Croatia | Freedom House

Nations in Transit

Croatia

Croatia

Nations in Transit 2011

2011 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.64

Regime Classification

Semi - Consolidated Democracy

National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.50

Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.25

Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2.50

Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.00

Local Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.75

Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.25

Corruption
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.25

Capital: Zagreb
Population: 4.4 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US $19,200

Source: The data above were provided by The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2011.

*Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. 

Executive Summary: 

Croatia today aspires to the role of a responsible leader and model for European Union integration within the Balkan region. Just 15 years since the war of independence and a decade since the death of nationalist autocrat Franjo Tudjman, Croatia’s foreign policy agenda centers around normalizing relations with its neighbors and promoting stability among them. In 2010, several state visits to Serbia contributed to cordial, though not yet friendly, relations. As a NATO member, Croatia continues to work with coalition forces in Kosovo, as well as in Afghanistan. Croatia has also steadily improved relations with Slovenia, following a contentious dispute over maritime boundaries and fishing rights.

Domestically, politics and the media were consumed with the country’s firstever corruption proceedings against officials at the highest levels of government. In October, former Deputy Prime Minister Damir Polančec of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was sentenced to 15 months in prison on corruption charges, making him the country’s first senior official to be convicted on corruptionrelated charges. In December, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (HDZ), who returned to politics in July, was arrested in Austria on similar charges. Side effects of the anticorruption probes included increased political infighting, which had the effect of weakening the government’s ability to pursue other crucial items on its reform agenda. Confidence in elected officials tumbled amid reports of new scandals and economic concerns.

National Democratic Governance. Efforts to combat high-level corruption dominated the national government’s agenda in 2010, partly at the expense of other reforms. In late October, the main opposition party, the Social Democrats (SDP), spearheaded a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and the ruling HDZ, citing the damaging effect of the year’s corruption scandals and the HDZ’s failure to lead the country out of recession. The motion failed, but the accompanying political turbulence further distracted policymakers from pursuing an EU reform agenda. Croatia’s national democratic governance rating remains at 3.50.

Electoral Process. Highly publicized problems with Croatia’s electoral system remained unaddressed in 2010, most notably the practice of registering more voters than there are citizens eligible to vote. A new law on financing of political parties was drafted. Legislation necessary for regulating early elections was not introduced, despite the growing likelihood of early parliamentary elections in 2011. Croatia’s electoral process rating remains at 3.25.

Civil Society. Croatia’s civil society organizations are active and gaining influence among the public and in some decision-making processes. In 2010, increased civic participation associated with a labor law referendum and a number of locally based civic initiatives demonstrated willingness on the part of the public to become involved in civic organizations and action—an improvement over previous years. Owing to increased involvement of the public in grassroots initiatives, Croatia’s civil society rating improves from 2.75 to 2.50.

Independent Media. Croatia’s media remain mediocre and lacking in diversity. Increasing interest in the internet and quality web-based news and analysis is partly countering the deficiencies found in traditional news media. Space for independent journalism remains restricted, however, by a tight concentration of media ownership and the persistent influence of powerful political and economic interests in Croatia. Croatia’s independent media rating remains at 4.00.

Local Democratic Governance. Croatia’s expensive and complicated network of local administrative units continues to draw criticism without inspiring effective reforms. Jurisdictional disputes between local and national officials escalated in 2010, but the government took no action to address these challenges in a systematic manner. Croatia’s local democratic governance rating remains at 3.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The judiciary in 2010 made notable efforts to prosecute corruption cases. Major legal initiatives included a June constitutional amendment eliminating the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes related to the privatization of state firms. Prosecutorial action joined continued efforts to harmonize legal standards with those of the EU, but attempts to finalize EU Accession Chapter 23, which focuses on justice and fundamental rights, were still ongoing at year’s end. Croatia’s judicial framework and independence rating remains at 4.25.

Corruption. After a decade of strengthening anticorruption regulations, but showing little initiative, Croatia began to actively pursue several high-profile cases. The arrest of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and the sentencing of former Vice Prime Minister Damir Polančec on corruption-related charges sent the message that no one in Croatia is above the law. These new and aggressive efforts to target highlevel corruption boost Croatia’s corruption rating from 4.50 to 4.25.

Outlook for 2011. The pace of reform in 2010 suggests that the country will not meet its target accession date of mid-2012. Elections—whether they take place in November 2011, as scheduled, or earlier—may slow the process of reform, but even without the complications caused by an early vote or a new government, Croatia’s leaders and institutions will need more time to implement reforms in a consistent and effective way. Independently of Croatia’s EU progress, 2011 is likely to be a year of further political upheaval, investigations of past business practices by elements with the country’s economic and political elite, and continuing economic challenges due to the global economic crisis.

National Democratic Governance: 

Corruption and the pace of judicial reform remain a major concern of the European Commission (EC) as it monitors Croatia’s readiness for EU accession. The November 2010 EC Progress Report urged Croatia to more aggressively pursue corruption investigations. The report also criticized the weaknesses of ostensibly reformed governance structures that that do not yet function at the level expected of a potential EU member.[1]

Croatia’s national government, led by the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), became more assertive in its investigation of corruption but its effectiveness was progressively weakened by political infighting. Public confidence in the government plummeted.[2] In response, trade unions and the opposition Social Democrat Party (SDP) grew in stature, and a call for early elections grew louder in 2010.

The politically and socially turbulent year began with the final round of presidential elections, where two very different personalities clashed at the polls. Voters in the end selected the intellectual, steady “family man,” Ivo Josipović, over the outgoing sports enthusiast, long-time Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić. While both candidates hailed from the SDP, there were significant differences between them.[3] Josipović was seen as a liberal democrat, while Bandić represented more churchoriented and nationalist circles. Josipović won most of the urban vote, while Bandić scored better in rural areas and among the Diaspora, especially Bosnian Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[4]

The presidency in Croatia is no longer as powerful as during the time of Franjo Tudjman, and most powers are now held by the prime minister. However, the president still carries substantial weight in some areas. Former President Stjepan Mesić (2000–2010) was the first to use his position to promote Southeast European regional normalization and to publicize key internal governance concerns of the country. He used his position to point out the inconsistencies of government leaders, making him one of the most trusted public figures in Croatia.

President Josipović has been more reserved, but his controlled demeanor was put to the test in April when an anonymous author published online the “Defenders Registry,” a set of defense documents that include names of individuals who served in the Croatian army during the 1991–1995 wars. This was both a political and social issue since it is alleged that many enjoy veterans’ privileges without actually having served in the military. The number of former soldiers is much larger on paper than it was on battlefields, standing at almost 500,000 out of a population of 4.4 million. In effect, the status of “veteran” is, in the eyes of the public, part of a larger political patronage network linked closely to the HDZ party and its affiliates.

Before the leak, President Josipović, opposition parties, and even a few veterans’ organizations had been calling for the publication of the list. Steady support for such a position had also grown with the awareness that the many social benefits cut to balance the government’s budget in 2009 had included no reduction in benefits for veterans. After the registry became public, the government appeared to focus on the controversial leak, rather than addressing potential abuses within the veterans system. At one point, officials attempted to shut down the webpage that published the documents.

Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor’s main challenge in 2010 was to clean up her government from within. In the process, the very core of the ruling HDZ party and its support network was shaken up. Most illustrative of this was the return of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader into the political sphere in the summer. Sanader, once hailed internationally for his efforts at democratization and Europeanization of the HDZ, became a leading suspect in ongoing investigations into allegations of financial wrongdoing within Austria’s Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank, which was on the verge of collapse before it was nationalized in 2009. His sudden resignation in mid-2009 was thought to be linked to looming corruption scandals; therefore, his return to HDZ in 2010 opened uncomfortable questions for Prime Minister Kosor, who had served as Sanader’s deputy prime minister during the period under investigation. Also, while Sanader did not explicitly declare his intention of taking back party leadership, his return implicitly challenged Prime Minister Kosor’s influence within the party. As a result, both the HDZ government and its ruling coalition spent much of the rest of 2010 trying to avoid the scrutiny of the public, the opposition, and the public prosecutor, all while enduring internal disputes. Two leading figures from the junior coalition partner Croatian Social Liberals (HSLS), whether in disagreement or anticipation of dismissal, resigned in July, but the ruling coalition did not suffer any other defections even though political infighting further intensified through the end of the year.

Early December brought the culmination of Sanader’s fall, when parliament approved the state prosecutor’s request for lifting the immunity that the former prime minister had previously enjoyed. Meanwhile, Sanader left the country for Austria, where he was later arrested in connection with the Hypo Alpe-Adria- Bank investigation. Investigators say the bank made billions of euros in suspicious loans to 12 countries, including Croatia, and sheltered illicit payments made in connection with weapons sales to Croatia in the 1990s.

The drama had political fallout for the government. A vote of no-confidence cast in late October was narrowly defeated thanks only to the support of the Croatian Serb minority party, the SDSS.[5] The controversies, combined with economic malaise, boosted the popularity of the SDP, though whether the opposition party can translate popular discontent into an election victory is uncertain. SDP leadership is considered weak and party cohesion is questionable. Public surveys in 2010 suggested that SDP is far ahead of HDZ,[6] but the party did not capitalize on the HDZ’s unpopularity to demand substantial concessions from the government or to push a more robust reform agenda.

Overall, Croatia’s political institutions lack the capacity and political will to tackle the challenges facing the country. Such weaknesses were noted in the most recent EC Progress Report. Brussels’ statements of support for Croatia’s EU accession are clear, but there was the notable absence of a specific date for accession, a telling—if indirect—indication that Croatia still has much work to do. Such sentiments are echoed by the political opposition, and the country’s ability to advance necessary reforms is an open question.[7] Still, Croatia aims to complete its EU accession talks by mid-2011.

There was no significant progress in 2010 on cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on turning over evidence that allegedly documents war crimes. An ongoing saga over the so-called Artillery Diaries, which document where alleged war crimes were committed, continued, though several EU countries decided to lift objections over the war documents issue that had held up progress on Chapter 23 of Croatia’s EU accession.[8] It is unclear whether Croatian authorities knew the documents’ whereabouts, or whether it is possible that such papers never existed, as claimed by the government.

Electoral Process: 

On January 10, 2010, Croatia held a second round of presidential elections since no candidate from the first round gained more than 50 percent of the vote. SDP candidate Ivo Josipović easily defeated independent Milan Bandić (former SDP) in the second-round ballot with 60.26 percent of the 2.1 million votes cast.[9] The elections were deemed free and fair, and no serious irregularities were noted.

Local elections took place in several cities in 2010. The biggest of these cities was Split, where May 2009 elections were won by the newly formed Croatian Citizens Party (HGS) of private entrepreneur Željko Kerum, leaving both SDP and HDZ in the opposition. On April 18, 2010, around 1,800 candidates competed for 236 local representative positions in 34 city districts. A locally conducted survey by the Law Faculty in Split showed that only 18 percent of voters knew about the elections a month beforehand and that only 30 percent knew where communal offices were situated in their neighborhood. The same data showed that 20 percent of voters were interested in becoming a community representative.[10] Voter turnout was 12 percent, with HDZ taking 30 percent of the votes, SDP-HNS 25 percent, and HGS-HCSP 15 percent.

One year after the first local polls to directly elect mayors and župans (county prefects), some negative (if unintended) effects of direct elections could be seen in both Zagreb and Split. Namely, both mayors Milan Bandić and Željko Kerum found themselves either losing coalition partners or support from their own parties during the course of the year. While such a political situation is not unusual, the electoral legislation adopted by Croatia in 2007 does not allow mayors to be removed via a vote of no-confidence within the city council; current mayors can only be removed by a referendum, with at least 50 percent of all registered voters participating. Since local elections have traditionally had low turnout, the expectation that 50 percent of eligible voters would participate may be unrealistic. Paradoxically, the council composition can be changed through a vote of no-confidence and early elections. The difference in electoral options available to the population in this situation creates a gap between mayoral and council accountability to their constituencies.

The year saw few efforts to address endemic irregularities in voter registries or problems with campaign finance. Civic groups—including GONG, a nonprofit organization encouraging citizen political participation—say Croatia’s voter registries are inaccurate to the point of distorting election results by several percentage points. Without changes, the next election is likely to reflect distortions that have marred past elections.[11]

Manipulation of registry votes historically has been considered most advantageous to the HDZ. Fixing the problem had been a campaign issue of the SDP in the last elections, and gained attention again when the Constitutional Court ruled against the trade unions’ request for a referendum on the Labor Law. The government previously stated that many of the 700,000 signatures collected were not in compliance with voter registries and should not be taken as valid. SDP leader Zoran Milanović used the occasion to ask the government to publicize the voter registry and to allow for its reform, but this did not happen.[12] By the end of the year, a government proposal for a new census registry had been sent to parliament suggesting that the task would be done in early 2011.[13] That could be enough time to simultaneously fix mistakes in the voter registries before elections are called, but no official statements mentioning the voter registries were directly connected with a suggestion for a new census.

In another major development, many hopes were pinned on a new Law of Political Party and Campaign Finances that was under parliamentary consideration in 2010. The new law would regulate political campaign spending by setting limits of 8 million kuna (US$1.5 million) for presidential campaigns, 1.5 million kuna (US$277,000) for parliamentary seats, and 500,000 kuna (US$92,000) for city and county prefects. Watchdog organizations and other observers praised efforts to improve transparency within political party finances in anticipation of the law’s adoption.[14] However, there are still concerns over a set of regulations necessary for holding the next parliamentary elections, which were not finalized by the end of 2010, leading to potential delays in early elections.[15]
 

Civil Society: 

Civil society organizations have become stronger in the past decade and increasingly willing to flex their muscle. While some of this increase in activity has been associated with nationalist forces, several large-scale, high-profile actions by trade unions and citizens’ groups suggest the growing influence and support for civic action.

In the past, the public was often unwilling to support civil society initiatives, a tendency usually attributed to Croatia’s experience with socialism, as well as a decade of the Tudjman government, which treated independent civil society with hostility. That changed with the coalition government formed after his death in 1999. The National Foundation for Civil Society Development (Nacionalna zaklada za razvoj civilnog društva) was created in 2003 with a mission to improve state support to civic groups. In its 2009 annual report, NFCS reported that the founding assets of 2 million kuna (US$369,500) set aside in 2003 had by the end of 2009 been increased to 42 million kuna (US$7.8 million). However, there has not been sufficient improvement in the ability of small grassroots movements and organizations to access these funds, and financial challenges persist for all but the most well-established NGOs and civic initiatives.

It is estimated that 35.2 percent of Croatian citizens have been active in at least one of the around 30,000 registered nongovernmental organizations in the country; by comparison, the EU average is 40 percent.[16] Croatian civil society activity corresponds to the following types of organizational membership: 13 percent religion-based, 12 percent sport or recreational, and 10 percent union-based groups.[17] Within these types of engagement, civil society has had increasing influence on decision-making processes on a variety of state and government issues. For example, the organizations Kontra and Isokrak continued their work to support guarantees and safeguards concerning gender and sexual minority rights issues. Transparency International Croatia helped draft a proposed Law on Financing Political Parties and Campaigns.[18]

In June 2010, major trade unions gathered some 700,000 signatures—well exceeding the 450,000 needed—requesting a national referendum on proposed changes to the Labor Law that union leaders argued solely benefitted employers.[19] Several factors may have contributed to the public response, including appeals from the unions’ representative Ozren Matijašević, the government’s low approval rating, high media attention, and support from opposition parties. Matijašević’s prominent leadership role in these events elevated him greatly in the eyes the public; he was the first figure since independence to gain such a following. Apparently influenced by the public’s response, the government rescinded the proposed changes to the Labor Law.

During the height of the public campaign, the parliament asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the referendum. The court eventually ruled that the referendum was no longer needed when the government withdrew its legislation. Despite the fact that their practical goal had already been achieved, union and civil society leaders, as well as President Josipović, criticized the ruling of the court and accused it of lacking independence.[20]

Later in the summer, the Zagreb-based initiative Pravo na grad (“Right for the City”) organized more than a dozen demonstrations to stop construction by a local entrepreneur. The civic group asserted that regulations were ignored due to alleged corruption in the issuance of construction permits and that the builder’s plans were going to change the visual character of a downtown street called Varšavska. The group used Facebook to organize activities, and news coverage of the protest at the construction site brought the organizers a nationwide following. During one of the protests, police used force and arrested around 70 demonstrators who were blocking engineers and construction workers from the site.

Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić’s position was shaken by the demonstrations and he faced calls for resignation. Nevertheless, the controversial construction project continued moving forward at year’s end. The activities of Pravo na grad inspired several other protest actions against construction plans around the country, using “Varšavska Street” as a rallying cry for citizens opposing building projects supported by local governments. For example, organizations in the coastal resort city of Dubrovnik invoked Varšavska Street in their campaign against a planned golf course.

The other noteworthy trend in 2010 was a slight moderation of some NGOs associated with the Catholic Church, which often promote ethnic and conservative exclusivity, and war veterans’ groups, which typically support independence from international organizations like the EU and suspending cooperation with the ICTY. While few changes in the orientations of religious organizations were noted, a number of veterans groups appeared to be modifying their public image. Some groups expanded their humanitarian work, collecting aid for survivors of the Haiti earthquake, and also toned down their public statements on support of indicted war criminals. Other groups maintained their entrenched positions. During the one commemoration of WWII events in the region of Lika, several organizations— whose view of the events is far more nationalist than the government’s official position—protested the government’s financing of the commemoration.

Independent Media: 

There were neither great strides nor significant deterioration in the Croatian news media in 2010. There were still general concerns, such as the dominance of print media by a few companies, the leading position of Croatian National TV, and the overall low standards of journalism in mainstream media. The one counterpoint to these trends was the continued rise and use of internet-based media for news and commentary.

Croatia’s national television network, Hrvatska Radio Televizija (HRT), remains the most influential news source in the country, with more than half of the population using it as its primary source of information. The development of private, nationwide television stations in the past several years (including Nova and RTL) has not challenged HRT to improve but, rather, to commercialize. While HRT has transformed from state to public TV, in reality, it is a hybrid of public, state, and commercial TV. By law, all households must pay a fee for HRT even though it continues to run advertisements. One of the loudest critics of this practice, the domestic Association of Commercial Media (Koordinacija komercijalnih medija), notes that parliament provided the broadcaster with 6 billion kuna (US$1.1 billion) during the last five years, while HRT collects 1.2 billion kuna (US$200 million) per year from mandatory fees, while also earning commerical revenue.[21]

Print media in Croatia also benefit from the public purse through cozy advertising relationships with state-owned companies and government agencies. Combined with the economic crisis that has reduced newsroom budgets, the increased dependence on government advertising raises questions about the ability of journalists to be neutral watchdogs of the government or its interests.

The largest owner of print media in Croatia is German’s WAZ Medien Gruppe, which owns half of Europapress Holding (EPH). WAZ and local media owners Nino Pavić and Miroslav Kutle own about 50 percent of the print media, including the major dailies Jutarnji List, Slobodna Dalmacija, Sportske novosti, Slavonski dom, Dubrovački vjesnik, Šibenski list, and weeklies and monthly magazines such as Globus, Arena, Auto klub, Gloria, Cosmopolitan, Teen, Moja tajna, O.K., and Playboy. The other large print media investor is Styria Media Group of Austria, owner of most of the remaining dailies and weeklies.[22]

The tabloid 24 Sata is the only profitable mainstream newspaper, with an estimated daily circulation of 163,000, followed by Vecernji List with 75,000 copies. Most other publications are struggling to survive and have posted no profit for the last few years, with print media showing a 22 percent decrease in advertising.[23] Such a challenging market environment means that there are few genuinely independent print media. The daily Novi List, based in Rijeka, is one. The Croatian-Serb weekly Novosti is one of the few papers publishing investigative and analytical reports, irrespective of the state support it receives as a minority-run paper.

After 2000, the general democratization of the country did not influence the media sector as might be expected. A concentration of print media ownership and slow, or small, transformational attempts in electronic media generally produced sensationalism rather than more robust journalism. This tendency is not unique to Croatia, but rather seems endemic to the Balkan region as a whole. Many of the most respectable journalists slowly pulled back from mainstream print towards more analytical web portals, writing with the same quality but for a smaller audience. It is estimated that 53 percent of citizens over the age of 15 are using the internet in Croatia, which is near the EU average of 58.4 percent.[24] However, the percentage of users who look to the internet as a news source, rather than entertainment, is unclear. The growth of new media in Croatia is both a sign of increased internet usage and the lack of adequate alternative sources.

Intimidation of journalists in 2010 was latent, rather than active. There were no cases of assassinations or attacks on journalists as in previous years, but self-censorship is believed to be a persistent problem. Court cases relating to the murdered news magazine owner Ivo Pukanić and Dušan Miljuš, a journalist who was brutally attacked in 2008, remained in the public eye during the year. Six men were convicted in the Pukanić case and sentenced to prison terms of 15 to 40 years, but no one has been charged for ordering the killing. Four people were charged in late December in connection with the attack on investigative reporter Miljuš.

Local Democratic Governance: 

As a legacy of the Tudjman era, Croatia is administratively divided into 20 županijas (counties established around the 20 largest cities), 126 cities, and 429 municipalities. Many suggest that Tudjman created županijas to more easily control the country during the war years (1991–95), while afterward, županija administration offices were mostly used as a political patronage system to consolidate the president’s power and that of his party, the HDZ. By contrast, during the period of the Yugoslavian federation (1945–91), Croatia had only 69 cities and 103 municipalities.

Talk of new models for regionalization surfaced in 2010, but without clear political strategies for their realization. There was agreement around two main alternatives, a five-region model and a three-region model based on EU structuralfund divisions.[25] However, even though the system of županijas is understood as ineffective, the political will to change it is still not present. Decreasing the number of municipalities is more difficult than expected even though many rural municipalities are not able to financially support themselves due to the small number of citizens and absence of economic development.

Tensions caused by the current system continued to grow during the year, with numerous examples of strained budgets and difficult decision-making between the local and central powers. One closely watched standoff at mid-year involved the declared closing of state-run maternity hospitals in the Dalmatian cities of Makarska, Sinj, Imotski, Supetar, and Slavonia Djakovo due to insufficient equipment, personnel, or finances to keep them operating or to modernize the facilities according to state regulations.[26] This brought loud protest from citizens, political parties, and various civic groups. With the state health system centralized in Zagreb, none of the cities could collect sufficient finances to maintain their facilities. Ultimately, the reopening of several hospitals calmed local concerns, but it did not address the increasingly difficult problem of state versus local funding and decision-making, or the mechanisms that are needed to tackle contentious local issues.

Similarly, there were several standoffs between the local and national officials regarding the Law on Golf Courses (Zakon o golf igralištima). The law allows locally designated green and agriculture areas to be rezoned and made into strategic investment areas for golf courses, hotels, and other tourism infrastructure, without local due process or public participation in decision-making. This issue erupted simultaneously in Dubrovnik,[27] near Zadar,[28] and in Istria.[29] Croatia is one of the few countries with such a law.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

Croatia does not have a legacy of judicial independence. Reform has been part of the government agenda, particularly since 2000, but political influence, as well as capacity issues, is often cited as a concern in external assessments of the reform process. There was a marked increase in government efforts to investigate corruption allegations, but the complex cases pose a challenge for a judicial system that is still developing and does not yet have a large corps of professional or experienced judges.

Judicial reform throughout 2010 was closely connected to the ability of the legal framework to investigate and process corruption cases, especially within publicsector and state-funded projects. The large number of cases opened throughout the year by the Office for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) suggested a government that had gotten more serious about making a meaningful dent in corruption. These included cases involving three state-run companies— INA (oil and gas), HEP (electricity) and Brodosplit (shipbuilding)—as well as the conviction of former Vice Prime Minister Damir Polančec for corruption-related charges, and the indictment of HEP’s former chief executive, Ivan Mravak.

Even one longtime case against a war crimes suspect appeared to be coming to a close. After a guilty sentence for war crimes in 2009, former MP Branimir Glavaš fled to Bosnia to escape arrest. A newly formed bilateral agreement between the two countries forces Glavaš to decide whether he will serve his sentence for war crimes in Croatia or in Bosnia. In addition, during October 2010, USKOK opened investigations against five people accused of attempting to bribe Supreme Court (Vrhovni sud) judges in connection with the Glavaš case. Among the accused were a politician from the Croatian Democratic Assembly of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB), and an editor of a Slavonian daily newspaper, both from the city of Osijek.

Despite the corruption crackdown, there were still cases in 2010 where the independence of the judicial system from political pressure was in doubt. The judiciary’s functioning remains challenged in a number of respects, with only slow progress made in administrative reform efforts that have been under way for several years. The continued backlog of cases, while somewhat improved, remained a barrier due to legal fees and years of case continuations.[30]

The most significant areas of judicial reform in 2010 were those connected to the implementation of EU accession reforms. With EU membership in mind, Croatia made several constitutional changes—the fourth set of amendments since the constitution’s adoption in 1990— aimed at allowing easier adoption of EU regulations across many areas of legislation. Significant compromises between the main political parties on these constitutional changes reinforced the general political consensus towards full EU membership, as well as continuation of the reform process.[31]

Attempts to close Chapter 23 of the EU accession process, which focuses on justice and fundamental rights, were still in progress at year’s end. The European commissioner in charge of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, issued a statement in late October in support of the country’s efforts to combat corruption, but there were no clear signals of when negotiations on the justice and fundamental rights chapter would be successfully concluded. Croatia’s official completion of Chapter 23 had been blocked for several years by the Netherlands, Britain, France, Belgium, and Denmark. The countries have insisted on an ICTY opinion on Croatia’s investigation of the so-called Artillery Diaries that were requested but never delivered to the war crimes tribunal. The five countries lifted their opposition in early 2010 while Croatia continued to search for the ICTY-requested documents.

Corruption: 

Some of Croatia’s problems with graft can be traced to the Tudjman era, when the urgency of wartime demands was used to privatize public companies in a manner that concentrated much of the country’s resources into the hands of a few entrepreneurs loyal to Tudjman. After his death and the democratic change of government in 2000, these activities become more obvious to the general public, but it was not until the summer of 2010 that the government changed the constitution to proclaim that privatization crimes committed during the war era do not have an expiration date. The government intensified its anticorruption campaign, focusing on the investigation and prosecution of corrupt practices.

Public restlessness over the economic crisis and announced cuts in government spending shone a spotlight on unexplained state investments and public spending at both the national and local levels. This spurred the government to look higher than the small fish of the Index and Maestro cases of previous years,[32] ushering in a housecleaning of high-level ranks and companies.

The extent to which this was comprehensive is open to debate. However, it was clear that the political will had been mustered to examine in a more serious way connections between powerful political and business figures. During the year there was an almost constant opening of high-level investigations on corrupt public and political figures, and former Vice Prime Minister Damir Polančec was sentenced in 2010 for corruption and abuse of power. A law adopted at the end of 2010 allows courts to freeze property of accused persons even before final sentencing.

The Office for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime targeted some of the highest-ranking figures believed to be involved in abusing their offices. Polančec also spent several weeks answering USKOK questions on suspicious details of the national oil company privatization and relations with the Hungarian petroleum company MOL, as well as with other cases. The former Croatian Electric Company (HEP) chief executive, Ivan Mravak, and prominent HDZ figure Ante Barišić were questioned over actions of the Sanader-led government.

For the current government, it is politically convenient to target the former government of Ivo Sanader and to investigate many of the deals during that time. It is still not clear whether these investigations are politically driven or to what extent prosecutions will follow. Sanader’s arrest on December 10 in Austria—as part of a sweeping investigation of the Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank, which purportedly had nefarious business dealings in Croatia—points to an attempt to break with old governing practices. And yet, not so long ago, officials leading the anticorruption efforts were closely connected to some of those presently targeted in graft inquiries.

Croatia’s State Attorney General, Mladen Bajić, is seen as the chief force behind the push to weed out corruption, although critics say his zeal is a recent development. Some suggest he was complicit in past war crimes when he was a military prosecutor.[33] Appointed in 2002, Bajić enjoys the role of leader of anticorruption investigations, receiving daily public invitations to send his teams to investigate alleged wrongdoing.[34]

Former Justice Minister Ivan Šimonović stated in January 2010 that Croatia needs anticorruption mechanisms that are independent from executive powers, mentioning former PM Sanader’s influence on institutions, including USKOK.[35] Sanader’s arrest and conviction on corruption-related charges would suggest that the former premier has lost whatever influence he previously enjoyed. The fight against corruption has shifted into high gear, but it remains to be seen how determined the government and justice system will be in sifting through a backlog of cases and prosecuting wrongdoing without favor or prejudice.

Notes: 

[1] Enis Zebić, “Hrvatskoj preostala brodogradilišta i anti-korupcija” [Croatia still has to deal with ship-building factories and with anticorruption], Radio Slobodna Europa, 9 November 2010, http://www.slobodnaevropa.org/content/izvjestaj_evropske_komisije_balkan....

[2] “SDP nikada nije tako dugo imao prednost pred HDZ-om” [SDP has never had such a long period of being more popular than the HDZ], Jutarnji list, 7 August 2010, http://www.jutarnji.hr/sdp-nikada-nije-tako-dugo-imao-prednost-pred-hdz-....

[3] Bandić left the SDP before elections and retained his position as Zagreb mayor without SDPsupport.

[4] A good number of Bosnian Croats retain two citizenships and continue to vote for elections in Croatia despite concerns voiced by the EU and government plans to begin to address the dual citizenship issue. For more explanation of this issue see the Croatia report in Nations in Transit 2010.

[5] SDP collected 58 MPs’ signatures to initiate a parliamentary vote, even though Kosor had the support of the majority in the 153-member parliament; 50 percent plus one vote was needed to overthrow the government.

[6] “SDP nikada nije tako dugo imao prednost pred HDZ-om,” Jutarnji list.

[7] SDP leader Zoran Milanović and other political opposition emphasized that no date of Croatian acceptance into the EU has been mentioned, suggesting that country is wasting years under HDZ rule. See “Milanović izgubio živce” [Milanovic lost his patience], Croportal, 27 October 2010, http://www.croportal.net/novosti/Milanovic_izgubio_zivce_vikao_Pismo_iz_....

[8] The Artillery Diaries or Artillery Journal are (reportedly) technical documents made by the armed forces about the types of artillery and number of shells used in military actions around Knin during the 1991–1995 war. War crimes in these cases are alleged.

[16] Gojko Bežovan, Siniša Zrinščak, and Marina Vugec, Civilno društvo u procesu stjecanja povjerenja u Hrvatskoj i izgradnje partnerstva s državom i drugim dionicima, CIVICUS-ov Index civilnog društva u Hrvatsko [CIVICUS Civil Society Index Croatia] (Zagreb: Centar za razvoj neprofitnih organizacija (CERANEO) and CIVICUS, 2005), http://ceraneo.hr/dokumenti/ICD_u_Hrvatskoj.doc.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Skandalozno je da Vlada nema namjeru povući homofobični udžbenik za vjeronauk” [It is a scandal that the government doesn’t want to change homophobic school books for religious studies], Index.hr, 10 August 2010, http://www.index.hr/vijesti/clanak/kontra-skandaloznoje-da-vlada-nema-na....

[19] “Sindikati: Izmjene Zakona o radu šaljemo na referendum” [Unions: Changes within Labor Law on Referendum], Jutarnji list, 1 June 2010, http://www.jutarnji.hr/sindikatireferendumom-protiv-izmjena-zakona-o-rad....

[20] Ozren Matijašević, “Ustavni sud donio je odluku po diktatu” [Constitutional court has ruled by dictate], Vecernji list, 20 October 2010, http://www.vecernji.hr/vijesti/matijasevicustavni-sud-donio-je-odluku-di... and “GONG o odluci Ustavnog suda” [GONG on Constitutional court ruling], Index.hr, 21 October 2010, http://www.index.hr/vijesti/clanak/gong-o-odluci-ustavnog-suda-pa-suci-ustavnog-suda-birani-su-gotovo-prekonoci/519142.aspx.

[21] “HRT dobio novca više nego što su svi drugi zaradili” [HRT earned more money than all others], Danas.net, 18 October 2010, http://danas.net.hr/hrvatska/page/2010/10/18/0261006.html.

[22] These include: Večernji list, 24sata, Poslovni dnevnik, TV tjedan, Metropol, as well as revial print as Elle, Elle dekor, Men’s Health, National Geographic, Lisa, Čarolija okusa, Moj lijepi vrt, Moj stan, Moje dijete, Story, Stars, GEO, Klik, Gala style, Sensa and Burda.

[23] See “Masakr na tržištu novena” [Massacre of the Print Media Market], T-portal, 27 July 2010, http://www.tportal.hr/biznis/gospodarstvo/79190/24-sata-u-plusu-svi-drug.... html; and “Smanjenje marketinških budžeta” [Cutting of Commercial Budgets], Novi list, 15 July 2010, http://www.novilist.hr/Vijesti/Gospodarstvo/oglasavanje-u-medijima-palo-....

[24] See “Masakr na tržištu novena” [Massacre of the Print Media Market], T-portal, 27 July 2010, http://www.tportal.hr/biznis/gospodarstvo/79190/24-sata-u-plusu-svi-drugi-u-problemima.html; and “Smanjenje marketinških budžeta” [Cutting of Commercial Budgets], Novi list, 15 July 2010, http://www.novilist.hr/Vijesti/Gospodarstvo/oglasavanje-u-medijima-palo-17-p.

[25] See “Županović: Dosta državne i lokalne centralizacije!” [Županović: Enough with State and Regional Centralization!], Dalje.com, 14 January 2010, http://dalje.com/hr-hrvatska/zupanovic--dosta-drzavne-i-lokalne-centrali... and “Ni jedna od tri statisticke regije nece ostati bez europskih sredstava” [None of the Three Statistical Regions will lose European Funds], Entereurope.hr, n.d., http://www.entereurope.hr/cpage.aspx?page=clanci.aspx&pageID=13&clanakID....

[26] Anto Mikić, “Zatvaranje rodilišta” [Closing Down the Maternity Hospitals], T-portal.hr, 14 May 2010, http://www.tportal.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/68241/Zatvaranje-rodilista-ne-bri....

[27] “Srdj je nas” [Srdj is Ours], Dubrovacki vijesnik, 1 September 2010, http://www.dubrovacki.hr/clanak/22270/srd-je-nas.

[28] “Izgovor za legalnu pljacku” [The Excuse for Legal Robbery], Narodni list, 11 May 2010, http://www.narodni-list.hr/articles/6oxsfun8qCd.

[29] “Udruge traze ukidanje zakona o gofu” [NGOs Want Law on Golf Courses Down], Glas Istre, n.d.

[30] The European Commission notes that “judicial efficiency has improved with the backlog of cases before the courts further reduced by 10%, including good progress on reducing the number of cases older than three years. The legal basis for a new system of administrative justice was introduced. However, the backlog of cases has been reduced unevenly across the various courts and overall remains high.” See European Commission, Croatia 2010 Progress Report (Brussels: European Commission, 9 November 2010): 8, http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2010/package/hr_rappor....

[31] “Nakon godinu dana dogovaranja” [After a year of negotiations], T-portal.hr, 15 June 2010, http://www.tportal.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/73007/Sabor-potvrduje-promjene-Ustava.html.

[32] Operation Index targeted professors and students involved in corrupt practices within universities; Operation Maestro targeted the Croatian Privatization Fund. Neither operation charged or indicted any high-level actors. See Nations in Transit 2009 for more details.

[33] The Dalmatian Committee for Human Rights (Dalmatinski komitet za ljudska prava) from Split continued its work on war crimes related to Lora prison, with findings that are negatively implicating current state prosecutor Mladen Bajić as personally responsible given his role as military prosecutor from 1992–95. See “Bio u Lori, ali nije čuo jauke” [He was in Lora but he didn’t hear the screams], H-Alter, 15 October 2010, http://www.h-alter.org/vijesti/hrvatska/bio-u-lori-ali-nije-cuo-jauke .

[34] “Tko danas stiti Mladena Bajića i zašto?” [Who today protects Mladen Bajić and why?], Index.hr, 26 September 2010, http://www.index.hr/vijesti/clanak/tko-danas-stiti-mladenabajica-i-zasto....

[35] Šimonović was also understood to be a motor of positive reform. His surprising resignation in May 2010 to become UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights did not carry any murky motives. But it did suggest that the judicial reform process and its current main task of investigating and prosecuting corruption still holds many pitfalls and cannot be dependent on any one or several individuals.