Croatia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2012

2012 Scores



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Croatia completed European Union accession negotiations in June 2011, with membership expected in 2013. The government made progress on key EU reforms and continued to cooperate with The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in a year that saw significant war crimes convictions. The opposition coalition Kukuriku defeated the ruling Croatian Democratic Union in December parliamentary elections.

Formerly a constituent republic within socialist Yugoslavia, Croatia held its first multiparty elections in 1990, which were won by the former communist general and dissident Franjo Tuđman and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Independence was subsequently declared in June 1991 under Tuđman’s leadership. From 1991–95, Croatia was consumed by the wars accompanying Yugoslavia’s disintegration, both on its own territory, where the indigenous Serb population attempted to secede, and in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Tuđman’s HDZ continued to rule Croatia until his death in December 1999. An erstwhile Tuđman ally, Stjepan Mesić, was elected president in January 2000, and parliamentary elections held later that month resulted in a victory for a center-left coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Ivica Račan, leader of the SDP, became prime minister.

The HDZ returned to power in 2003 under the leadership of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and refashioned itself as a conventional European center-right party. The Sanader government’s foreign and domestic policies focused on gaining Croatia’s acceptance into NATO and the European Union (EU). Croatia formally joined NATO in April 2009.

The HDZ, which won the November 2007 parliamentary elections, formed a governing coalition with the Croatian Peasant Party, the Croatian Social Liberal Party, and seven of the country’s eight ethnic minority parliamentary representatives. In July 2009, Sanader unexpectedly resigned, and was replaced by Jadranka Kosor, a deputy prime minister of the HDZ. In January 2010, after two rounds of elections to replace President Mesić, SDP candidate Ivo Josipović was victorious, capturing 60 percent of a run-off vote.

Government corruption dominated public debate throughout 2010 and remained prominent in 2011. In October, the State Attorney's Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) expanded its ongoing investigation into the so-called Fimi media case, which includes indictments of Sanader and other HDZ officials, to include the HDZ as a legal entity. In Croatia's first legal case against a political party, the HDZ is accused of funneling money from public companies to a slush fund from 2003 to 2009. In November, a Croatian court added two other corruption indictments against Sanader.

Croatia made strides in 2011 to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a pre-condition for EU membership. In April, the court convicted Croatian army generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač of crimes against humanity for participating in Operation Storm, a 1995 campaign to remove ethnic Serbs from the Krajina, a self-proclaimed Serb republic within Croatia that existed from 1991 to 1995.

Though Croatia’s EU bid had stalled in recent years over concerns about insufficient cooperation with the ICTY, mixed results at reducing corruption, and a territorial dispute with Slovenia, the country closed the final four of 35 accession negotiation chapters required to join the EU in 2011. Noting reform progress in two key chapters—judiciary and fundamental rights and competition policy—the European Commission (EC), the leading body of the EU, cleared Croatia to sign the Accession Treaty, which Josipović and Kosor did in Brussels on December 9. Croatia should become the 28th EU member state in July 2013, following ratification procedures.

In the December 4 parliamentary elections, the center-left opposition Kukuriku coalition, comprising the SDP and three other parties, placed first with 80 seats. The HDZ and its coalition partners, the Croatian Civic Party and the Democratic Centre, followed with 47 seats. Zoran Milanović of the SDP succeeded Kosor as prime minister.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Croatia is an electoral democracy. The 151-member unicameral parliament (Sabor) comprises 140 members from 10 geographical districts; in addition, 8 members represent ethnic minorities, with 3 representing Croatians living abroad. Members are elected to four-year terms. The president, who serves as head of state, is elected by popular vote for a maximum of two five-year terms. The prime minister is appointed by the president and requires parliamentary approval.

The largest political parties are the center-right HDZ and center-left SDP. Several smaller parties have also won representation in the parliament.

In 2011, the EC noted that Croatia had made progress on anticorruption efforts, including operational upgrades to USKOK, specifically the hiring of new staff and the resolution of several prominent public misconduct cases. However, most high-profile cases remain unresolved. In addition to the indictments against former prime minister Ivo Sanader, former prime minister Jadranka Kosor was implicated, though not indicted, in the Fimi media case. Croatia was ranked 66 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press. While these rights are generally respected, reporters face political pressure and intimidation. The journalist Drago Hedl reported receiving death threats for his reporting on war crimes and misconduct in the Catholic Church. Investigative journalists covering organized crime and corruption are also subject to intimidation and attack. Internet access is unrestricted.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion. A group needs at least 500 members and five years of registered operation to be recognized as a religious organization. Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church continue to report cases of intimidation and vandalism, although such incidents are declining as memories of the 1991–95 war recede. Little progress has been made in restoring property nationalized by the communists to non-Roman Catholic groups.

Academic freedom is guaranteed by law. The EU is advising Croatia on higher education reform to increase tertiary education rates.

The constitution provides for freedoms of association and assembly. According to Amnesty International (AI), participants in a June 2011 gay pride parade in Split reported that police failed to provide adequate protection after they were attacked by extremists. Police arrested 137 people, whose cases were pending at year’s end. A variety of nongovernmental organizations operate in Croatia without governmental interference or harassment. The constitution allows workers to form and join trade unions, and they do so freely. The International Trade Union Confederation has nevertheless criticized the government for endangering the right of collective bargaining as a result of legislation passed in 2009.

The judicial system suffers from excessively long trials, inadequate implementation of court decisions, and murky criteria for the selection of judges. In October 2011, the EC praised Croatia for progress in judicial reform, citing new methods for appointing and evaluating judges and public prosecutors and the opening of the State School for Judicial Officials. While implementation of an integrated case management system in most courts has improved efficiency and helped reduce case backlogs in recent years, the backlog of civil cases older than three years remains a problem. Prison conditions do not fully meet international standards due to overcrowding and poor medical care.

The legacy of the 1991–95 war in Croatia remains a sensitive issue. In December 2010, AI reported that Croatia was processing an average of only 18 war crimes trials annually. The group continues to criticize Croatia for failing to identify the total number of war crimes cases and prosecute them expeditiously. In February 2011, Croatia introduced a new strategy for addressing impunity, though it was not fully implemented by year’s end, and it recently concluded several war crimes cases against defendants of different ethnic backgrounds. Although AI praised the 2011 convictions of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, it criticized former prime minister Kosor for publicly thanking the generals in August.

Respect for minority rights has improved over the past decade. Although returning Serbs face harassment by local populations, such incidents have declined over the last several years. Despite the 2002 Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities and studies into the underrepresentation of minorities in the public sector, minorities, including Serbs, remain underemployed. Approximately 70,000 Croatian Serbs are registered refugees. The Action Plan on the Housing Care Program to aid returning refugees was fully implemented in October 2011, though further progress is needed on providing housing for returnees. The Roma population also faces discrimination and widespread poverty.

The constitution prohibits gender discrimination. However, women have a higher unemployment rate and earn less than men. Though Croatia’s 2008 Gender Equality Act calls for women to be equally represented on candidate lists, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe faults the law as unclear. Only 35 percent of candidates in the December 2011 election were women. Domestic violence against women is believed to be widespread and underreported, though law enforcement is strengthening its capacity to combat such crimes. Croatia remains a transit country for women trafficked to Western Europe for prostitution.