Croatia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores



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Civil Liberties
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Croatia ratified its European Union accession treaty in March 2012, and was expected to join the European Union (EU) in 2013. The government continued with key EU reforms, though Brussels urged Croatia to redress a culture of impunity for war crimes. Croatia continued its anticorruption drive in 2012; in November, former prime minister Ivo Sanader was convicted of corruption charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Formerly a constituent republic within socialist Yugoslavia, Croatia held its first multiparty elections in 1990, won by the former communist general and dissident Franjo Tuđman and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Independence was subsequently declared in June 1991. 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 policies focused on gaining Croatian membership to both NATO and the European Union (EU). Croatia formally joined NATO in April 2009.

The HDZ won the November 2007 parliamentary elections and formed a governing coalition with the Croatian Peasant Party, the Croatian Social Liberal Party, and all eight of the country’s ethnic minority parliamentary representatives. In July 2009, Sanader unexpectedly resigned, and was replaced by Jadranka Kosor, a deputy prime minister of the HDZ. Ivo Josipović, the SDP candidate, was elected president in January 2010.

In the December 2011 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.

Croatia continued to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, the Netherlands, a pre-condition for EU membership. In April 2011, 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. In November 2012, an appeals court at the ICTY, in a controversial split decision, overturned their convictions, and Gotovina and Markač were immediately released from detention facilities at The Hague. The decision was hailed across Croatia, but drew condemnations from Serbia and Russia.

In March 2012, Croatian lawmakers ratified the EU accession treaty following a successful membership referendum. 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. In 2011, the EU had cleared the country for membership after noting increased anticorruption efforts and reforms in the judiciary. Josipović and Kosor signed the Accession Treaty that December. Assuming all 27 EU countries ratify the treaty, Croatia should become the 28th member in July 2013.

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, and 3 represent Croatians 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 2012, the European Commission (EC) noted progress on Croatia's anticorruption efforts, singling out law enforcement for taking a proactive approach, especially on high-profile cases. However, most of these cases remain unresolved. In January, the government passed legislation to increase transparency in public procurement; the EC urged its effective implementation and also called for the overdue appointment of a commission to monitor conflicts of interest among public officials. In 2011, authorities expanded their investigation into the so-called Fimi media case, which includes indictments of Ivo Sanader and other HDZ officials. 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 April 2012, the HDZ and Sanader pleaded not guilty in the Fimi case. By September 2012, Sanader had been indicted in five corruption cases. In November, he was convicted of taking a €5 million ($6.5 million) bribe from a Hungarian energy company in 2008, and of taking another €545,000 ($695,000) in bribes from an Austrian bank in 1995 during his tenure as deputy foreign minister. Sanader, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, called the trial politically motivated. In December, he was indicted on corruption charges alongside a former HDZ agriculture minister over a 2009 real estate deal. Croatia was ranked 62 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, and these rights are generally respected. However, journalists—particularly those covering organized crime and corruption—face political pressure, intimidation, and attacks. In July 2012, a Croatian daily reported that at least seven key editors at the HRT public broadcaster had been replaced in what the HDZ called a political purge following Kukuriku's December election win. 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. In June 2012, the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch met with Croatian religious and political leaders in what many called an historic three-day visit to heal lingering wounds between the two countries, as well as between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Little progress has been made in restoring property nationalized by the communists to non-Roman Catholic groups. Academic freedom is guaranteed by law.

The constitution provides for freedoms of association and assembly. After attacks at a June 2011 gay pride parade in Split, police stepped up security at the 2012 event. Amnesty International (AI) criticized police for failing to investigate an attack a few days after the festival by a group of men of six young women in Split for their perceived sexual orientation. A variety of nongovernmental organizations operate in Croatia without governmental interference or harassment. The constitution allows workers to form and join trade unions, though unlawful dismissals of union members have been reported.

Croatia continued in 2012 to implement reforms to improve the independence and efficiency of the judiciary. The EC urged further reforms, especially regarding the selection procedures for judges and prosecutors. The recently reformed State Judicial and Prosecutorial Councils function independently and began establishing a track record of merit-based appointments. In February, a new council was created to focus on courts’ efficiency, a noted area of improvement with the backlog of criminal cases down 12 percent in the first half of 2012. Prison conditions do not meet international standards due to overcrowding and poor medical care.

The legacy of the 1991–95 war in Croatia remains a sensitive issue. AI has criticized Croatia for failing to identify the total number of war crimes cases and prosecute them expeditiously. In 2012, the government continued to cooperate with the ICTY and implemented a strategy to tackle impunity. There were also some high-profile domestic cases, including against a former Interior Ministry official for the alleged killing of Serbian civilians during the conflict. However, most war crimes have not been resolved or even investigated, according to the EC, which urged Croatia to address impunity, train judges to specifically handle war crimes cases, and improve witness protection.

Respect for minority rights has improved over the past decade. Although returning Serbs face harassment by local populations, such incidents have declined in recent years. Some 70,000 Croatian Serbs are registered refugees. The 2011 Housing Care Program to aid returning refugees has been fully implemented, though conditions for returnees remain inadequate. Roma face widespread discrimination. In May 2012, a parliamentary committee condemned a recent outpouring of anti-Roma rhetoric and discrimination, including threats by a mayor in Dalmatia against a local Roma family.

The constitution prohibits gender discrimination, but women have a higher unemployment rate and earn less than men for comparable work. 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.