Freedom in the World
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Croatia received a downward trend arrow due to the government's refusal to extradite indicted war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; continuing indications of ethnic bias in the country's judiciary system; and ongoing difficulties in allowing refugees to reclaim their homes and property.
In 2002, Croatia faced another year led by a weak coalition government facing a domestic economic crisis, pressure to cooperate more fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as pressure from the international community to accept tens of thousands of refugees driven from the country in 1995.
In its first multiparty elections in the post-Communist period, Croatia elected Franjo Tudjman, a former Communist-turned-nationalist general, as president in May 1990. Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), ruled Croatia from 1990 to 1999. As rival nationalisms competed with each other in Croatia in 1990-1991, Croatia's Serb population in the border region known as the Krajina declared their independence from Croatia, even as Croatia itself was declaring its independence from the former Yugoslavia. The result was a de facto partition of the country between 1991 and 1995. In May and August 1995, a majority of the Serb population of Croatia was forcibly expelled or took flight from Krajina during Croatian military offensives to establish control over the disputed areas.
On December 11, 1999, Tudjman died, and in the subsequent extraordinary presidential elections in January 2000, Stjepan Mesic of the Croatian People's Party (HNS) was elected the new president. In legislative elections that also took place in January 2000, two center-left coalitions wrested control of parliament from the HDZ. The leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP, the former League of Communists of Croatia), Ivica Racan, was named the new prime minister.
In September 2002, the reputation of the Racan government was seriously damaged by its refusal to turn over retired Croatian army chief of staff General Janko Bobetko, who had been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The issues of dealing with war crimes and cooperating with the ICTY have been painful ones for Croatia in recent years and have repeatedly threatened to destabilize the Croatian government in the post-Tudjman period. In February 2002, five ministers in Racan's government--all of whom were from the coalition's second-largest party, the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS)--resigned from the government over disagreements as to how to cooperate with the ICTY. The Racan government faced further difficulties that summer when the bodies of 18 Serb civilians murdered during the war were discovered 500 kilometers from the site of the massacre. Former Croatian state officials at the highest levels appear to have been implicated in the massacre.
The Racan government's weak political position was made plain in July, when Racan himself tendered his resignation after a majority of representatives from the HSLS, the second-largest party in his ruling five-party coalition, refused to support an agreement he had negotiated with neighboring Slovenia regarding the decommissioning of the Krsko nuclear power station. Racan was able to reform a new government by the end of the month, but its position remained precarious. Because of such problems, much important legislation, such as the new Constitutional Law on National Minorities (intended, partly, to increase representation of national minorities in parliament), could not be passed through the legislative process in 2002.
Croatian voters can change their government democratically. The constitution guarantees citizens age 18 or older the right to universal and equal suffrage. The presidential and parliamentary elections in 2000 were peaceful, free, and fair, with voter turnout registering more than 60 percent of the electorate in both rounds of voting. In 2000, Croatia's new leaders linked the restoration of civil liberties with reductions in presidential power. Respect for the separation of powers in the Croatian political system, however, still faces some problems, as there have been numerous cases in recent years in which the executive or legislative branch has failed to abide by or implement decisions made by the Constitutional Court.
Croatia's judicial system suffers from numerous problems: a large number of judicial vacancies and a shortage of experienced judges, both of which have led to a huge backlog of cases (estimated at 1.2 million as of May 2002); excessive trial length; and a lack of enforcement of judicial decisions, especially in cases relating to the repossession of property owned by Serbs. The judicial system also faces considerable intimidation in the (always difficult) field of war crimes prosecutions. In the Rijeka-based trial of the Gospic Group, indicted for the murders of several civilians during the war, the presiding judge received death threats in March, while in the Lora case involving the murder of prisoners of war, several witnesses were forced by threats to recant their testimony.
According to international observers, Croatia continues to fail to live up to obligations stemming from accession to the Council of Europe in 1996 to adopt nondiscriminatory laws relating to ethnic minorities. In a status report issued in May, the OSCE found discrimination against ethnic minorities is manifested in a nontransparent and incomplete legal framework for the return and repossession of property by refugees, shortcomings in the legal system, a lack of financial resources, and obstruction by local officials.
Croatia's constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press. Although Croatia boasts lively media, local outlets (especially in former war zones) are believed to face much greater pressure than more prominent national media. In Croatia's highly charged political atmosphere some degree of self-censorship is still visible. In February 2002, Croatian state television decided to cancel the broadcast of a documentary on the World War II Croatian fascist movement, the Ustasa, which drew parallels with the policies of the Tudjman regime in the 1990s, for fear of political repercussions. Also in February, state prosecutors announced that they were considering charges against a television talk-show host who had aired a program examining corruption in Croatia's judiciary. In March, a court ordered the Split-based newsweekly Feral Tribune to pay some 200,000 kuna (approximately U.S.$25,000) to plaintiffs for "mental anguish" caused by articles written in 1993 and 1995. On a better note, however, in February the government passed a new draft law on media, the major objective of which was the regulation of media ownership, reflecting government concerns about the potential dominance of the Croatian media by a few large financial groups or media conglomerates. Croatian government officials in 2002 also acknowledged the need to reform state-owned Croatian Radio and Television, the primary source of information for most citizens.
Respect for freedom of religion, and for freedom of association and assembly has increased in Croatia in the post-Tudjman period, although ethnic minorities enjoy these rights to a significantly lesser degree than ethnic Croatians. The overwhelming majority of Croatians are Roman Catholic. Consequently, the Church has a considerable degree of power and influence, as was evidenced in July 2002 when the Racan government was forced to cancel its plans to nominate Neven Budak, a historian critical of various policies favored by the Church, under severe pressure from the Church's hierarchy. The case reignited concerns about an increasing clericalization of polity and society in post-Communist Croatia. The conservative wing of the Roman Catholic hierarchy has also opposed Croatia's cooperation with the ICTY and criticized several domestic trials of individuals accused of war crimes.