Freedom in the World
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In October 2005, the European Union (EU) opened preliminary membership talks with Croatia after an eight-month delay due to the country's failure to capture top Croatian war crimes suspect, General Ante Gotovina. The incumbent president, Stjepan Mesic of the Croatian People's Party (HNS), was reelected in the January 2005 elections, defeating the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) candidate, Jadranka Kosor.
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 Croatian Democratic Union (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.
Tudjman died on December 11, 1999, and in the subsequent extraordinary presidential elections in January 2000, Mesic 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-now the Social Democratic Party of Croatia), Ivica Racan, was named prime minister.
On November 23, 2003-in the latest parliamentary elections-the HDZ, together with its new leader, Dr. Ivo Sanader, gained 66 seats. The HDZ became the strongest party in the new 152-member parliament, 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 (SDSS), the Croatian Pensioner Party (HSU), the Croatian Peasant 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. However, under Sander's leadership, the party appears to have evolved into a standard European Christian-democratic party purged of extremists, although some of its more controversial figures from the past remain in influential positions. The Sander-led government has been working actively to facilitate the return of refugees to their homes, repair war-damaged houses, and improve minority rights in order to meet the basic conditions for the EU accession.
Croatia held presidential elections over two rounds in January 2005. Mesic, the incumbent, won with 66 percent of the vote against Kosor, the HDZ candidate and deputy prime minister. Local elections for municipal and city councils and county assemblies were held on May 14. According to the local nongovernmental organization GONG, the elections were generally conducted "in accordance with the election legislation," although a few serious violations occurred in out-of-country voting. A report from the European Commission concluded that these irregularities rose mainly from limitations in the voting procedure and management of the voters' lists, such as the lack of cross-checking between the diaspora voters' lists and the voters' lists inside the country.
In October 2005, the EU opened the first stage of membership talks with Croatia; the talks had been postponed in response to the failure of Croatian authorities to arrest Gotovina. Although Gotovina was still at large, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) noted positive efforts by the Croatian authorities to apprehend him, and provided a positive assessment of the country's cooperation with the tribunal. The EU, however, made it clear that anything less than full cooperation with the ICTY would halt the progress of the negotiations. In efforts to harmonize its laws with those of the EU, Croatia has passed several important governance reforms including modified elections code and anticorruption measures.
Citizens of Croatia 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 the unicameral Assembly. Although the elections were generally free and fair, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe 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 in Bosnia-Herzegovina), and the lack of transparency in campaign financing.
The president of Croatia is the head of state and is elected by popular vote for a five-year term, with a maximum of two terms. The prime minister is appointed by the president, but must be approved by the parliament. Both the January 2005 presidential elections and the local elections in May were assessed as generally free and fair, although problems were recorded with diaspora voting in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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. In 2005, several important pieces of legislation were passed to combat corruption. In March, the government strengthened the authority of the Office for the Prevention of Corruption and Organized Crime, and in July, the amended law against conflict of interest for public officials entered into force. Croatia was ranked 70 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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 and Television), is still under substantial political control, despite long-running efforts to transform it into a European-style public service broadcaster. Criminal libel remains a problem, and five journalists have received suspended prison sentences for libel since November 2004. The issue of war crimes remains a sensitive topic, and journalists face pressure and intimidation if their reporting challenges the virtue of the Croatian role in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The ICTY's 2005 indictment of journalists who had revealed the names of protected witnesses provoked a debate on journalistic ethics and the balance between media freedom and the respect for the rule of law. Access to the internet is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution; however, various ethnic minorities report continued incidents of intimidation and vandalism. In 2005, several Serbian Orthodox churches were vandalized. In April, for example, unknown persons sprayed fascist symbols on the Orthodox Church in Knin. In September, a group of young men broke into the Orthodox Eparchy in Sibenik, broke windows and furniture, and shouted ethnic slurs. 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 inefficiency. A large number of judicial vacancies and a shortage of experienced judges have led to a huge backlog of cases (estimated at 1.6 million in 2005). Excessive trial length and a lack of enforcement of judicial decisions, especially in cases relating to the repossession of property owned by Serbs, also plague the system. Further, impartiality of the local courts remains a problem: a high number of Serb returnees were arrested and pronounced guilty of war crimes, only to be later acquitted by the Supreme Court because of lack of evidence. In the period between January and July of 2005, 60 percent of local court verdicts in war crimes cases were overturned by the higher courts. Prison conditions generally meet acceptable international standards, and the police are considered to act professionally. There are reports that police treat ethnic minorities more harshly than they do ethnic Croatians.
Respect for minority rights has improved in Croatia in the post-Tudjman period, but various forms of harassment and discrimination still persist. A 2005 European Commission report notes that there is a gross underrepresentation of Serbs in local and regional governments, state administration, and judicial bodies. The authorities sometimes refuse to hire qualified Serbs even when no Croats apply for a position. Further, Serbs who attempt to return to their prewar property are frequently harassed by the local population. In May 2005, a Serb man was murdered near Zadar because of his ethnicity, and a bomb was detonated in the offices of a local Serb organization in Vukovar. In July 2005, unidentified persons severally beat two elderly Serb men and threw stones at the house of another recently returned refugee.
The Roma population in Croatia faces significant social and economic obstacles, and widespread discrimination. In March 2005, the government adopted a special action plan aimed to improve the conditions for Roma in employment, health, housing, and education. As an outcome of this plan, in May 2005 the government assigned a team of lawyers to provide free legal representation for Roma, and also created mobile health clinics as a way of providing basic health services to this population.
The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. Domestic violence against women is believed to be widespread and underreported. In July 2003, the Assembly passed a Law on Gender Equality intended to further empower women in the workplace and public life. Women currently make up 33 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.