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 2022

  • Local Democratic Governance rating improved from 4.25 to 4.50 due to the new leadership in Split and Zagreb, who brought good government to these cities in a break with past patterns of municipal governance.
  • Corruption rating declined from 3.75 to 3.50 due to the growing number of scandals that came to light at the national and local level yet resulted in no indictments by the prosecutor’s office, while the government continued to pay lip service to the fight against corruption and corrupt officials continued to be reelected.

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

header2 Executive Summary

The year 2021 saw problems arising in several aspects of Croatia’s democracy, with the steepest decline occurring in the area of corruption. The COVID-19 pandemic remained the country’s most important policy issue, with the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ)–led government insisting that no further lockdowns or obligatory vaccinations would occur despite rising rates of hospitalization and mortality by year’s end. This stance did not change even as the so-called Omicron variant became prevalent in Croatia. Responses to the pandemic continued to be shambolic and contradictory, with double standards for the political elite and the public. Nowhere was this more visible than during the first weeks of Croatia’s vaccination program, when media presented almost daily reports of well-connected individuals jumping the queue, nepotism among doctors, and powerful actors among the political, economic, and social elite calling in favors (including the chancellor of the University of Zagreb), all maneuvering to receive a first dose before their turn. This dynamic further undermined the already weak position of the ad hoc Civil Protection Committee responsible for the day-to-day management of the pandemic, which was seen as staffed not by independent experts but HDZ-loyalists more focused on helping the party remain in power than running a successful pandemic response.

The May 2021 local elections saw several major changes in the largest cities, with HDZ losing power in Split and the capital Zagreb, but winning the mayorship of Osijek for the first time. Overall, HDZ further consolidated power in the majority of Croatia’s more than 500 municipalities and 15 out of 20 counties. The main opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) managed to remain in power in Rijeka, and is serving as a junior coalition partner in the Zagreb Assembly with the left-green Možemo! (We Can) political platform. Možemo! leader Tomislav Tomašević became the capital city mayor after the sudden death of the controversial politician Milan Bandić, whose two decades in power were mired by constant accusations of corruption and myriad instances of graft and nepotism. Generally, established parties and the public ignored the corrupt practices of many local officials, electing them to new terms in office. However, the emergence of Možemo! in Zagreb and Pametno (Smart)—later renamed Centar (Center)—in Split heralded the arrival of a new political generation.

The government continued to treat migrants at the border with an appalling lack of care as both national and international media and CSOs accused police and border control of pushbacks, physical injuries, property destruction, and torture against migrants predominantly from the Middle East. The government insisted it was protecting the outer Schengen Zone borders according to EU rules and obligations. At the end of the year, the European Union (EU) greenlit Croatia’s accession to the Schengen Zone, although an accession date has yet to be determined.1

The judiciary had its ups and downs in 2021. The Supreme Court finally issued a verdict in the long-running Fimi Media case against former prime minister Ivo Sanader and the HDZ, finding Sanader guilty and the ruling party responsible for siphoning public funds from state enterprises. The Supreme Court got a new president after a protracted battle between President Zoran Milanović, the government, and court justices. Experts agree that the new court president gives hope that the judicial branch will start to improve. At the same time, the State Prosecutor’s Office and the anticorruption office have been mired in scandal after the newly minted European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) indicted former EU funds minister Gabrijela Žalac (HDZ) for corrupt practices in a case the State Prosecutor’s Office had earlier declared unproblematic, rejecting the possibility of prosecution. Once again, this opened the justice system to criticism that it remains under the influence of the HDZ.

Media independence continues to be threatened by captured institutions, local and national political actors, and the proliferation of SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). HRT, the public broadcaster, has continued to toe the ruling party line, trying to blunt any criticism targeting the government. The practice of suing their own journalists might come to an end with a recent change at the helm, however the new chief’s close links to the Culture Minister may suggest that independence is not soon returning to HRT.

Corruption cases were a constant in 2021, involving judges, high party officials of the ruling HDZ, former ministers, and local officials. Although corruption is characterized as one of Croatia’s biggest problems, institutions and the political elite have continued to do only the bare minimum to fight it. And despite registering high levels on corruption perception indexes, citizens also do not use the tools at their disposal, especially elections, to get rid of corrupt politicians.

header3 At a Glance

In Croatia, national governance is democratic but dominated by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, whose time in power (since 2015) has raised concerns about inadequate government oversight, rule-of-law violations, and, in some respects, democratic backsliding. Elections are free, but there are issues with voter registers, vote buying on the local level, and widespread political apathy. Croatian civil society is active and robust, despite the over-bureaucratization of financing and administrative obligations, a politically captured national endowment, and the rise in religious and conservative organizations focused on narrowing human rights by fighting against LGBT+ and abortion rights. The media has continued to experience pressure from SLAPPs and the overreliance of local outlets on public financing, while the public broadcaster HRT continues to show deference to the ruling party. On the local level, governance suffers from rampant corrupt practices by local officials and high levels of political apathy among the electorate. Judicial independence is still in a precarious state, especially regarding the ability and willingness of prosecutors to pursue cases of high-level political corruption, although the selection of the new Supreme Court president injects some optimism. Corruption has continued to dominate every aspect of political life in Croatia, with new EU institutions filling in the void where repressive domestic institutions have failed to act.

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
  • Croatia’s government had one of the most liberal responses to handling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. Authorities continued to manage the pandemic via rules and recommendations of the ad hoc Civil Protection Committee without the proclamation of a state of emergency. This, combined with the hobbled work of the parliament due to pandemic measures, further empowered the already powerful executive branch. At the same time, the government was able to hide behind the decision-making process of this unelected faux-expert body,1 further delegitimizing the democratic process of governing.
  • Prime Minister Andrej Plenković (HDZ) insisted that no new lockdown measures would take place,2 nor would COVID-19 vaccinations be obligatory.3 The government vacillated on introducing obligatory COVID-19 vaccination certificates to enter public premises (but not cafés, restaurants, and so forth) until a new wave of infections in November was in full swing, with record numbers of infections and COVID-related deaths. Due to internal squabbling of the advisory Scientific Committee, ambiguous messages from the Civil Protection Committee, and flip-flopping by major political actors (including a strong negative stance against vaccination certificates from President Zoran Milanović), Croatia’s full vaccination uptake hovered around 50 percent at year’s end,4 while at the same time anti-vaccination protests gathered steam. In November, around 20,000 protesters gathered in Zagreb’s main square to protest what they called “vaccination fascism,” supported by many well-known political and public figures, mostly from the radical right. During the capital protests, an RTL Hrvatska TV reporter was physically attacked by protesters (see “Independent Media”).5
  • Local civil society organizations (CSOs) pointed out that some democratic parliamentary practices suffered during the pandemic. Most notably, as the nongovernmental group Gong points out, the Sabor—Croatia’s 151-seat, unicameral parliament—changed the procedure for tallying votes in order to allow members of parliament (MPs) who are not in the plenary chamber due to social-distancing restrictions to be able to vote remotely.6 This, however, meant that the Sabor stopped publishing individual MP voting records, the only legislative institution in the European Union (EU)7 to do so. Despite criticism from CSOs, the parliamentary speaker merely stated that the Sabor would organize a task force to tackle an issue that even the Constitutional Court insisted should be resolved promptly.8
  • The party scene was unsettled in 2021 as well. Although the ruling HDZ suffered quite a few scandals (see “Corruption”), this did not greatly influence the stability and popularity of the party. November opinion polls showed the party comfortably holding the top spot at around 30 percent despite the HDZ chief being the most unpopular politician in the country and more than three quarters of respondents insisting that the country is heading in the wrong direction.9 The strength of the HDZ is linked somewhat to continued instability within its political rival, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the main opposition party. SDP lagged HDZ for most of the year by double digits, fueled partially by internal struggles, weak leadership, and rising public disappointment in the SDP’s ability to be a true alternative to the HDZ. This was nowhere more visible than during the May local elections, when the SDP managed to hold onto Croatia’s third-largest city, Rijeka, its stronghold, while underperforming almost everywhere else, including in Zagreb. The party’s lackluster performance in Zagreb was scuttled by the newcomer Možemo! (We Can) party, which is ideologically to the left of the SDP and has won over a lot of disappointed left and liberal voters, as well as younger voters. Možemo! won Zagreb’s mayoral elections, and was only a few councilors short of a majority in the city assembly (see “Local Democratic Governance”). The political center is overcrowded with small, liberal (in both economic and sociocultural senses) parties, whose MPs have been vocal in the parliament but whose support is small due to fragmentation and the lack of will for party consolidation. To the right of the HDZ, the conservative Most (Bridge) and the nationalistic Domovinski pokret (Homeland Movement) tried to chip away at the ruling party’s grip on right-wing voters. Most’s transformation into a genuine conservative party was complemented with new anti-trans positions,10 auguring a turn to illiberal populism in 2021, which also saw prominent Most MPs criticizing the government’s COVID-19 response, especially the mask mandates, vaccination drives, and vaccination certificates, continuing to insist on using the tools of direct democracy to decide these policies. The Homeland Movement suffered internal dissent that saw their founding leader, Miroslav Škoro, exit the party and politics (for the time being).11 He was replaced by ex-HDZ member and current mayor of Vukovar, Ivan Penava,12 which halted dissent from MPs for a while, although the party’s position and chance to bite deeply into the HDZ monopoly on hard-right voters eventually deteriorated.
  • During the year, President Milanović stepped up his role as public commentator on all major events in Croatia. He continued to be a strong critic of the government’s COVID-19 response, insisting that people should get vaccinated yet, once they do, should be left alone and not forced to wear masks or observe other measures. This drew criticism not only from the government but from some of his own supporters, which had already been mounting with his scandal-inducing stunts, including reinstating honors to alleged war criminal and former wartime general Branimir Glavaš. Glavaš was stripped of all honors in 2010 after his guilty verdict for war crimes, which was overturned in 2015 by the Constitutional Court.13 Milanović garnered further criticism from his supporters (but praise from his right-wing detractors) for his nationalistic stance towards Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as well as for awarding honors to Croatian forces that fought in the 1992–95 war in that country.14 His focus on the military has been evident in his relentless conflict with the government over the president’s role as supreme commander of the armed forces.
  • Conflicts between President Milanović and PM Plenković continued in 2021. They fought either directly, or by proxy, with high-profile spats between Milanović and Mario Banožić, the defense minister, over military policies,15 and with Goran Grlić-Radman, the foreign and European affairs minister, over the appointment of Croatian diplomats overseas.16 All of these tensions have manifested from the so-called hard cohabitation that both Milanović and Plenković promised after the 2020 presidential election.
  • The opposition and CSOs continued to point out the government’s scheme to weaken the Conflicts of Interest Committee, a parliamentary watchdog focused on investigating and sanctioning conflicts of interest; in December, a law was passed17 that weakened the ability of the committee to use general ethical and moral principles, as well as principles of expected professional political behavior, to sanction politicians and public officials who were caught in conflicts of interest.18 The government and the ruling majority insisted that the new law is a step forward in the committee’s powers, and that lawmakers were obliged to change the law due to a 2019 Constitutional Court ruling,19 as well as a 2021 Higher Administrative Court ruling20 that basically decreed that committee decisions based on the general application of principles of action were against the law. However, critics, including the current committee head Nataša Novaković,21 as well as former committee head and current MP Dalija Orešković, pointed out that the new law serves only to hollow out the institution, leaving the committee with almost no power to pursue potential conflict-of-interest cases.22 They stress that the committee ran into problems only after it started looking into PM Plenković’s possible conflicts of interests, which, according to them, prompted both the Constitutional Court and the Administrative Court23 to act in defense of the country’s most powerful political actor.24
  • Further deterioration in Croatia’s democratic climate has been linked to the election of the Supreme Court president (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”) as well as the continued takeover of independent institutions and oversight agencies by HDZ party members and officials.25 Other institutions critical of the government, like the Ombudswoman’s Office, have been regularly snubbed by the governing majority, as their reports have gone unacknowledged and their criticisms and concrete recommendations have been ignored.26
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
  • Local elections were held in Croatia in 2021, with a first-round vote on May 16, and runoffs where needed on May 30, to elect mayors, municipal councils, county chiefs, and county assemblies. Election conditions were free and fair, but local and national CSOs emphasized some long-known issues, like problematic voter lists with names of deceased persons, or people fictively living in Croatia, or those who have moved but not yet stricken from the rolls.1
  • The turnout for the local elections held steady compared to 2017, with around 35.5 percent of eligible voters casting votes in the first round.2
  • Election monitoring by Gong concluded that around 600 calls from citizens concerning irregularities were received. These ranged from pandemic-related issues (voters in isolation or ill and not able to vote) to voters’ rolls (voters missing from lists, or noticing deceased relatives not purged from lists, or already marked as having voted).3
  • Gong also pointed out that some candidates had started to campaign even before the elections were announced, as well as used social media to push disinformation and discredit political opponents.4
  • Despite a ruling from the Constitutional Court, the government made no progress in reforming national-level electoral district boundaries to put them in line with constitutional and legal obligations.5
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
  • Civil society organizations (CSOs) were active in 2021 despite continued bureaucratization of their work, creating administrative and financial burdens in applying for grants or public funds. Apart from these everyday strains, CSOs also encountered issues with funding from the captured National Foundation for Civil Society Development, as well as high levels of distrust from both the political elite and the public.1 This negative public sentiment towards the civic sector comes from the perception that CSOs are “foreign agents” in Croatia, that they are siphoning public funds, and that they constitute a minority which pushes agendas and ideas that the majority does not care about. This attitude is part of an overall mistrust in many institutions that are focused on maintaining and safeguarding the democratic political process.2 Despite these obstacles, CSOs managed to shed light on many important issues, including the rights and mistreatment of migrants on the Croatian border, the over-taxation of women’s sanitary products, and corruption and other illegal practices, mostly at the local level.
  • At the same time, conservative and religious CSOs continued their push to curtail LGBT+ rights,3 especially regarding foster parenting rights for same-sex couples, as well as abortion rights. Some of these groups and their leaders joined the antigovernment protests against COVID-19 vaccinations and certificates.4
  • The 2021 Rule of Law Report by the European Commission (EC) pointed out that the government continued to pay lip service to developing and supporting the nongovernmental sector, both through new legislation and the work of existing government agencies.5 However, many of the most critical CSOs have been ignored, defamed, or attacked by government and party officials, especially those focused on exposing the harsh treatment of migrants on the Croatia-BiH border by the police and border patrol officers.6
  • Local CSOs in many areas of Croatia have become the last bastion of hope against the complete capture of public resources by local political and economic elites, especially with the almost complete disappearance of local independent media, and the disinterest of national media in local topics unless national actors are involved. In some areas, these civic sector activists managed to win in the 2021 local elections. For example, the Možemo! party, which won in the capital Zagreb, first emerged from activist circles.
  • Women’s rights activists and CSOs, like the Rijeka-based Pariter, brought public attention to the high price borne by some women and transgender men due to menstruation, calling for the governing majority to lower the value-added tax on sanitary products.7 Legislation that would accomplish this, introduced by the opposition MP Anka Mrak-Taritaš, was defeated by the HDZ and its coalition partners, which met with strong criticism by large swaths of the public.8
  • The HDZ continued to use veterans’ CSOs in its fight with President Milanović, showing once again that many veterans’ organizations are inextricably linked to the most dominant political party in Croatia, especially at the local level.9 Similarly, it was revealed that the head of the main student organization at the University of Zagreb is an HDZ member, continuing the long practice of the ruling party capturing student representation and using it as a springboard into politics for its younger members.10
  • President Milanović drew criticism for his harsh remarks towards the women’s rights CSO B.a.B.e., which had criticized his public stance on the national and global #MeToo movement.11
  • The end of the year saw an increased number of protests against potentially mandated vaccinations and actual EU- and government-mandated vaccination certificates used in public spaces. With several thousand demonstrators gathered in the streets of Zagreb, the protests called for the government’s resignation and became sporadically violent, with at least one attack on an RTL Hrvatska journalist that was condemned by all relevant political actors, including those who supported the protests.12
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
  • In June 2021, Kazimir Bačić, head of the public broadcaster, Croatian Radio Television (HRT), was arrested on corruption charges linked to the unlawful activities of the late Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić.1 Bačić was replaced in October by Robert Šveb, a close friend of Culture Minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek (HDZ), amid allegations of conflicts of interests from the opposition.2 Despite this leadership change, the public broadcaster continued to be a mouthpiece of the ruling party, serving softball interviews to the prime minister and other government officials.
  • In a peacemaking gesture, the new HRT chief dropped lawsuits against HRT journalists and the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND), which had been a staple of the former chief’s handling of both internal and external criticisms.3 This move did not alter the tough position that critical HRT journalists have found themselves in ever since the HDZ came to power in 2015. For example, the current HND president, Hrvoje Zovko, was again fired from HRT in March after a court had ordered the public media to reinstate him in the position from which he had been fired a few years earlier.4
  • Similarly, the media continued to be the focus of attacks from many local and national politicians, including the most powerful: Prime Minister Plenković5 and President Milanović.6
  • The EC’s 2021 Rule of Law Report pointed out that the Croatian media sector faces several problems, including the apparent lack of independence of the Agency for Electronic Media, an institution that HDZ captured almost immediately after coming back to power in 2015. Additionally, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) have been used as a way of seeding self-censorship in the media.7 A report by HND states that, as of July, 920 lawsuits had been brought against individual journalists or media outlets. Croatia’s top news website, Index.hr, faced no fewer than 65 lawsuits as of September 2021.8 The culture ministry promised to bring forward legislation that would help curtail the use of SLAPPs.9
  • The ministry also brought forward a modified version of the proposed new Electronic Media Law, after the first version was heavily criticized in 2020. The new proposal drew criticism as well but was nonetheless adopted by the Sabor in October.10 One new element of the law is its intent to stop the spread of hate speech online by fining commenters and obliging media outlets to stop the practice of allowing anonymous comments under their stories.11
  • During the year, courts continued to issue verdicts that undermined media independence. Some of the most scandalous involved instances of offending the honor and reputation of judges by reporting on their particular verdicts,12 such as the temporary injunction against the web portal H-Alter barring it from writing about the head of the Child and Youth Protection Center in Zagreb, where abusive practices were alleged to have taken place.13
  • Local media continued to struggle to maintain journalistic independence from local authorities, with many local media outlets, especially radio and TV, serves as mouthpieces for local political elites,14 who buy positive coverage with public funds allocated for the media as well as use advertising as a tool of pressure.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. 4.505 7.007
  • The single largest event on the local level before the elections was the death of the famously corrupt, five-term mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić, in early 2021.1 After his death and the local elections, the capital city got a new mayor, Tomislav Tomašević, from the left-green political platform Možemo! (We Can). Immediately, Zagreb’s new government was confronted with many problematic decisions left over from the previous administration, including the highly suspect contract for waste disposal with the controversial businessman Petar Pripuz.2 Tomašević also had problems with the new management of Zagrebački holding, the largest city-owned firm, which brought him and his administration criticism for their apparent indecisiveness.3 The Zagreb and Zagrebački holding budgets were in the red to the tune of several hundred million Kuna,4 with the post-earthquake reconstruction of Zagreb now at a standstill5 and the highly centralized tax system proving to be a chokehold for local authorities.
  • The local elections largely confirmed the dominance of the ruling HDZ in the majority of Croatia’s municipalities and counties, especially those that suffered severe war damage during the early 1990s. However, the HDZ lost the mayorship in the second-largest city, Split, which elected a center-liberal mayor (Centar). The ruling party, for the first time, won the mayorship of the fourth-largest city, Osijek, consolidating its hold over eastern Croatia. Some symbolic prizes, however, escaped the HDZ, including Vukovar and Sisak.
  • The government-led reconstruction that began after the 2020 earthquake stalled not only in Zagreb but also in Sisak, Petrinja, and Glina.6 Although the government and HDZ-led local officials insisted that problems are vastly exaggerated, citizens were obviously still living in temporary shelters that were unsuitable for winter conditions. What little progress has been made has been achieved through private donations and CSO activities.7
  • The corrupt practices of local political elites are well-known (see “Corruption”) and have become a staple of political activities at the local level. It is taken as normal for local politicians to use public money and elected positions to buy loyalty not only from the media and local enterprises but from the local population as well, using employment opportunities, financial incentives like scholarships, or one-off payments, especially to pensioners during the holiday season or before elections. While a few independent media still report on corruption at the local level, repercussions from such activities are less and less common. Not only do political parties not punish such behavior by their members,8 neither does the State Prosecutors’ Office,9 or if it does, the courts render not-guilty verdicts.10 In the end, even citizens have stopped punishing cases of obvious malfeasance. The latest case in point is the November 2021 special election for head of Međimurje County. The special election occurred because former county head Matija Posavec resigned after being accused of accepting bribes. However, Posavec won the special election nevertheless, netting 80 percent of the votes from a 30 percent turnout.11
  • Posavec, and other similar cases, show not only that citizens, parties, and state institutions ignore the corruptive practices of local politicians, who suffer no repercussions, but that there is no public will to keep local authorities accountable. This allows officials to act out in a vengeful manner, for example, by firing whistleblowers who expose corruptive practices. This happened on at least two occasions in 2021, where authorities used their dominance over local public enterprises to fire individuals responsible for exposing corruption, sometimes with the help of the judiciary.12
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
  • In its Rule of Law Reports, the European Commission (EC) continued to focus on technical improvements of the Croatian judicial system, praising the continued decrease in the backlog of cases and further digitalization of the system.1
  • Despite these optimistic technical trends, the EC’s 2021 report also noted that the perceived independence of the justice system remains low,2 with a majority of the public showing lack of trust in the judiciary. This can be attributed to the State Prosecutor’s Office and its dependence to the political elite, especially the ruling HDZ, as well as the lack of self-criticism within the State Judicial Council as the judiciary’s main self-regulatory body. All of this is a product of the HDZ’s almost complete capture of the judicial system in the early 1990s3 and the subsequent purge of judges deemed disloyal to the ruling party.4
  • After years of waiting, October finally saw the public release of financial disclosure forms by judges and state prosecutors.5 This move at last fulfilled an obligation demanded by law, putting judges and prosecutors on the same level of transparency as members of parliament, government officials, and other bodies serving in the public interest.
  • The greatest scandal during the year was the arrest of several judges accused in the Zdravko Mamić case (see “Corruption”) wherein the State Judicial Council issued only suspensions.6 The scandal revealed that some judges had received no security checks for more than a decade despite the legal obligation for checks to be performed every five years.7
  • After the Constitutional Court decided in 2020 that the High Criminal Court’s existence is not unconstitutional, the HCC—whose role, according to the government, is to serve as the court of appeals in criminal cases with the aim to unburden the Supreme Court and to equalize the judgments of lower level courts in criminal cases—started working on January 1, 2021.8 Critics insisted, however, that the HCC is usurping the Supreme Court’s prerogatives and will ultimately serve to safeguard members of the political elite should they ever end up with a guilty verdict. These criticisms grew louder once it was rumored that the new HCC president would be the controversial judge Ivan Turudić, close to the HDZ.9 In the end, Turudić lost out to Željko Horvatović, a judge who has ruled on some of the most high-profile cases of political corruption.10
  • The selection of the new Supreme Court president in 2021 was used as another opportunity for the political conflict between the government and President Milanović, as well as between the Supreme Court justices and the president. Believing that 2018 changes to the nomination procedure for the president of the Supreme Court 11 infringed on his constitutional rights and duties, Milanović ignored them, nominating criminal law professor Zlata Đurđević.12 After the Constitutional Court decided Milanović’s action was unlawful,13 and almost all parliamentary parties said they would vote against Đurđević, Milanović relented and accepted the right of the State Judiciary Council to open a call for applications before the president could select a candidate to send to the Sabor. Although Milanović’s nominee applied,14 the parliament voted against her, with the governing parties insisting she was tainted by the process and Milanović stating that the governing parties did not want an independent court president.15 After several months of back and forth, the parliamentary majority finally accepted the candidate Radovan Dobronić, Milanović’s second pick. Judge Dobronić was not the Supreme Court justices’ favorite, and a last-minute maneuver by the HDZ (unsuccessfully) attempted to position then-deputy court president Marin Mrčela to succeed the controversial outgoing court president Đuro Sessa.16 But legal experts concurred that Dobronić is a much better pick compared to Sessa, and that the judiciary has a good chance of becoming at least slightly more independent under Dobronić’s Supreme Court presidency.17
  • The government’s decision to reform legislation on the Conflicts of Interest Committee (see “National Democratic Governance”) was compelled by rulings of the Constitutional Court and the Administrative Court. In striking down decisions by the Conflicts of Interest Committee, the Administrative Court has become a bulwark against the committee’s prosecution of cases concerning high-profile political actors, including PM Plenković, thereby hollowing out the role of the committee as an independent regulatory body.
  • In November, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Croatia in a case where pushbacks on its borders had caused the death of an Afghan girl, Madina Hussiny, in 2017.18 Although executive and judicial institutions in Croatia claimed no culpability by the state, the Strasbourg court ruled that border pushbacks are illegal and a human rights violation. In response, Croatian police and border patrol, as well as Interior Minister Davor Božinović, insisted that the country was doing nothing illegal and that police safeguard borders in compliance with EU rules. However, several domestic and international news outlets published videos in October showing proof of pushbacks, thus confirming what many CSOs, including the Center for Peace Studies, had claimed for years.19 Confronted with the video evidence, Božinović and the government called it an isolated incident by overzealous police officers, who were promptly put on administrative leave pending investigation. Amid the controversy, Božinović refused to resign,20 and PM Plenković gave full support to one of his most important associates.
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. 3.504 7.007
  • In October, the Sabor adopted a new strategy for fighting corruption with the bare parliamentary minimum of 76 votes in favor.1 The opposition and some critical media insisted that the strategy was full of general positions but lacked many concrete measures to fight one of the most visible problems in the Croatian political system and society at large.2 The parliament’s strategy recognized some priority areas, including public procurement; however, it continued to insist that corruption is an individual vice of a few rotten apples within the system. It offered solutions, like stronger ethics codes and further education of public administration employees, which are needed but insufficient in a situation where corruption is all-encompassing and linked to the ruling party and its captured institutions.
  • The EC’s 2021 Rule of Law Report once again highlighted public procurement procedures as one of the high-risk areas for corruption, while there is also a need to fully legislate so-called revolving-door procedures, as well as strengthen the prosecution and investigation of high-level corruption. In these cases, prosecutions are rarely launched after the preliminary inquiry by the State Prosecutor’s Office, or when they do begin, the protracted proceedings in front of the judiciary either severely delay convictions or push cases beyond the statute of limitation.3 The focus, therefore, needs to be on fighting corruption, especially at the local level, as well as on strengthening the independence of the judiciary, according to EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders.4
  • Despite the EC’s mildly optimistic assessment, corruptive practices in Croatia have continued unimpeded. The two most-pronounced areas in 2021 were local politics (see “Local Democratic Governance”) and the judiciary. Notably, several judges from Osijek were arrested after being accused of corruption by Zdravko Mamić,5 a Croatian fugitive now living in BiH who, in 2018, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for siphoning 116 million Kuna from FC Dinamo, a champion Croatian soccer club.6 Mamić alleged that he had bribed the judges to acquit him or at least issue a lenient sentence.7 This was just one in a slew of examples across Croatia of judges being caught fraternizing with either members of the ruling party8 or local tycoons,9 thus undermining the public’s perception of the independence of the judiciary. Croatia’s justice system is the least trusted in the EU, according to 2021 polling,10 while 41 percent of Croatians believe corruption in the country increased since 2020.11
  • The Supreme Court finally ruled in the long-running Fimi Media case in which the HDZ and former prime minister Ivo Sanader stood accused of siphoning public funds from state enterprises through the Fimi Media marketing company. State enterprises were paying overinflated prices to Fimi Media for marketing services, with the HDZ and Sanader himself using the funds to covertly and illegally influence elections, buy off critical media, and enrich party coffers. Opened in 2011, the case was finally brought to a close in October with a guilty verdict and seven-year prison sentence for Sanader.12 At the same time, the HDZ was sentenced to a fine of around 18 million Kuna, which the HDZ paid despite current party president and PM Plenković insisting that his new HDZ is nothing like the old HDZ.13 Two weeks later, the same court upheld a guilty verdict against Sanader in the INA-MOL corruption case.14
  • Plenković’s comment about “his new HDZ” was soon put to the test when, in November, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) issued an arrest order for Gabrijela Žalac, an EU funds minister in Plenković’s previous government and a top official in the current HDZ.15 Žalac is accused of defrauding EU funds by overpaying for software through a public procurement bid that benefited a single bidder, also accused in the case, and another HDZ member, the chief of SAFU, the national agency for overseeing implementation and financing of EU-funded projects.
  • This case showed once again the stranglehold that the HDZ has over independent institutions in Croatia, including those tasked with overseeing HDZ activities and its government. Those institutions that remain independent, like the Conflicts of Interest Committee, are in the party’s crosshairs (see “National Democratic Governance”). Although there are many cases of such institutional capture, nowhere is it more visible than in the justice system in general and the State Prosecutors’ Office in particular. Although Plenković used the Supreme Court ruling against Sanader and the HDZ to insist there is no party dominance over the judiciary, many cases point to the contrary.
  • In this regard, Žalac is a good case study. The media first broke the story of her potential corruptive practices in 2019. Croatian prosecutors looked into the matter and concluded that there were no visible corrupt activities, closing the case. Once the EPPO-delegated prosecutor reopened the case in the second half of 2021, the Croatian prosecutor’s office and the head of the main anticorruption office (USKOK) tried to backpedal, insisting that the case was never closed and that they were doing preliminary evidence-gathering, which was then transferred to the EPPO, a remark the EPPO-delegated prosecutor in Zagreb rebuked.16 However, as part of a trend, the State Prosecutor closed more than 90 percent of all cases without investigation, the majority of which were cases of political corruption involving members of the political elite.17
  • A 2021 monitoring report by the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) found that Croatia had not fully implemented any of the body’s 17 recommendations for strengthening the country’s anticorruption mechanisms.18

Author:

Dario Čepo is Associate Professor at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Law, where he teaches courses in sociology and political science. He received a PhD in comparative politics in 2010 from the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. In 2013–14, he was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City, and in 2022 a JESH Visiting Fellow at the University of Salzburg, Austria. His major research interests are political institutions, democratic backsliding, and the European Union. He is the author of several scientific articles, the book Političke institucije Europske unije (Political Institutions of the European Union, 2013), and the university handbook Uvod u političku znanost (Introduction to Political Science, 2014, co-authored with Slaven Ravlić).

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