats (10.89 percent), and another conservative party, the Bridge of Independent Lists (Most Nezavisnih Lista, later rebranded as Most, “Bridge”), landed eight seats (7.39 percent). On the left, the newly-formed green-left coalition Možemo! (“We Can”!) won seven seats (6.99 percent), narrowly missing an eighth.
  • Another new entrant in the parliament in 2020 was the centrist coalition Pametno–SiP–Fokus, which won three seats, although the sole representative from Fokus left the coalition later in the year. One seat was won by the Liberal Democrats (HNS) and another by former deputy prime minister and former Liberal Democrat Radimir Čačić. Eight more seats, those from the 12th electoral district reserved for national minorities, went to incumbents. Overall, the electoral results indicated little change in the composition of the governing structures, with the HDZ enjoying freer rein than it had beforehand.4
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
  • The European Commission’s rule of law report on Croatia in 2020 noted the government’s aim to produce a national plan to further improve legal, financial, and institutional support for civil society organizations (CSOs).1 While describing this as a positive step, the report also remarked that “the civic society space in Croatia is considered to be narrowed.”2 It is noteworthy that the plan was expected to be issued back in 2017,3 and that Croatia has gone three years under the same political leadership without implementing a government strategy for civil society.4
  • Politically, the most important story in Croatian civil society in 2020 was the sector’s entry into mainstream politics on the national stage. The better-than-expected showing by the green-left coalition Možemo! came after years of grassroots activism by such groups as Zagreb je NAŠ! (“Zagreb is OURS!”), which entered the city council in 2017 and gradually increased its standing in the capital. In May, city council representatives and CSOs protested the decision to dissolve the parliament before legislators had passed a law for the post-earthquake reconstruction of Zagreb.5 Another battle fought by CSOs in the capital related to the “Zagreb Manhattan” project, which they managed to defeat (see “Local Democratic Governance”).
  • On the right side of the political spectrum, think tanks and CSOs that had played an active role in anti-abortion and anti-LGBT+ campaigns over the past decade were less vocal in 2020. One reason for this might be that their political raison d’être was subsumed by two political parties, Miroslav Škoro’s Homeland Movement and the increasingly conservative Bridge (see “National Democratic Governance”).
  • Croatia did not have a full-fledged #MeToo moment when the movement took hold around the globe in 2017–18. However, in summer 2020, the social media hashtag #ŽeneUJavnomProstoru (“Women in the public space”) suddenly erupted on Croatian social networks. Hundreds of women shared their experiences of sexual abuse, setting in motion a widespread reckoning with the issue, while provoking a backlash from commenters with anti-feminist and conservative stances.6 The topic of women’s rights was raised repeatedly during the parliamentary elections campaign in July, with several conservative parties arguing against abortion.
  • Organizations such as Are you Syrious? continued to provide advocacy and practical support for migrants and refugees crossing into Croatia.7 These populations have been subject to police violence along the country’s borders, prompting international outcry and investigations (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”).
  • As in many countries across the world, Croatia had its share of coronavirus deniers. Anti-mask demonstrations took on a political dimension as protesters criticized the government’s coronavirus taskforce at protests held in the fall, attended by some one thousand demonstrators in Zagreb8 and a few hundred in Rijeka.9 The main bone of contention centered on the fact that the Civil Protection Headquarters had been given unconstitutional powers since no decision related to any of the COVID-19 special measures had ever been approved by the parliament. The (at least seemingly) arbitrary decisions taken by this body sparked outrage among the wider population, increasing the tally of protesters who might otherwise be limited to fringe groups.10
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
  • Croatia’s media sphere experienced government pressure during the year, best captured by President Milanović’s frequent verbal attacks on the press (see “National Democratic Governance”).1 This behavior was a clear example of the casual impunity with which politicians undermine media freedom.
  • So-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) were another systemic threat to media freedom, according to a May report sponsored by the European Commission (EC).2 The report, which identified over a thousand active lawsuits against journalists and outlets, found that some proceedings were initiated by the police and the public broadcaster (HRT). Furthermore, it noted that the high number of lawsuits initiated by HRT against its employees “raises the suspicion that the public service media had been captured by a political interest group.”3
  • In 2020, the public broadcaster lost a lengthy legal battle against reporter Hrvoje Zovko, who was fired in 2018 for claiming that HRT employees face censorship. In November, a court ruled that Zovko’s claim was correct and that the environment at HRT had created a “certain level of limitation in journalistic investigation and in the exchange of ideas.”4 Zovko was reinstated at HRT, and his legal expenses were compensated.
  • Against a backdrop of structural media freedom problems,5 the ousting of Branko Mijić, vice-president of the Croatian Association of Journalists and former editor-in-chief of the daily Novi List, after 35 years of service at the newspaper was unsurprising. No official reason was given for his termination, but Mijić stated that his ouster was motivated by his critical writings about the current government and claimed that the once-professional outlet had been transformed into a mouthpiece for the HDZ.6 Hrvoje Zovko, who is also the president of the Croatian Association of Journalists, warned of an “unsustainable situation” at Novi List, which has seen the departure of many top journalists in recent years.7 Pressure on the independence of the newspaper, which is published in Rijeka but enjoys nationwide reach, intensified after it was acquired by the Slovakian investment fund J&T in 2016. Investigative reporting indicates that the HDZ facilitated J&T’s access to the Croatian market in exchange for the takeover and muzzling of unsympathetic regional media.8
  • In June, the EU Ombudsman opened an inquiry into a scandal involving EC Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, an HDZ member who was nominated to her post by the Croatian government.9 In April, Šuica—in charge of the EC portfolio on Democracy and Demography—dialed into a Dubrovnik TV call-in show after a caller questioned the sources of her wealth on air. Šuica stated that she was “a godmother to the TV station,” which was interpreted by some as a threat.10 In a reply to the ombudsman’s inquiry, EC President Ursula von der Leyen attested to Šuica’s “firm commitment to the freedom of expression and the freedom and pluralism of the media” and concluded that there was “no instance of maladministration in [the EC’s] activity.”11
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
  • In the spring, citizens’ freedom of movement was restricted to their municipality of residence in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Croatia’s uneven system of defining local administrative units created problems for many, as some municipalities lack basic services, including grocery stores, pharmacies, post offices, and ATMs. Citizens thus experienced, like never before, “the absurdity of the territorial fragmentation of Croatia,”1 which is divided into 576 local and regional self-government units, of which 428 are towns and 127 are cities. Additionally, Croatia has 20 regions and the specially administered capital city of Zagreb.
  • During the summer, the Ministries of Justice and Public Administration opened a public consultation procedure on amendments to the Law on Local Elections, the Law on the City of Zagreb, and the Law on Local and Regional Self-Government.2 This reform, if passed and implemented in 2021, would reduce the number of local officials and members of local representative bodies, such as city councils and regional assemblies. At present, Croatia has 1,321 elected public officials at local and regional levels—a number that could be reduced in 2021 to 703.3 Critics call the amendments a partial reform, noting that it does not include a reduction of the 576 local and regional self-government units in Croatia, which experts have long advocated.4 Moreover, some suspect the reform will not progress at all beyond the public consultation stage.
  • In 2020, the “Zagreb Manhattan” project—a luxury development planned by an Emirati construction company and pushed by longtime mayor Milan Bandić—was halted thanks to opposition from Zagreb city council members and a wide cohort of activists. This constitutes another episode in which Zagreb’s civic sector has successfully fought back against nontransparent practices pursued by the capital’s mayor, who passed away in early 2021. Significantly, the private company behind the project, Abu Dhabi–based Eagle Hills, is the same entity that built the Belgrade Waterfront development in the Serbian capital, which has been surrounded by controversies about its exclusivity, funding, and very legality. In October, Zagreb’s Office for Economy, Energy, and Environmental Protection confirmed that the city’s urban plan had not been changed to accommodate the project, which now no longer exists. Four CSOs—Green Action, Siget, Zagreb is Calling You, and Right to the City—hailed the announcement as a victory for all citizens, civil society, and the “real opposition” in the Zagreb city council.5
  • Kulen, a type of eastern Croatian sausage, was a source of controversy in local government structures in 2020. A reporter found that the city of Županja spent a total of HRK 284,290 (about EUR 37,700) over the past three years on purchases of kulen from a local butcher shop whose alleged co-owner is the city’s mayor, Davor Miličević (HDZ). The shop has also doubled as the local HDZ headquarters since Miličević assumed office.6 The same establishment was also popular among other local institutions, including the public firm Komunalac (which spent HRK 24,826 at the shop in the past three years), a kindergarten (HRK 218,963), and even the local chapter of the Red Cross (HRK 235,492). The Commission for the Prevention of Conflicts of Interest started an investigation into the matter, which Miličević mocked, calling it a “sham trial” against him. In neighboring Otok, another HDZ mayor, Josip Šarić, showed a fondness for the famous local salami, spending an average of EUR 2,600 per month (twice his salary) on kulen as well as luxury goods using a credit card paid for by the municipality.7 In 2020, neither mayor suffered any consequences for the abuse of administrative resources. And both were reconfirmed as local HDZ leaders at the party’s summit in November.8
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
  • While judicial independence, a notoriously thorny issue in Croatia, still suffers overall, a 2020 Constitutional Court decision gave some hope for the improvement of LGBT+ rights in the country. After a protracted legal battle, a same-sex couple was for the first time successful in fostering two children from an orphanage.1 In January, the court ruled that tribunals and government bodies are required to ensure equality of opportunity for everyone wishing to participate in the public foster care service.2 The court did not, however, advise the parliament to harmonize the legal framework—which implicitly prevents same-sex couples from becoming foster parents—in accordance with its ruling.3
  • The EC’s 2020 rule of law report stressed that “challenges remain” for the Croatian justice system, but it stops short of voicing “serious concern” (a finding reserved for Hungary and Poland). The report continued, “In Croatia, low administrative capacity creates difficulties for the State Judicial Council and the State Attorney’s Council in fulfilling their mandate, with their role with respect to the appointment of judges and prosecutors having been reduced and an upgraded IT system for the verification of asset declarations lacking.”4
  • Following a high-profile ruling by the High Misdemeanor Court, the controversial singer Marko Petković (known as Thompson) was allowed to use the phrase “Za Dom Spremni” (“Ready for the Homeland”) in public performances as part of the lyrics of his song “Bojna Čavoglave.”5 The phrase accompanied a salute used in the World War II–era Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a puppet of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy that perpetrated genocide against Jews, Roma, and Serbs in particular. The salute is roughly equivalent to the Nazi Sieg Heil, and the phrase conveys, to this day, a virulent anti-Serb message.
  • The appalling treatment of migrants at the hands of the Croatian police continued in 2020. An investigation by the Guardian as well as documents published by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) provided strong indications that migrants and refugees on the so-called Balkans route were robbed, physically abused, and even sexually assaulted by members of the Croatian police. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said she was taking the allegations “very seriously”; the Croatian authorities, however, denied them.6
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
  • The EC’s 2020 rule of law report highlighted systemic deficiencies in the country’s anticorruption infrastructure related to the lack of resources available to bodies such as USKOK (the State Attorney’s Bureau for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime) as well as problems in the judiciary.1 The report also anticipated the inauguration of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), an independent body empowered to investigate financial crimes against the EU budget in which Croatia and 21 other EU countries participate.2
  • In November, former prime minister Ivo Sanader (in office 2003–09) and the HDZ were found guilty in the retrial of the so-called Fimi Media case, named for the private company used to channel public funds into the HDZ’s coffers. A judge ordered the HDZ to repay HRK 14 million ($2.25 million) to the state.3 Sanader was sentenced to eight years in jail, a year less than the first sentence he received for the same crime in 2014, which was overturned in 2015. Former HDZ treasurer Mladen Barišić was sentenced to two years and ten months in prison, while HDZ accountant Branka Pavošević was sentenced to one year and four months in prison. Former government and HDZ spokesman Ratko Maček was acquitted. They may appeal the ruling.4
  • In May, HDZ member of parliament (MP) Josipa Rimac—the State Secretary at the Ministry of Public Administration and former mayor of Knin—was arrested with 12 others and charged with multiple offenses, including abuse of office, influence peddling, and receiving and giving bribes. Many public officials (staff from various ministries and public agencies, employees of state-owned companies, and a mayor) were among the suspects.5 Rimac is accused of colluding with two businesspersons to secure permits and tenders for the Krš-Pađane wind farm.6
  • In September, Dragan Kovačević, former CEO of the state-run oil transport company JANAF, was alleged to have accepted a bribe of HRK 1.9 million from the head of the private company Elektrocentar Petek in order to favor the firm in public tenders for construction and maintenance contracts.7 Among the 14 people believed to be involved in the criminal proceeding, there are important names from both sides of the political spectrum, such as Velika Gorica mayor and HDZ MP Dražen Barišić as well as the SDP mayor of Nova Gradiška.8 From the investigation, it emerged that Kovačević owned an illegal private club in Zagreb. Influential businesspeople, politicians, officials, and even President Zoran Milanović attended parties at this club located in the city center, which, contrary to law, remained open during the COVID-19 lockdown.9
  • In July, PM Plenković announced the abolition of immunity for members of government, calling it a relic of the 1990s.10 In September, the Ministry of Public Administration announced it would be issuing a new anticorruption strategy for the period 2021–30.11 Neither promise, however, had been followed through on by year’s end. Perhaps more encouraging, debate over the rule of law has been reinvigorated by a handful of new MPs who are raising awareness on corruption scandals and stepping up efforts to hold public officials accountable.12
  • As several significant cases of political corruption emerged in 2020, it is unsurprising that public perception of the problem has not improved. A January 2020 Eurobarometer survey revealed that 97 percent of people in Croatia believe that corruption is widespread, the highest percentage among EU countries.13 Furthermore, 54 percent of people in Croatia feel personally affected by corruption in their everyday lives, against an EU average of 26 percent. Sentiment in the business sector is no better, with 91 percent of companies agreeing that corruption is widespread (against an EU average of 63 percent).14

Author: Tena Prelec (PhD, Sussex University, School of Law, Politics and Sociology) is a Research Associate at the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR), University of Oxford. She is an established analyst on South Eastern Europe, including as Region Head at Oxford Analytica, a researcher at LSEE-Research on South Eastern Europe (London School of Economics and Political Science), and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). Her work at DPIR centers on anticorruption, money-laundering and reputation-laundering, with a focus on the role of Western countries in the global dynamics of corruption. Other research interests include transnational authoritarianism, academic freedom, and the intersection between governance and geopolitics.

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