Croatia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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In the 2007 parliamentary elections, the closest held since Croatia’s independence in 1991, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) won the most votes but remained shy of a majority. The incumbent prime minister, Ivo Sanader, was invited in December to form a new government. Meanwhile, prospects for the country’s eventual membership in the European Union and NATO remained encouraging.

As part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia held its first multiparty elections in 1990, choosing the nationalist Franjo Tudjman as president. His Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party ruled Croatia from 1990 to 1999. Even as the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the predominantly Serb region known as Krajina declared its independence from Croatia, resulting in a de facto partition. In 1995, Croatian military offensives overran the Serb enclave, and a majority of Croatia’s Serbs either fled or were forcibly expelled from the country.

Tudjman died in December 1999, and voters in a January 2000 presidential election chose Stjepan Mesic, who ran as a joint candidate of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Croatian People’s Party (HNS), the Liberal Party, and the Istrian Democratic Assembly. In legislative elections that also took place that month, 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.

The HDZ, under the leadership of Ivo Sanader, returned to power in November 2003 and repositioned itself as a standard European Christian-democratic party, although some of its more controversial nationalist figures remained in influential positions. Prime Minister Sanader’s government has since worked to facilitate the return of refugees, repair war-damaged houses, and improve minority rights in order to meet the conditions for European Union (EU) accession.

The EU opened the first stage of membership talks with Croatia in October 2005, after establishing that it was fully cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, the Netherlands. The top Croatian war crimes suspect, Ante Gotovina, was arrested in Spain in December 2005, but his trial, originally scheduled for May 2007, was delayed following a decision to remove three defense attorneys due to a potential conflict of interest. The government has continued to pay for Gotovina’s legal defense and has contributed to the defense fund for other Croatian war crimes suspects currently in The Hague.

After months of fierce campaigning, parliamentary elections were held in November 2007. The incumbent HDZ won a plurality of the votes (36.6 percent), and the SDP came in second with 31.2 percent. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the elections were free, fair, and transparent. New laws on the State Electoral Commission (SEC), voter lists, and party financing had been enacted in 2006 and 2007 to remedy previous electoral problems. Still, the OSCE noted that the government needed to implement additional steps, such as making the SEC permanent and adding a provision requiring full transparency in campaign spending.

On December 15, President Mesic asked Sanader to form the new government. According to the constitution, the president is obliged to give the first opportunity to form a government to the person he believes is most capable of achieving majority support.

Also in December, in a scandal that showcased uneasy connections between Croatian war crime suspects and top government officials, retired general Mladen Markac was photographed on a hunting trip with Interior Minister Ivica Kirin; the trip violated the terms of his provisional release by the ICTY. Markac, who was awaiting trial along with Gotovina and General Ivan Cermak, was accused of murdering and expelling the Serb population during the 1995 offensive to regain rebel Serb territories. The hunting incident prompted Kirin to resign, and Markac was transferred back to The Hague on December 30.

Following a series of high-level meetings in October and joint Croatia-NATO military exercises the same month, the Croatian foreign minister announced that Croatia would likely be invited to join NATO in April 2008. Moreover, following a fairly positive assessment by the European Commission in November 2007 and encouraging remarks by the EU’s commissioner for enlargement, it was expected that Croatia would join the EU in 2010, so long as it continued to pursue reform efforts aggressively.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Croatia is an electoral democracy. Both the January 2005 presidential poll and the November 2007 parliamentary elections were assessed as generally free and fair. The parliament is a unicameral body composed of 140 members from geographical districts, 8 representing ethnic minorities, and a variable number representing Croatians living abroad, for a current total of 153 members. All members are elected to four-year terms. The largest parties are the HDZ and SDP, but several smaller parties, including the HSS–Croatian Social Liberal Party coalition and the HNS, have been able to gain seats in the parliament. The president is 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.

Corruption remains a problem in Croatia, with a nexus of security institutions and businesspeople often at the center of corruption cases. However, according the 2007 European Commission report, the legal framework to combat corruption has improved, and the Office for the Fight against Corruption has become more active. In June, seven individuals from the Croatian Privatization Fund were arrested due to allegations that they solicited $4 million in bribes from investors interested in buying state-owned companies. The government claimed the arrests as a success, but the opposition said the state authorities had been too slow in uncovering the problem. Croatia was ranked 64 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press. These rights are generally respected, although several prominent journalists have alleged that the media are becoming increasingly beholden to the interests of powerful advertisers. In June 2006, the parliament amended the criminal code to remove prison sentences for libel. The most important media outlet, HRT (Croatian Radio and Television), remains vulnerable to political pressure despite long-running efforts to transform it into a European-style, public service broadcaster. Several acts of journalist intimidation were reported in 2007. Robert Valdec, anchor of a popular program on Nova TV, received threatening telephone and e-mail messages in late 2006 and early 2007. The home of a Globus magazine journalist, Gordan Malic, was burglarized several times, most recently in January 2007. Moreover, several press associations criticized the removal in April of the editor-in-chief of Radio Karlovac, alleging that the move was politically motivated. Access to the internet is unrestricted.

The issue of war crimes remains a sensitive topic, and journalists face pressure and intimidation if their reporting criticizes the Croatian role in the 1991–95 Balkans conflict. The ICTY’s 2005 and 2006 indictments of journalists who revealed the names of protected witnesses provoked a debate on journalistic ethics and the balance between media freedom and the rule of law. In November 2007, eight journalists were summoned by the ICTY over allegations that they had published confidential information regarding the charges against indicted Croatian generals. However, press freedom advocates argued that the information was published in the public interest and was already available in the public sphere.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. A group needs at least 500 members and to be registered as an association for five years in order to be recognized as a religious organization. Some international organizations have criticized these requirements as too restrictive. Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church continue to report incidents of intimidation and vandalism. However, the number of attacks decreased slightly in 2007.

The constitution provides for freedom of association and assembly. A variety of both international and domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Croatia, and there were no reported instances of governmental harassment of NGOs during 2007. In February and May, the parliament adopted laws to bring greater transparency in the allocation of state funding to NGOs and further stimulate the development of civil society. The constitution allows workers to form and join trade unions, and they do so freely. Approximately 64 percent of the workforce is unionized.

The judicial system suffers from numerous problems, most notably inefficiency. Judicial personnel shortages have led to a huge backlog of cases, though it decreased from an estimated 1.6 million in 2005 to 1.2 million in 2006 to 1 million in 2007. Excessive trial length and a lack of enforcement of judicial decisions, especially in cases related to the repossession of property owned by Serbs, also plague the system. Despite some improvements, a lack of impartiality among the local courts remains a problem, and ethnicity continues to be a factor in the prosecution and sentencing of war crimes suspects. Prison conditions in Croatia do not fully meet international standards due to overcrowding and poor medical care.

Respect for minority rights has improved since 1999, but various forms of harassment and discrimination persist. Ethnic minorities, particularly Serbs, are underrepresented 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. In May 2007, the government adopted the Civil Service Employment Plan, which will for the first time set predefined targets for minority hires at the national level. Many impediments to the sustainable return of Serb refugees remain, and Serbs who attempt to return to their prewar property are frequently harassed by the local population.

The Romany population faces significant social and economic obstacles, as well as widespread discrimination. In March 2005, the government adopted a special action plan 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. In July 2003, the parliament passed the Law on Gender Equality, intended to further empower women in the workplace and public life. Women secured 31 seats in the November election, slightly fewer than previously held at 33. Domestic violence against women is believed to be widespread and underreported. Trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution continues to be a problem, and Croatia is considered to be primarily a transit country for trafficked women sent to Western Europe. The government ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in June 2007.