Freedom in the World
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Croatia received an upward trend arrow due to the second smooth transition of power since 1999 and the improved cooperation of the new government with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Croatia marked an important success in its foreign policy in June 2004 when it was invited to begin negotiations on entering the European Union (EU). The invitation was issued after the winner of Croatia's November 2003 parliamentary elections, the right-of-center Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), convinced European diplomats and officials of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that it was making serious progress in cooperating with the court, creating a more hospitable environment for refugee return, and repairing relations with its neighbors.
As part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia held its first multiparty elections in 1990, electing Franjo Tudjman, a former Communist general turned nationalist politician, as president in May 1990. Tudjman's HDZ ruled Croatia from 1990 to 1999. As rival nationalisms competed with each other in Croatia during 1990 and 1991, Croatia's Serb population in the region known as Krajina declared 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 either fled or was forcibly expelled from Krajina during Croatian military offensives to establish control over the contested territory.
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 president. In legislative elections that also took place in January 2000, a center-left coalition wrested control of parliament from the HDZ. The leader of the SDP (the former League of Communists of Croatia), Ivica Racan, was named prime minister.
In Croatia's latest parliamentary elections, held on November 23, 2003, the HDZ, together with its new leader, Dr. Ivo Sanader, gained 66 seats, making the HDZ the strongest party in the new 152-member parliament and ending three years of a relatively weak SDP-led coalition government. Because of international objections to the formation of a coalition majority government with extreme right-wing nationalist parties, Sanader decided to lead a minority government with the support of the Independent Democratic Serb Party, the Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU), the Croatian Peasants Party (HSS), and representatives of Croatia's Italian minority.
The HDZ's return to power was viewed with caution because of the party's history of engaging in nationalist demagogy, its meddling in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its poor record in dealing with Croatia's ethnic minorities. Prime Minister Sanader has claimed that the party is now "reformed" and has evolved into a normal European Christian-democratic party purged of extremists, but many of its more controversial figures from the past remain in influential positions. It is widely believed, however, that only a party with strong nationalist credentials such as the HDZ will have the strength to extradite Croatian citizens indicted by the ICTY, one of the most important preconditions for Croatia's entry into the EU.
In June 2004, Croatia's application for EU membership was accepted. The decision was viewed as a major victory for the Sanader government, which, immediately upon coming to office, embarked on a series of initiatives intended to assure the EU that despite its nationalist past, the HDZ would back up its promises and prove itself to be a more moderate force. Sanader, for instance, immediately began reaching out to the Serbian community in Croatia, visiting the former World War II concentration camp of Jasenovac (where tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma were killed), and unequivocally denouncing the crimes that had been committed there - a move unimaginable for his more extreme nationalist predecessors in the HDZ, and even too politically dangerous for the left-center leaders of the previous coalition government. Nevertheless, quick accession to the EU is not guaranteed for Croatia; EU leaders continue to demand numerous potentially painful reforms and initiatives from the Croatian government, including full cooperation with the ICTY, more action on facilitating the return of Serb refugees, and more effort on the part of Croatia to improve regional cooperation, accelerate judicial reform, and fight against corruption. It is unclear whether Croatia can satisfactorily complete all these requirements in time to catch up with Bulgaria and Romania when they are scheduled to join the EU in 2007.
Croatian voters can change their government democratically. Since 2000, there have been two peaceful transfers of power in the country. The parliamentary elections of November 2003 were contested by a record 34 candidates competing for each of the 152 seats in parliament. Although the elections were generally free and fair, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) expressed concern over the short time frame available for election administration, the lack of accessibility for out-of-country voters, particularly for refugees in Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the lack of transparency in campaign financing. Respect for the separation of powers in the Croatian political system remains problematic, and there have been numerous cases in recent years in which the executive or legislative branches of government have failed to abide by or implement decisions made by the Constitutional Court.
Croatia was ranked 67 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. During the course of the year, Sanader's government was plagued by corruption scandals affecting the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, both old-guard HDZ officials from the 1990s. As in other parts of the Balkans, a nexus of official security institutions, networks supporting fugitive war criminals, and "legitimate" businesspeople is often at the center of many corruption cases.
Croatia's constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press. On the whole, freedom of the media is respected in Croatia, but more reform of government media regulations is needed. The most important media outlet, HRT (Croatian Radio andTelevision), is still under substantial political control, despite long-running efforts to transform it into a European-style public service broadcaster. Most observers regard the 2003 Law on Croatian Radio and Television to be a step backwards in terms of promoting the institution's independence. Journalistic freedom also remains weak; in a 2003 survey, half of the journalists questioned claimed that they do not feel free in their work. The penal code still allows for prison sentences for journalists found guilty of defamation and libel. There are no governmental restrictions with respect to Internet access.
Respect for freedom of religion has increased in Croatia in the post-Tudjman period, although ethnic and religious minorities enjoy these rights to a significantly lesser degree than do ethnic Croatians. The overwhelming majority of Croatians are Roman Catholic. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church has a considerable degree of power and influence in the country and enjoys a favored position in many respects; for example, the state-run HRT provides up to 10 hours a month of coverage of Catholic events. The Catholic Church in Croatia also has considerable influence over social policies in the country, and in recent years has campaigned against a variety of proposals, ranging from school plans to introduce yoga classes into school curriculums (for fear of spreading Buddhist practices) to campaigns against Sunday business hours. Restitution of properties confiscated during the Communist period for the Orthodox and Jewish communities is believed to lag behind settlement of such problems with the Roman Catholic Church. There were also numerous reports of vandalism against Serbian Orthodox sites during the year. There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and assembly. A wide variety of both international and domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Croatia, and there were no reported instances of governmental harassment of NGOs during the year. The constitution allows workers to form and join trade unions, and they do so freely. Approximately 64 percent of the workforce is unionized.
Croatia's judicial system suffers from numerous problems, including 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 1.4 million in 2003); 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. Nevertheless, in June, ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte announced that she was satisfied with the cooperation she was receiving from the Croatian government.
In July, Human Rights Watch reported that "bias and a lack of legal professionalism" are characteristic of Croatian war crimes trials. However, there are indications that Croatia has become more willing to honor international obligations to prosecute and/or apprehend individuals accused of war crimes. In October, a judge in Split ordered the arrest of eight police officers who had previously been accused of killing and abusing Serb prisoners in the Lora prison, but had been released after controversial court proceedings in 2002. Prison conditions generally meet acceptable international standards, and the police are considered to act professionally. However, there are reports that police treat ethnically minorities more harshly than they do ethnic Croatians.
According to international monitoring organizations, Croatia continues to fail to live up to obligations, stemming from its accession to the Council of Europe in 1996, to adopt nondiscriminatory laws relating to ethnic minorities. A U.S. State Department report released in 2003 said, "A pattern of often open and severe discrimination continues against ethnic Serbs and, at times, other minorities in a wide number of areas, including the administration of justice, employment, housing, and freedom of movement."
The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. Domestic violence against women is believed to be a widespread and underreported phenomenon. In July 2003, parliament passed a Law on Gender Equality intended to further empower women in the workplace and public life. Women currently make up 27 of the 152 members of parliament, and there are 4 women in the 15-member cabinet. Trafficking in women for the purposes of prostitution continues to be a problem. Croatia is considered to be primarily a transit country for most trafficked women sent to Western Europe.