Croatia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Croatia's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2 due to the post-Tudjman leadership's continued improvement in the protection of civil liberties and its pursuit of important, though often unpopular, economic and social reforms.


In 2001, Croatia celebrated its tenth anniversary of independence from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Although the autocratic regime of Franjo Tudjman cast a pall over the country in the 1990s, the election of President Stjepan Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan in 2000 signaled a new era. Since then, Croatia has made positive changes, including reducing presidential powers, restoring independence to state and private media, and rooting out corruption.

In 2001, Croatia and the European Union (EU) concluded a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a framework for reforms the country must make as a potential candidate for EU membership. Parliament also approved important reform laws and adopted a constitutional amendment that abolished its upper chamber, the House of Counties. The country's leadership faced months of public protests for its decision to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) in the pursuit of Croatian war-crimes suspects. It also endured criticism for its decision to pursue difficult economic reforms.

In May 1990, Croatia elected Franjo Tudjman president. When the country declared independence the following year, civil conflict erupted in Serb enclaves of the country and the Yugoslav army invaded. One-third of Croatia remained under Serb control until 1995, when Tudjman launched an offensive to reclaim the territory. Ethnic Serbs fled Croatia in masses. Despite plans with Slobodan Milosevic to partition Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tudjman was prominent in the 1995 Dayton peace process that ended the Bosnian war.

Throughout the 1991--1995 period, Tudjman used Croat nationalism to build a strong base of support. He also began to plunder state coffers, suppress the media, and subordinate the government and the judiciary to his personal and political whims. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was victorious in free, but not fair, parliamentary elections in 1995 and 1997. Tudjman was reelected in an unfair election in 1997. On December 11, 1999, he died.

The first round of voting in an extraordinary presidential election took place on January 24, 2000. Stjepan Mesic of the Croatian People's Party (HNS) and Drazen Budisa of the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) advanced to a second round, which Mesic won with 56 percent of the vote. In legislative elections that also took place in January 2000, two center-left coalitions wrested control of parliament from the HDZ. Ivica Racan, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), became prime minister.

Opposition candidates in both elections campaigned against the HDZ's abuses of power under Tudjman and promised to rebuild Croatia's credibility as a Western democratic nation. Since then, Croatia has been invited to join the World Trade Organization and NATO's Partnership for Peace and has taken steps toward membership in the EU. In 2001, Croatia's new leadership continued to fulfill promises of reform by adopting laws that strengthened the independence of the state prosecutor's office, created the Office for Fighting Corruption and Organized Crime, made it easier for associations to register with the state, and transformed Croatian Radio and Television (HRT) and the Croatian News Agency (HINA) into public institutions.

When President Mesic and Prime Minister Racan came to power, they also agreed to fulfill Croatia's obligations to Bosnia under the 1995 Dayton peace accord. They pledged to cooperate with the ICTFY in its investigation of war crimes, including those committed by Croatian citizens. In 2001, the Council of Europe called Croatia's decision to deliver Generals Rahim Ademi and Ante Gotovina to The Hague a testimony "to the strength of [the country's] commitment to justice, the rule of law and respect for its international obligations."

Domestically, however, the decision to extradite Ademi and Gotovina compelled four HSLS ministers to resign and forced Prime Minister Racan to call a confidence vote, which he survived. Likewise, when the government summoned retired General Mirko Norac to answer charges of war crimes, Norac's supporters set up roadblocks and staged protests that ranged in size from a few hundred to nearly 100,000 participants. The group Headquarters for the Protection of Homeland War Values demanded a national referendum on the rights of military leaders and veterans who served during the civil conflict. More than 400,000 citizens signed a petition in support of a referendum.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Croatian voters can change their government democratically. The constitution guarantees citizens age 18 or older the right to universal and equal suffrage. In 2000, Croatia's new leaders linked the restoration of civil liberties with reductions in presidential power. To that end, parliament approved a constitutional amendment that transformed the country's semipresidential system into a parliamentary one. In 2001, parliament passed another amendment that abolished its upper house. Supporters of the amendment argued that the chamber's limited powers prevented it from playing a serious role in government and drained resources from the state budget. Opponents, mainly followers of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), accused the government of a politically motivated move. Through its control of the upper house, the HDZ had been able to delay reform-minded legislation. Had the chamber not been abolished, the HDZ was expected to retain control in the next round of elections.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in 2000 were peaceful, free, and fair. Thirteen candidates successfully registered for the presidential election. The leading contenders were Mate Granic of Tudjman's HDZ, Stjepan Mesic of the Croatian People's Party (HNS), and Drazen Budisa of the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS). In the first round Mesic received 41.11 percent of the vote; Budisa, 27.71 percent; and Mate Granic, 22.47 percent. Only Mesic and Budisa advanced to the second round, which Mesic won with 56 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was 63 percent in round one and 61 percent in round two.

A total of 282 candidates participated in the election to the lower house of parliament. A center-left coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the HSLS won 71 seats with nearly 49 percent of the vote. A coalition of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Liberal Party (LS), the HNS, and the Istrian Democratic Party (IDS) took 24 seats with 16.44 percent of the vote. Together, these two coalitions took control of parliament from the HDZ, which won only 46 seats, or 31.5 percent of the vote. A right-wing coalition of the Croatian Christian Democratic Union and the Croatian Party of Rights also won 5 seats with 3.52 percent of the vote.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has criticized repeatedly Croatia's Law on Citizenship for favoring ethnic Croats over minorities. For example, unlike Croats in Bosnia, Serbs in exile have had difficulty proving their Croatian citizenship and, therefore, exercising their right to vote. The 1999 parliamentary election law guarantees five seats for ethnic minorities. In 2001, the OSCE criticized the government for lack of progress in the return of refugees. Of the estimated 300,000 Serbs who left Croatia in the 1990s, only about 80,000 have returned. The Ministry for Reconstruction reported in December 2001 that 53,144 refugees, including 28,281 Serbs, had returned to the country since early 2000.

Croatia's constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Although President Franjo Tudjman suppressed independent media and put state media under his control, Croatia's new leadership has removed Tudjman loyalists from senior positions at Croatian Radio and Television (HRT) and has vowed to foster an environment in which independent media can flourish. Early in 2001, for example, parliament adopted legislation intended to free HRT of political influence. The law called for turning the broadcaster into a public service corporation, selecting its director and editors in chief in open competitions, and allowing nongovernmental associations to appoint 22 of 25 members on its governing council. In October, HRT chairman Ante Covic resigned and accused Mirko Galic, HRT's director, of obstructing the reforms. The same month, parliament approved the transformation of the state news agency, Hina, into an independent institution as well. In November, the Interior Ministry gave Croatian citizens access to 650 files that the Tudjman-era secret police had assembled.

Respect for freedom of religion, association, and assembly has increased in Croatia in the post-Tudjman period. In 2001, trade unions organized protests against economic reforms that had led to layoffs and salary reductions for employees of the postal service and other public entities. In addition, thousands of veterans and supporters of the HDZ rallied against the government's pursuit of suspected Croatian war criminals.

Croatia's constitution guarantees equality before the law. Under the Tudjman regime, though, persons could be denied the right to a fair trial, judicial appointments were politically motivated, and the security services served the president's needs. Likewise, when Stjepan Mesic became president, he discovered in Tudjman's office more than 830 cassettes and 14,000 transcripts that were rife with evidence of corruption. Since then, powerful business executives, sporting officials, and members of Tudjman's family have been arrested or have come under investigation for bribery and embezzlement.

In 2001, the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) to allow Croatian courts to investigate and try suspected war criminals signaled further progress in judicial reform. As Prime Minister Racan stated, "We know that The Hague tribunal was formed because [the West] did not consider certain countries . . . capable of handling war crimes committed on their own territory. The Croatian government thinks it is capable of doing it, and we want to prove it." However, in November, a judge postponed the trial of General Mirko Norac for the fifth time. According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news report, the Croatian government "has opened a number of other cases in which Serbs were the victims, but no one has yet been brought to trial." The constitutional court received two requests in 2001 to review Croatia's law on cooperation with the ICTFY. In other news, the East European Constitutional Review noted that the election in 2001 of Ivica Crnic to head the supreme court was seen as "a step in the right direction in the reformation and creation of an independent judiciary."

Although the constitution states that "entrepreneurial and market freedom are the basis of the economic system," Croatian citizens found these freedoms difficult to exercise under Tudjman, who fostered an environment in which bribery and embezzlement were commonplace, privatization programs lacked transparency, and individuals were frequently deprived of salaries and pensions. Croatia's new leadership has launched an aggressive economic reform program, but high unemployment--more than 20 percent in 2001--and policies that have resulted in lower wages and job losses in the public sector have made it a target of criticism and public protest.