Croatia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Croatia

Croatia

Free
85/100
Overview: 

Croatia is a parliamentary republic that regularly holds free elections. Civil and political rights are generally respected, though corruption in the public sector is a serious issue. The Roma and Serb minorities face discrimination, as do LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. Recent years have seen increasing concern about the presence in public life of far-right groups and figures that espouse discriminatory values.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić and twelve associates went on trial in October on charges including abuse of power, influence peddling, tax evasion, and customs fraud.
  • Economy Minister Martina Dalić resigned in May, in the wake of media reports suggesting that she and a group of well-connected figures had crafted the so-called lex agrokorthe 2017 law that allowed the government to take over management of the troubled agricultural giant Agrokor—behind closed doors and in a manner that suggested a variety of conflicts of interest.
  • Ivica Todorović, the former owner of Agrokor being investigated for fraud, was extradited from the United Kingdom in November. He was arrested upon arrival in Croatia, but released days later after posting €1 million bail, and had not been indicted at year’s end.
  • Croatia’s second-place finish at the World Cup in July was marred by the appearance of a far-right, nationalist singer at the homecoming celebrations in Zagreb, which prompted criticism domestically and from some foreign journalists and rights activists.
  • In April, lawmakers ratified the Istanbul Convention, a treaty on preventing and combating domestic violence. The treaty was unpopular among conservative and far-right groups, who viewed its definition of gender as having the potential to prompt the legal introduction of same-sex marriage or a third gender category, or to affect curriculum taught in schools.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 36 / 40 (−1)

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The president, who is head of state, is elected by popular vote for a maximum of two five-year terms. The prime minister is head of government, and is appointed by the president with parliamentary approval.

Croatia held the runoff to its December 2014 presidential election in January 2015. Outgoing president Ivo Josipović of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) lost to Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) by a margin of less than one percent. Election monitors and stakeholders broadly accepted the poll’s result.

HDZ chairman Andrej Plenković became prime minister following the 2016 legislative elections, in which HDZ won a plurality of seats.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Members of the 151-member unicameral Croatian Parliament (Hrvatski Sabor) are elected to four-year terms.

Snap parliamentary elections in 2016—which were held after the previous prime minister lost a no-confidence vote, and were the second legislative polls in less than a year—were considered free and fair, but were marked by low turnout. The HDZ and its allies won 61 seats, and the party has since led a coalition government, the composition of which has changed occasionally.

The HDZ posted strong results in municipal elections held in 2017.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4

While some concerns about the use of public funds for political campaigns persist, in general, the State Election Commission implements robust electoral laws effectively.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16 (−1)

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Citizens may freely organize and participate in the activities of a wide variety of political parties. Small far-left and far-right parties made gains in the 2017 local elections.

The composition of the government changed in 2017, after the reformist Bridge of Independent Lists (Most) withdrew from the HDZ-led coalition after refusing to back Finance Minister Zdravko Marić, who had been implicated in a conflict-of-interest controversy related to his time working at Agrokor. The HDZ then allied with the liberal Croatian People’s Party (HNS), which had been part of the SDP-led opposition coalition.

The HNS’s decision to join the HDZ’s government prompted the party’s own fragmentation. Anka Mrak-Taritaš, who had been an HNS candidate for the 2017 municipal elections, formed her own party—the Civic Liberal Alliance (GLAS)—with three other HNS lawmakers.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

The SDP-led opposition coalition holds a significant bloc of seats in the legislature, and is generally able to operate without facing restrictions or election-related intimidation. But in general, the HDZ has dominated politics, and draws support from the Roman Catholic Church, veterans, and a growing number of conservative nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The main, SDP-led opposition bloc has won the most seats in only two parliamentary elections since 1991, although the country was headed by an SDP president from 2010 to 2015.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4 (−1)

While voters and candidates are generally able to freely express their political choices, many public servants obtained their positions through patronage networks, and thus risk becoming beholden to a party or special interest as a result. Patronage networks are particularly influential in Zagreb, which has been under the stewardship of Mayor Milan Bandić—who is affiliated with the HDZ and considered one of the country’s most powerful politicians—close to continuously for the past 20 years. Bandić’s tenure has been marked by corruption allegations, including conflict-of-interest cases, and credible allegations regarding improper hiring practices and public procurement deals.

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the persistent, influential role of patronage networks in the country’s politics.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Eight parliamentary seats are set aside for ethnic minorities, including three for ethnic Serbs. However, the political interests of minority groups, notably Roma and Serbs, are underrepresented.

Women are represented across political parties, and a woman currently holds Croatia’s presidency. However, the number of women in parliament decreased in 2016 after the Constitutional Court struck down a law requiring that 40 percent of a party’s candidates be women. A 2016 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election monitoring mission called for political parties to run more women candidates, and to promote more women to senior party leadership positions.

In September 2018, sitting lawmaker and Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDS) leader Milorad Pupovac was pelted with food items by a protester in Zagreb. Pupovac characterized the incident as reflective of growing hostility toward the Serb minority population by ascendant right-wing and nationalist movements in the country, many of which appear to enjoy the tacit support of the ruling HDZ.

Societal discrimination against LGBT people can discourage their participation in politics, and elements of the political establishment have espoused such discriminatory attitudes in their activism.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 10 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4  

Democratically elected representatives are duly installed into office, and are generally able to make public policy without undue external influence or pressure.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4

A criminal code in effect since 2013 enforces stiffer penalties for various forms of corruption, and while some progress has been made, official corruption—including nepotism, bribery, fraud, and patronage—remains serious problems. Numerous high-level corruption cases have been filed in recent years, but many have yet to see a verdict. International bodies including the European Commission have called for greater efforts to eliminate malfeasance in public procurement processes.

In October, Bandić was acquitted of charges that he had cost the city of Zagreb some €41,500 euros ($47,700) by allowing a church-affiliated group to collect campaign signatures without paying appropriate fees. Bandić and a number of associates went on trial in October on charges including abuse of power, influence peddling, tax evasion, and customs fraud. The actions alleged are said to have cost the city and state budgets some 3.3 million euros ($3.8 million).

Several government figures have been implicated in mismanagement or wrongdoing in connection with the collapse of the food and retail group Agrokor, the region’s largest employer, which the government took management of in 2017.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4

In 2013, Croatia adopted the Law on the Right of Access to Information. The legislation includes a proportionality and public-interest test designed to determine a balance between reasons for disclosing information and reasons for restricting it, and establishes an independent information commissioner to monitor compliance. However, government bodies do not always release requested information in a timely manner.

Media reports that emerged in 2018 suggested that Economy Minister Martina Dalić and a group of well-connected businesspeople and lawyers crafted the so-called lex agrokorthe 2017 law that allowed the government to take over management of the troubled agricultural company—outside of legislative bodies and out of view of the public. Facing related conflict-of-interest allegations, she resigned in May.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 49 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 13 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4

Media in Croatia is highly polarized, but generally free from overt political interference or manipulation. However, journalists continue to face threats, harassment, and occasional attacks. In June 2018, reporter Hrvoje Bajlo was attacked and severely beaten in the city of Zadar, by a man Bajlo said threatened him with further harm if he did not discontinue reporting on the HDZ and a former minister of sea, traffic and infrastructure, and an undersecretary in the ministry, both of whom had been charged with embezzling from state-run companies. Earlier, Veterans’ Minister Tomo Medved had allegedly threatened to beat journalist Vojislav Mazzocco over a story detailing allegations of nepotism benefiting Medved’s son. The Croatian Journalists Association characterized the attack on Bajlo as a consequence of authorities’ failure to condemn the earlier threat against Mazzocco, and other attacks and harassment against journalists.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

The Croatian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and this is generally upheld in practice. However, the small Serb Orthodox community remains vulnerable to harassment, and members have reported vandalism of their churches. Jewish and other groups have expressed increasing concern about Holocaust denial and displays by right-wing nationalists of symbols and slogans associated with the fascist Ustaša regime that governed Croatia during World War II. Revisionist accounts of the Ustaša period continued to be promoted by far-right groups and newspapers in 2018.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

While there are generally not overt restrictions on speech in schools and universities, critics continue to allege inappropriate political interference at all levels of education. While aspects of a long-planned modernization of school curriculum were approved in the parliament in July 2018, the HDZ has long sought to delay the popular modernization plan, and has moved to install its own members into the group tasked with developing the policies—including extremely conservative members opposed to sex education.

Also in July, a far-right movement sought the firing of three academics at the University of Zagreb for a paper they had published on the surging far-right in the country. While the academics were not fired, the allegations prompted an initial investigation by the university, and reflected the increasing presence and influence of such groups.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

People are generally free to engage in discussions of a sensitive nature without fearing surveillance or retribution.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

Freedom of assembly is protected and respected in Croatia.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

The NGO sector in Croatia remains robust, active, and free from restrictions.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4

The constitution allows workers to form and join trade unions, and this right is generally respected in practice.

F. RULE OF LAW: 11 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4

While judicial independence is generally respected, there have been recent concerns about the influence of far-right–wing groups on the judiciary. For example, in 2017, a court reversed a 1945 conviction of an academic who was found to be complicit in atrocities committed by the fascist Ustaša regime. Critics allege the courts have been ruling in line with the views of right-wing NGOs and the ruling HDZ, while the courts maintain in response that they are redressing partisan rulings of the Yugoslav communist courts.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4

Due process rights are generally upheld, but the system tends to work more efficiently for individuals with abundant resources or high social standing.

In November 2018, Ivica Todorović, the former owner of Agrokor under investigation for fraud in relation to the company’s collapse, was extradited from the United Kingdom. He was arrested upon arrival in Croatia, but released days later after posting €1 million bail, and had not been indicted at year’s end.

The International Commission on Missing Persons has criticized Croatia for its slow progress in identifying human remains of victims of the 1991–95 conflicts, and in making reparations to survivors and their families.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Violence by state and nonstate actors is uncommon. Prison conditions do not meet international standards due to overcrowding and inadequate medical care.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT people in Croatia face discrimination, and there are concerns about the increasing visibility of far-right, nationalist groups that spread discriminatory rhetoric. In perhaps the year’s most visible reflection of increasing right-wing sentiment in public life, Croatia’s second-place finish at the World Cup in July 2018 was marred by the presence of a far-right, nationalist singer at the homecoming celebrations in Zagreb; the appearance prompted criticism domestically and from some foreign journalists and rights activists. Occasional moves by the government suggest endorsement of far-right groups, and observers have expressed concern that such statements amount to tacit approval of discriminatory behavior. A group of NGOs in December 2018 criticized the government for lacking a comprehensive human rights policy, and warned of continuing deterioration of the protection of human rights in the country, especially for minorities and woman.

The constitution prohibits gender discrimination, but women earn less than men for comparable work and hold fewer leadership positions.

Reports of police violence against migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers continued in 2018. Most such incidents took place along the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, rather than Serbia, as in the past.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

Freedom of movement is protected by the constitution and upheld in practice. People may freely change their place of residence, employment, or education.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4

Property rights are generally well protected. However, corruption can inhibit normal business operations.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4

In 2014, following a 2013 referendum that banned same-sex marriage, the parliament passed a law allowing same-sex civil unions. The law affords same-sex couples equal rights in inheritance, social benefits, and taxation, but same-sex couples may not adopt children.

Domestic violence remains a concern. Convictions for rape and domestic violence can bring lengthy prisons terms. However, police sometimes fail to adhere to recommended procedures for handling reports of domestic violence.

In April 2018, lawmakers ratified the Istanbul Convention, a treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The treaty was unpopular among conservative and far-right groups, who viewed its definition of gender as having the potential to prompt the legal introduction of same-sex marriage or a third gender category, or to affect curriculum taught in schools, and there were protests against it. In response to protests, the government adopted a statement saying the treaty’s adoption would not change the legal definition of marriage.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

Worker protection laws are robust, and the Office of the Labor Inspectorate actively investigates work sites. However, labor violation remain a problem within the hospitality sector. Workers in the informal sector have less access to legal protections.

Human trafficking remains a problem, sentences for those convicted of it can be light, and witness statements are not always given the appropriate consideration in court cases.