Freedom in the World
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Croatia received an upward arrow due to the introduction of the definition of hate crimes in the Criminal Code.
In 2006, the government undertook a series of reforms necessary for Croatia to achieve full membership in the European Union (EU). The reforms included establishing an independent and professionalized electoral commission, abolishing the prison sentence for libel, and introducing the definition of hate crimes into the criminal code. In December 2005, the top Croatian war crimes suspect, Ante Gotovina, was arrested in Spain and transferred to The Hague.
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, Stjepan Mesic, running as a joint candidate of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Croatian People’s Party, the Liberal Party, and the Istrian Democratic Assembly, 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.
In the latest parliamentary elections held on November 23, 2003, 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 HSS, the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS), the Croatian Pensioner Party (HSU), 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 Sanader’s leadership, the party has arguably 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 Sanader-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 conditions for the European Union (EU) accession.
Croatia held presidential elections over two rounds in January 2005. Mesic, the incumbent, won with 66 percent of the vote against Jadranka Kosor, the HDZ candidate and deputy prime minister.
In October 2005, the EU opened the first stage of membership talks with Croatia after establishing that Croatia was fully cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The top Croatian war crimes suspect, Ante Gotovina, was arrested in Spain in December 2005. Since then, the Croatian government has paid for Gotovina’s legal defense and has contributed to the fund supporting the defense of other Croatian war crimes suspects currently in The Hague.
In efforts to harmonize its laws with those of the EU, the government introduced a new anticorruption program in March 2006, adopted a law establishing a professionalized and independent electoral commission, and abolished the prison sentence for libel. Moreover, Croatia included a definition of hate crimes in its criminal code and became the first country in the region to institute police training aimed to combat hate crimes.
Croatia’s relationship with Serbia continued to improve in 2006. In June, Serbian president Boris Tadic visited Croatia, and in July, the leadership of the two countries commemorated the birth of Nikola Tesla, a celebrated scientist of both Serbian and Croatian heritage. The two countries provisionally instituted visa-free travel and are moving to make the practice permanent. However, issues involving the return of refugees, particularly as related to property restitution and Croatia’s claim for compensation for war damage, remain unresolved.
Croatia is an electoral democracy. 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. Members of the Assembly are elected to four-year terms. 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 and 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 the appointment must be approved by the Parliament. Both the January 2005 presidential elections and the local elections in May 2005 were assessed as generally free and fair, although problems were recorded with diaspora voting in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Corruption remains a problem in Croatia. As in other parts of the Balkans, a nexus of official security institutions and “legitimate” businesspeople is often at the center of many corruption cases. In March, a new anticorruption program was adopted, drawing special attention to the traditionally corrupt institutions including the judiciary, health services, and public administration, though its implementation has been prolonged. Moreover, the government strengthened the authority of the Office for the Prevention of Corruption and Organized Crime. Croatia was ranked 69 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Croatia’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press. Freedom of the media is generally respected, although 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. In June, the Parliament passed an amendment to the criminal code that removes prison sentences for libel.
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. In December 2005, members of Parliament engaged in a heated debate over a popular weekly show on the state television, Latinica , which expressed a critical view of the late president Franjo Tudjman in one of its episodes. The debate led to a temporary dismissal of the show’s anchor, Denis Laitin, and Parliament’s refusal to approve the state television’s annual report. Laitin was reappointed only after an intense public campaign and outcries from the international community. Moreover, in December 2006 two HRT journalists were temporarily suspended for publicly broadcasting a speech from the early 1990s in which President Stjepan Mesic appeared to speak favorably about Croatia’s fascist past. Following the incident, Mesic publicly condemned the journalists’ suspension. The ICTY’s 2005 and 2006 indictments 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, members of the Serbian Orthodox Church continue to report incidents of intimidation and vandalism. For example, derogatory graffiti appeared on the walls of the Orthodox Church in Zadar. Moreover, the St. George church near Knin was vandalized twice in 2006. 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, most notably inefficiency. A large number of judicial vacancies and a shortage of experienced judges have led to a huge backlog of cases. However, the backlog has decreased from estimated at 1.6 million in 2005 to 1.2 million in 2006. 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, and although progress was noted in 2006, ethnicity continues to be a factor in determining against whom war crimes charges are being filed and the severity of sentencing. Prison conditions in Croatia do not fully meet international standards. According to the 2006 Ombudsman’s report, overcrowding and poor medical care are the main problems. Moreover, 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 2006 European Commission report notes that there is gross underrepresentation of Serbs in local and regional governments, state administration, and judicial bodies. The local 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. For example, in July 2006, the houses of three Serb returnees in Biljane Donje, a village in Northern Dalmatia, were vandalized. The police reacted quickly and arrested four men from the neighboring village. In 2006, the government put some effort into increasing interaction between Serb and Croat children, particularly in the areas affected by the war, who are currently attending school in different shifts.
The Roma population in Croatia faces significant social and economic obstacles, as well as 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. However, most Roma are excluded from mainstream society, and only 18 percent of those older than 15 were employed in 2006.
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 the 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.