Freedom in the World
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Following weeks of negotiations, a new government led by incumbent prime minister Ivo Sanader took office in January 2008. In April, Croatia was formally invited to join NATO, a long-held goal. Also during the year, a series of violent attacks raised concerns about organized crime. As part of the government response, Sanader replaced the country’s justice and interior ministers.
As part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia held its first multiparty elections in 1990, and former general Franjo Tudjman won the presidency. He and his nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) went on to rule Croatia until 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 with the backing of four allied parties. In that month’s legislative elections, a center-left coalition 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 prime minister.
The HDZ, under the leadership of Ivo Sanader, returned to power in 2003 and repositioned itself as a standard center-right party, although some of its more controversial nationalist figures remained in influential positions. Sanader’s government worked to meet the conditions for European Union (EU) accession, including full cooperation 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 2005 and went on trial in March 2008.
The HDZ led November 2007 parliamentary elections with 36.6 percent of the votes, followed by the SDP 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 take additional steps, such as making the SEC permanent and adding a provision requiring full transparency in campaign spending.
Following weeks of negotiations, Sanader’s new government took office in January 2008. The HDZ formed the governing coalition with the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), and seven out of eight ethnic minority representatives. Those included three members of the Independent Serbian Democratic Party (SDSS). One of the new cabinet’s four deputy prime ministers was a Serb.
Despite institutional measures to fight organized crime, a series of violent attacks in 2008 raised serious concerns about the country’s internal security. One of the worst incidents was the October murder of the owner and editor in chief of the Nacional newspaper group, Ivo Pukanic, and one of his managers, Niko Franjic. The men were killed by a bomb placed under Pukanic’s car in Zagreb. Pukanic, an investigative journalist who wrote frequently about corruption and organized crime, was known to have connections to sources in the criminal underworld. The bombing came less than a month after Ivana Hodak, the daughter of a prominent attorney, was shot dead in the building where she lived. As part of its response to the violence, the government replaced several key officials, including the justice and interior ministers.The police arrested ten individuals in connection to the Pukanic-Franjic murders in November, all of whom were described by the government as “dangerous members of the underworld.”
Croatia was formally invited to join NATO in April 2008, paving the way for accession in 2009. The country also continued accession negotiations with the European Union (EU), having passed numerous measures to bring its laws into compliance with EU standards. However, slow progress on judicial reform and the fight against corruption remained serious obstacles.
Croatia is an electoral democracy. Both the 2005 presidential poll and the 2007 parliamentary elections were deemed 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–HSLS coalition and the Croatian People’s Party (HNS), have won representation in the parliament. The president, who serves as head of state, 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, often driven by a nexus of security institutions and businesspeople. Organized crime tied to political and business interests is thought to be behind at least some of the recent violence. According a 2008 European Commission report, the legal framework for combating corruption has improved, and the Office for the Fight against Corruption (USKOK) has become more active. Egregious cases of lower-level corruption have recently captured public attention. In August 2008, surgeon Ognjen Simic was sentenced to nine years in prison—the most severe corruption sentence to date—for taking bribes from 18 patients who needed urgent heart surgery; Simic fled to Bosnia before being incarcerated. In October, over 90 individuals—including professors, students, and university staff—were detained in a crackdown on bribery in higher education. Croatia was ranked 62 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, and these rights are generally respected in practice. However, reporters remain vulnerable to political pressure, and several prominent journalists have alleged that the media are becoming increasingly beholden to the interests of powerful advertisers. Moreover, intimidation of journalists working on corruption issues has gained prominence. In February 2008, a Radio Ogulin journalist alleged that his salary was lowered because he criticized a cabinet minister. In June, journalist Dusan Miljus was badly beaten near his home in Zagreb, and in July, his family received threats warning him to stop his investigative reporting on organized crime and corruption. Access to the internet is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. A group needs at least 500 members and five years of operation as a registered association to be recognized as a religious organization. Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church continue to report cases of intimidation and vandalism, although the number of such incidents appears to be declining.
The constitution provides for freedoms 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 2008. 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. Personnel shortages have led to a huge backlog of cases. Lengthy trials 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 improvements over the past year, 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. The trial of parliamentarian Branimir Glavas, the highest-ranking official charged with war crimes against Serbs, started in November 2008.
Prison conditions do not fully meet international standards due to overcrowding and poor medical care. In November 2008, the system underwent reform after media reports found that certain inmates had obtained special privileges through bribery.
Respect for minority rights has improved since 1999, but various forms of harassment and discrimination persist. Ethnic minorities, particularly Serbs, remain vastly underrepresented in local and regional governments, state administration, and judicial bodies. Many impediments to the sustainable return of Serb refugees remain. Returning Serbs are still harassed by the local population, although the frequency of such incidents is on the decline.
The Romany population faces significant social and economic obstacles, as well as widespread discrimination. In 2005, the government adopted a special action plan to improve the conditions for Roma in employment, health, housing, and education. Nevertheless, most Roma are excluded from mainstream society, and only 18 percent of those older than 15 were employed in 2006. Although no countrywide statistics are available, the government reported increased rates of school enrollment for Romany children over the last two years in several counties with large Roma populations.
The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. However, a study presented at the Zagreb Institute of Economics in January 2008 found that women were paid an average of 21 percent less than men with similar qualifications. Women currently hold 32 (21 percent) of 153 seats in the parliament. In July 2008, the government ratified a new act on gender equity, stipulating that women must comprise at least 40 percent of the candidate lists for each political party on the local, national, and EU levels; it is unclear, however, whether the prescribed fines are large enough to deter violations. Domestic violence against women is believed to be widespread and underreported, though the government has helped to finance several shelters and counseling centers for victims. Trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution continues to be a problem, and Croatia is considered to be primarily a transit countryfor women trafficked to Western Europe.