Friday, 1 February 2019

Serbia’s Jugobanka Loses Suit against Croatia

ZAGREB, February 1, 2019 - Zagreb's Commercial Court has turned down a motion by Belgrade's Jugobanka, which is in official receivership and which asked for nearly 21 million euro and 2.6 million Swiss francs from Croatia, arguing that it was a debt stemming from loans which were used between 1985 and 1989 by the Croatian companies 3. Maj, Varteks and Duhan, and that the loans were being repaid to the Paris Club by Serbia, instead of Croatia.

The lawsuit, filed in 2009, says that Jugobanka bases is claim on Annex 6 from the succession treaty to the former Yugoslavia, i.e. provisions on the servicing of loans and other liabilities from agreements with the governments of the Paris Club member states.

Responding to the lawsuit, the Croatian State Prosecutor's Office said Croatia had not undertaken the obligation to repay loans contracted by Jugobanka Udružena Banka Beograd branches nor the obligation to repay debts contracted by Jugobanka d.d Beograd as the Croatian branch.

Croatia said it had not undertaken those obligations either in bilateral agreements with the German and Swiss governments.

The fact that the end users of loans for which Jugobanka Udružena Banka Beograd borrowed abroad were based in Croatia does not mean that Croatia was obliged to pay to Paris Club member states the amounts which said bank had borrowed, Zagreb's Commercial Court says in the explanation of its ruling, which can be appealed.

Croatia's obligation to those states stems only from the international agreements Croatia signed with Germany and Switzerland, the explanation says.

More news on Croatia banks can be found in the Business section.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Croatian Culture Minister Meets with Serbian Counterpart

ZAGREB, January 28, 2019 - Croatian Culture Minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek on Monday met with her Serbian counterpart Vladan Vukosavljević, who was taking part in a commemorative event at the invitation of the Serb National Council, and the two ministers talked about cultural cooperation and restitution of Croatian cultural objects, the ministry said in a press release.

The two ministers concurred that the long-standing process of restitution of Croatian cultural assets is nearing a completion.

From 2001 to 2018, more than 29,885 moveable cultural objects were returned to museums, churches, monasteries and archives while the remaining artefacts yet to be returned mostly belong to the Krk and Šibenik Serb Orthodox monasteries, the ministry said.

The talks also focused on a Croatian-Serbian combined government committee for minorities which is scheduled to convene its eighth meeting in Zagreb in February.

The ministers commended the good cooperation within the framework of the Southeast European Advisory Board with emphasis on cooperation in strengthening a culture for sustainable development, the importance of museums in society, their role in protecting and promoting cultural wealth and of their role in promoting cultural and social diversity.

The next meeting of southeast European cultural ministers is schedule for April in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

The ministers assessed that good cooperation existed within the framework of China+16 initiative.

The two ministers commended bilateral cooperation involving the exchange of visiting theatre companies as well as developing cultural and literary cooperation between Croatian and Serbia.

The ministers also discussed the preparation of a cultural cooperation programme based on a bilateral agreement and possible exchange of certain modern art exhibitions, the ministry concluded.

More news on the cultural policy in Croatia can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Vučić Calls for Better Relations between Croatia and Serbia

ZAGREB, January 25, 2019 - Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said on Friday that Croatia and Serbia should have much better relations if they wanted to survive, adding that the entire region should stop thinking about the past and look forward.

"What I am not happy about are political relations in the region," Vučić told Hina and the Croatian public broadcaster HRT on the margins of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

"There are always countless problems there, too much thinking about the past and too little about the future, but I guess it's the characteristic of all of us and that's what we'll have to change," the Serbian president said.

Vučić earlier attended a panel on the Western Balkans together with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and had an opportunity to talk to him informally.

He said that economic relations were much better than the political situation in the region. "I think that the Serbs and Croats as nations, not just the Serbian and Croatian states, regardless of their emotions which are not always good, must have much better relations if they both want to survive," Vučić said.

He said that both countries had "terrible demographics" as many people were emigrating. "If we are to survive, we will have to work together, get closer to each other, and that will happen," Vučić said.

He added that the Croats and Serbs would find ways of cooperating once they started thinking less about "stabbing one another in the back" and became more focused on the future. "I absolutely believe in this," he stressed.

Vučić said that relations with Priština were a burning issue for Belgrade, and that the imposition by Kosovo of customs duties on imports from Serbia was against all European rules. He said that all important European and world stakeholders had told him in Davos that they were against Kosovo's move.

Speaking of other problems in the region, Vučić mentioned the latest initiative by the Bosniak SDA party in Bosnia and Herzegovina for assessment of the constitutionality of the name of Republika Srpska, the country's Serb entity.

Its name "is a Dayton category, it's a constitutional category of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They cannot do that and expect support from the world," the Serbian president said.

The announcement by the SDA that it will formally ask the Constitutional Court to assess whether the name of the Bosnian Serb entity is constitutional has met with strong reactions in the country and condemnation from the international community. SDA leader Bakir Izetbegović said on Thursday that it was a legitimate initiative the aim of which was to eliminate evident discrimination against non-Serbs living in Republika Srpska.

More news on the relations between Croatia and Serbia can be found in the Politics section.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Croats in Serbia Encouraged by Messages from Croatia's Leaders

ZAGREB, January 24, 2019 - The leader of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV), Tomislav Žigmanov, said that the messages and promises by the prime minister and president of Croatia during his visit to Zagreb this week were encouraging and stimulating for Croats in Serbia, Croatian-language media in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina said on Thursday.

Žigmanov said his delegation was encouraged by the readiness of the Croatian leadership to support, both politically and financially, their major projects.

He said that they had discussed several projects of great importance for the Croatian minority in Serbia, including the opening of the birth house of Ban Jelačić in Petrovaradin, an educational and recreational centre on the Croatian Adriatic coast, office space for the Hrvatska Riječ publishing house in Subotica, and the opening of regional offices of the Croatian National Council.

He said they had also talked about Croatian-Serbian relations and concluded that they were stagnating.

"These relations are currently almost at a standstill. We are suffering the consequences of that, but we cannot make them better," Žigmanov said, adding that expectations for 2019 are not optimistic because of an expected early election in Serbia and the ongoing instability over Kosovo.

More news on the status of Croats in Serbia can be found in the Diaspora section.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Government to Increase Funding for Croats in Serbia

ZAGREB, January 23, 2019 - Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said on Tuesday that his government is ready to increase funding for specific projects that are important for the position of Croats in Serbia, a government press release said.

Plenković met in Zagreb with the head of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV) and member of the Serbian parliament, Tomislav Žigmanov, and the newly-elected president of the Croatian National Council in Serbia, Jasna Vojnić.

Plenković "expressed the readiness of the Croatian government to increase allocations in the coming period for specific projects that are important for the position of the 58,000-strong Croatian community in Serbia and for the protection of Croatian cultural identity," the press release said.

Žigmanov and Vojnić spoke of the dialogue they had begun at the start of last year with senior Serbian officials. They cited the importance of achieving better opportunities for education in the Croatian language and Latin alphabet and the appropriate representation of the Croatian minority in the National Assembly and regional and local legislatures. They also called for including the Croatian community in EU-funded cross-border projects, the press release said.

Žigmanov, said during a visit to Zagreb on Tuesday that the Croats in Serbia were "a wounded community" and needed Croatia's assistance in achieving their priorities. "The Croatian community in Serbia is poorly developed institutionally. We are a wounded community, a community that has the lowest GDP in Europe. We are the poorest Croats in the world, we live in a very unfavourable social environment where over 50 percent of people have a highly negative opinion of Croats, where tensions between the two countries reached the highest-level last year," Žigmanov told a press conference after meeting with President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović.

He said that the Croatian community was considerably less developed than other minorities in Serbia and had much less money at its disposal. This makes the position of the Croats in Serbia more complex and diminishes their prospects, he added. "We expect to see how Croatia can help us with our priorities," Žigmanov said, noting that the Croatian community in Serbia still could not achieve certain things without the Croatian government's help.

Thanking the Croatian government for what it had done so far, Žigmanov said that the Croats in Serbia had "a vision and the energy" to carry through development projects, but needed assistance.

Speaking of the Croatian minority's basic political demand to have guaranteed representation in the Serbian parliament, Žigmanov said that this was the most complex issue and that it was still far from resolution. "We will see if and when it will be achieved, but we are not giving up on it."

Asked what would happen in Serbia if Croatian children did not stand up for the Serbian national anthem, as had been the case in Vukovar when Serb children remained seated at a sporting event during the playing of the Croatian anthem, Žigmanov would not speculate about it, saying he wanted to help relax Croatian-Serbian relations. "Such comparisons are very difficult to make. What is important is that we do not manifest such deficits of loyalty and have not had such experiences," he said.

"We, of course, are not happy when ethnically-motivated incidents happen, but what we have seen to exist as a practice in Croatia and not in Serbia is that there are condemnations and appropriate penalties and that attention is drawn to unlawful acts," Žigmanov said, noting that the situation in Croatia was generally much better than in Serbia.

"A convicted war criminal, Vojislav Šeselj, has threatened to commit a war crime against me, and none of the government officials has reacted to that, nor have any steps been taken by prosecutors or any other institution," he said.

Žigmanov said that the citizens of Croatia could be satisfied with the situation in their country, which he described as institutionally developed and well-functioning.

More news on the status of Croats in Serbia can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Foreign Minister Rejects High Treason Allegations

ZAGREB, January 18, 2019 - Foreign Minister Marija Pejčinović Burić on Friday dismissed the accusations of high treason and favouring Serbia's interests levelled against her by the political secretary of the opposition MOST party, Nikola Grmoja, saying MOST had done nothing to prevent Serbia from opening EU accession negotiations on Chapter 23 while it was part of the government.

Speaking at an extraordinary press conference, the minister recalled the establishment of a commission following the implementation of transitional benchmarks in chapters 23 and 24 as part of Serbia's European Union accession negotiations.

"The commission was established in 2016 under a decision of the then caretaker government and the commission was tasked solely with following the implementation of transitional benchmarks in negotiation chapters 23 and 24. The fact is that MOST was in power at that time. Why didn't the justice minister, the one in charge of monitoring the implementation of Chapter 23, block the closure of that chapter, which he absolutely could have done and had the right to do?" said Pejčinović Burić.

Pejčinović Burić said Croatia "is closely and systematically following" Serbia's compliance with all commitments and that chapters 23 and 24 were "key for Serbia's overall progress in the accession process."

She said it was in Croatia's interest to push for the rights of Croats in Serbia, resolving the issue of persons gone missing in the 1990s war as well as jurisdiction. "Serbia hasn't closed even one chapter in more than five years," she added.

Serbia opened chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) in summer 2016, but they will be closed only at the end of the negotiation process, after the benchmarks have been met. At the time, MOST was a ruling coalition partner of the HDZ party in the Tihomir Orešković cabinet and the minister of justice was MOST's Ante Šprlje.

Grmoja said in parliament on Wednesday that Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovič was "working for Serbia's interests." "Serbia has opened new chapters in negotiations with the EU and Croatia has done nothing about it, even though Serbia is not meeting the benchmarks undertaken from Chapter 23," he said, adding that Pejčinović Burić "is breaching a government decision and not convening the commission, while our former camp inmates are bringing suits against Serbia alone, without any help."

Last December, Serbia opened negotiations on chapters 17 (Economic and Monetary Union) and 18 (Statistics).

The minister also commented on today's press conference by Hrast MP Hrvoje Zekanović and Croatian member of the European Parliament Ruža Tomašić, who called for an unreserved blockade of Serbia's EU entry talks until outstanding issues between Croatia and Serbia have been dealt with.

Pejčinović Burić said she was not surprised by Zekanović's request but was by Tomašić's. "If she's that unfamiliar with the accession negotiations process and the functioning of the European Union, then we can really wonder what she has done in Strasbourg and Brussels for more than five years."

More news on the relations between Croatia and Serbia can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Parties Call for Blockade of Serbia-EU Membership Talks

ZAGREB, January 18, 2019 - The sole parliamentary deputy of the HRAST party, Hrvoje Zekanović, and the leader of the Croatian Conservative Party, Ruža Tomašić, who is a Croatian member of the European Parliament, on Friday called on Croatia's leadership to block the ongoing Serbia-EU membership talks, until Serbia started solving the outstanding issues in its relations with Croatia.

Zekanović suggested that one of the conditions for Serbia's entry to the Union should be Belgrade's recognition that Croatia was exposed to "Serbo-Chetnik" aggression and that Belgrade should pay war damages to Croatia.

Accusing Prime Minister Andrej Plenković of a lenient attitude toward that eastern neighbour, Zekanović said his party would insist on this topic of the blockade of Serbia's accession negotiations until Plenković began behaving like a sovereigntist.

The HRAST MP said that the Croatian government had to insist that the international community made Serbia's admission to the EU conditional on solving its outstanding issues with Croatia.

MEP Tomašić said that it was not still explained to sufficient extent to the international community what happened during the 1991-1995 Homeland War. A part of MEPs still think that it was a civil war, she warned.

Zekanović condemned an incident in Vukovar when a student of the Serb descent was attacked this past Wednesday. According to media outlets' reports, the student was assaulted by a few masked assailants while he was staying at a bus station in Vukovar. Local Serb representatives were quoted by the media as saying that the incident was a consequence of the policies run by Mayor Ivan Penava, who recently raised the question if Croatia should keep silent about some Serb students in a Vukovar school who refused to stand for the Croatian anthem.

Zekanović said he condemned any form of violence.

More news on the relations between Croatia and Serbia can be found in the Politics section.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Croatian Defence Minister Reported for War Crimes in Serbia

ZAGREB, January 12, 2019 - Croatian Defence Minister Damir Krstičević on Saturday commented on a complaint filed against him Serbia for war crimes, saying his war past was completely clean but that he was a thorn in the side of many because he was strengthening the victorious Croatian army.

Speaking to reporters in Split, Krstičević said the journey of the 4th guard brigade was one of "pride, honour, heroism." "The Red Berets did everything they should in the Homeland War. I'm extremely happy to have commanded the 4th Brigade."

Belgrade's Politika newspaper said today that Serbian lawyer Dušan Bratić had pressed charges against Krstičević and others on suspicion that they killed 81 Serb civilians in 1995. The paper said Krstičević was the commander of the Croatian army's 4th brigade and that it participated in the shelling of columns of Serb refugees in Bravnice near Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina on 12 and 13 September 1995.

Asked if he thought he would have movement trouble because of the charges, Krstičević said: "Why? Because of which complaint? I don't consider that a complaint. I'm a free man and I honourably defended the homeland. I'm extremely proud of that and one should know that Croatia was subjected to a brutal aggression and I proudly commanded the 4th brigade."

Krstičević said many "want to smear" that brigade and him as its commander. "I repeat, I'm completely clean and innocent."

Asked if he had been at the location near Jajce mentioned in the criminal complaint, he said "it is known where the 4th guard brigade was, and it was liberating Croatia." He said the brigade was not in Bravnice on 12 and 13 September 1995.

The minister said he had no idea why someone was bringing this up, "evidently with the objective to destabilise myself personally (and) this government." He added that he had no reason to defend himself.

Asked if there was a way to respond to the criminal complaint, he said: "The state should respond. As for my response, I'm here, doing my job."

More news on the defence minister can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Serbian Tennis Star Đoković Calls for Rapprochement with Croats

Croatian footballer Luka Modrić recently spoke in very nice terms about Novak Đoković, and now the Serbian tennis star has returned the favour, reports Večernji List on January 4, 2019.

“I would like to thank him! I have the highest possible opinion about Luka. I met him last year in America. I respect everybody, especially those who have sacrificed a lot and who have achieved such success as he and the Croatian national football team have, although they came from such a small country. I supported them at the World Cup with my whole heart,” said Đoković for the Serbian daily Blic.

“I know what the political situation is, and I know the wounds from the war are still fresh for many people. I can only imagine how people who have lost someone in the war feel. It is a sensitive subject, and I would not go much into it, I would just express my compassion and understanding. Really, prayers for everyone because war has not brought anything good to anyone,” said Đoković.

“I firmly believe that sports should always be kept out of politics. I believe in this, as do many other athletes. The vast majority, if not all the athletes from the region I have met and with whom I had the opportunity to talk, are on a similar mental frequency with regards to sensitive topics. We leave others to deal with them,” said Đoković.

“We are athletes and, by demonstrating mutual respect, we show that sport is above everything else. It is certainly difficult for many people to forget some of the things which took place. And I am sure they cannot forget it. Especially this cannot be done by people who have felt the direct impact of the war, but one simply has to go on living. They are our first neighbours – Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia and Macedonia – and I somehow consider them to be my own. I have never had a different opinion, and I will never change it,” concluded Đoković.

More news on the relations between Croatia and Serbia can be found in our Politics section.

Translated from Večernji List.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Croatian Politics 2018: A Year in Review

Years pass, but some things never change in Croatian politics. The year which is about to end has again been full of drama and scandals, and just occasional good news. Remarkably, many of the same issues which you will read about here have featured prominently in our reviews for 2016 and 2017 as well, which just shows that most problems in Croatia are just swept under the rug and never solved. What follows is Croatian Politics 2018, a review of events which will be remembered from the past year, as reported by TCN.

The year began with tensions in the Bay of Piran, part of the Adriatic Sea which Croatia and Slovenia both claim. In late 2017, Slovenia decided to implement the decision by arbitration tribunal which awarded Slovenia most of the bay. However, Croatia has refused to accept the decision, saying that the arbitration process was compromised by Slovenian government representatives who were in collusion with a supposedly independent arbitrator. The tensions raged for a few weeks, with MEPs proposing military solutions and war veterans talking about organising a rather provocative regatta. Eventually, reason prevailed, and the tensions died down. However, the issue is still unresolved, despite assurances to the opposite, with Croatia calling for negotiations and Slovenia insisting on the implementation of the arbitration decision. You are sure to read about this dispute in our 2019 review as well, particularly given Slovenia’s decision to file a lawsuit against Croatia.

Relations with Serbia are always in the focus of interest, and this year was no exception. In January, the government was surprised to hear that President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović had invited Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to visit Croatia officially. After a short argument over who is really leading Croatia’s foreign policy, Vučić arrived in Zagreb. While the visit mostly went well, the relations between the two countries deteriorated steadily throughout the year and the debate about whether Vučić should have been invited at all continued. Another turn for the worse took place in April when a Croatian parliamentary delegation’s visit to Belgrade was cut short after an incident in the Serbian parliament caused by a notorious Serbian MP and war criminal Vojislav Šešelj. Tension rose again in August when the anniversary of Operation Storm is traditionally celebrated, marking Croatia’s liberation of previously occupied territories in 1995. Serbian President Vučić gave a series of provocative statements, including comparing Croatia to Hitler.

As for the economy, January brought the first worrying signs about the future of Croatian shipyards, a low number of new orders, and about the government’s apparent unwillingness to continue to cover shipyards’ losses. Later in the year, the crisis in the Uljanik shipyard in Pula and its 3. Maj branch in Rijeka would feature prominently in our reporting. Workers spent months striking due to unpaid wages. As the year ends, the situation is still dire and “strategic partners” which the government hopes to find are nowhere to be seen.

“Reforms” is one of the most popular words of Croatian politicians. Every year in January we can hear officials saying that the year ahead is “the year of reforms” which will make Croatia much more prosperous. Needless to say, these promises are never fulfilled, and 2018 did not disappoint. The issue served the president well since she was able to attack the government for lack of reform efforts whenever it suited her.

Ideological debates and historical revisionism attempts continued in 2018 as well. In February, the government-appointed historical commission published its recommendations on issues related to the authoritarian regimes from Croatia’s past, but the conclusions did not satisfy anyone, except for the prime minister, who likes to pretend that the recommendations have solved the problem.

The year which is about to end has again brought us the problem of censorship, questions about media freedoms, warnings about the rise of the far right, separate commemorations held in Jasenovac, the parliament refusing to sponsor anti-fascism events, people destroying flower beds because they reminded them of communism, historical revisionism on the public television, assaults on journalists, satirists receiving death threats, “suspect” politicians being assaulted, photos of Tito slipping from under Croatia’s coat of arms, former prime ministers being sentenced for corruption, and media regulators receiving death threats.

The Catholic Church is undoubtedly part of the political life in Croatia, so it is no wonder that rumours about changes coming to its leadership draw considerable attention. While nothing has been confirmed, it is expected that the Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Josip Bozanić, could be replaced in the new year. In the meantime, the church has continued to receive vast amounts of money from the state budget, meddle in politics, as well as advise the government on the new abortion law, 

The demographic crisis continued, with high emigration and low birth rates bringing down the number of inhabitants. The president and the government argued about who and what was to blame. The president even presented her measures to solve the problem, which were soon forgotten, and demanded a special session of the government, which never took place. Proposals were presented on how to convince people not to move, as many sectors faced a lack of workers, while many schools started closing down. The extent of the crisis was such that even Serbian President Vučić became "worried." The only “good news” came at the end of the year when reports claimed that the emigration wave was calming down because everybody who wanted and could have left already did.

One of the issues we write regularly in these annual reviews is the construction of Pelješac Bridge, which will connect the Dubrovnik area with the rest of Croatia without the need for travellers to pass through a short stretch of Bosnian territory. After many years of delays, the project has finally moved into the implementation phase. Early in the year, a decision was made to award the tender for the construction to a Chinese consortium, despite protests made by Bosnia and Herzegovina that the bridge could not be constructed before the border between the two countries in the area is defined. The decision to award the contract to a Chinese bidder also brought about a marked change in relations between Croatia and China, which were later further improved by high-level meetings and visits.

Another perennial issue is the future of INA, Croatia’s national oil company, which is owned jointly by the Croatian government and MOL, Hungarian national oil company. In 2016, the prime minister announced that Croatia would buy back MOL’s share of INA. Two years later, nothing has changed. Earlier this year, the government selected financial advisors for the buyback, but the contract with them was never signed. One of the main issues is the future of the INA refinery in Sisak. While in January the relevant minister said he was optimistic about the refinery’s future, by the end of the year he apparently changed his opinion. Another issue is Croatia’s arrest warrant for MOL’s CEO, which Hungary does not want to implement.

Another year has passed, and the supposedly “strategic” project of an LNG terminal on the island of Krk has again gone nowhere. Multi-year delays have continued. The government announced two tenders trying to find out who would be interested in using the terminal once it is built (if that ever happens), but the results were dismal. Just two government-owned companies applied, presumably after receiving a nudge from officials to send their applications and help the government avoid a total disaster. While the project receives verbal support from foreign governments, no one seems to be interested in sending binding offers to use its capacity.

One piece of good business news was the apparently successful conclusion to the worst part of the crisis in Agrokor, one of Croatia’s largest and most important companies. The agreement between creditors was concluded, thanks mostly to Russian banks, although not without an accompanying scandal about high fees paid to consultants, some of whom actually took part in the secretive process of writing the special law which the government adopted to save the company from collapse. The scandal took out Deputy Prime Minister Martina Dalić and government-appointed commissioner Ante Ramljak, who had to resign under pressure. E-mails were published which showed that the prime minister knew more about the dealings than he initially admitted, but he managed to escape more or less unharmed. Agrokor’s former owner Ivica Todorić, who fled earlier to London to avoid arrest, was extradited to Croatia late in the year, after multiple delays and court proceedings. Even Tony Blair’s wife could not help him. He has since been released on bail and is currently awaiting possible indictment. The legal proceedings are expected to last for many years.

Good economic news brought us the first upgrade in Croatia’s credit rating since 2004. Unemployment numbers were also down, although more due to mass emigration than to economic revival. Good tourism results, especially in the pre-season and post-season, helped Croatia achieve planned economic growth for 2018 (still among the lowest in the EU). Slightly more moderate growth is expected in 2019, with the lack of reforms being the main culprit. The budget recorded another good year, with spending and revenues being more or less balanced, while the public debt has continued to decline. The year ended with another round of tax cuts and pension reform. Croatia has also announced plans that it will adopt the euro as its currency. The process is expected to last many years.

The ratification of the convention on preventing violence against women, the so-called Istanbul Convention, somewhat unexpectedly turned into a crisis for the government in April when a large group of HDZ MPs decided to vote against the proposal, despite prime minister’s insistence that it should be ratified. While the convention was easily adopted thanks to opposition support, it turned into another attempt by HDZ’s right wing to weaken or possibly topple Plenković as party leader and prime minister. Just like several other similar attempts, it did not succeed.

A national security issue which has drawn a lot of media attention throughout the year is the acquisition of military fighter jets. The decision was first delayed for years, then it was supposed to be made in 2017, but again delayed first to early 2018, and then beyond. After much lobbying, the government finally decided to buy 12 F-16s from Israel. The questions about the deal persisted, with many asking why Croatia was “rejuvenating” its air force with ancient aircraft. By the end of the year, the contract for the deal has not yet been signed, amid disputes between the United States and Israel about what equipment Israel can legally sell to Croatia. Grand plans about “strategic cooperation” with Israel also appear to be on hold. Defence Minister Damir Krstičević has invested a great deal of personal effort in the deal, but the acquisition is still in question, and its final fate is yet to be determined.

As expected, the political circus took a break in June due to the World Cup in Russia. While the break was initially expected to last just a couple of weeks, until the Croatian national team is eliminated in the first phase of the competition as usual, its spectacular success extended the political break to a full month and more. Of course, leading politicians did not miss this opportunity to travel to Russia and have their picture taken with footballers and fans. Needless to say, even this occasion, which was supposed to unite the country, brought divisions, primarily due to an appearance by a controversial singer at the homecoming ceremony, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

The Istanbul Convention ratification prompted one of this year’s two referendum initiatives to be launched. The other effort involved proposed changes to the election laws, which would substantially reduce the rights of national minorities to elect their MPs. The government was against the referendums, while the president seemed to be of a different opinion. While both initiatives claimed they had gathered enough signatures for the referendums to be held, the government checked the signatures and conveniently found enough irregularities to lower the number of accepted signatures below the required threshold. This was just one of several attempts to pressure the government from the right.

One of the rare reforms which have begun, at least nominally, is the reform of Croatia’s education system, the so-called “curricular reform.” The issue has caused conflicts between coalition partners, with HNS repeatedly threatening to leave the government if their proposals are not accepted. Their threats were not taken seriously by anyone since it is clear that early parliamentary elections would probably bring about an end for the party.

A scandal broke in September whose consequences are still unclear at this time. A ministerial driver was arrested under suspicion that he had informed a suspect about a police investigation against him. Interestingly, the driver is a close friend of Milijan Brkić, HDZ deputy president and Prime Minister Plenković’s chief intraparty nemesis. While Brkić has denied having any role in the scandal or leaking the information about the investigation, he has been conspicuously absent from public affairs in recent months. Other scandals involving Brkić have also resurfaced, prompting allegations that his opponents were trying to eliminate him politically. On the other hand, some potentially embarrassing documents about him suddenly disappeared. The scandal has even reached the president’s office, with the national security advisor resigning in December under still unclear circumstances.

Relations between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the connected issue of the status of Croats in the neighbouring country, were at the forefront of Croatia’s foreign policy efforts in 2018. With October elections looming, the year began with Bosnian Croats warning that the election law was unfair and that it could lead to a Croat representative in the Bosnian presidency being elected by more numerous Bosniaks. That is precisely what happened, with candidate Željko Komšić winning the post, although he apparently did not have the support of the majority of Bosnian Croats. This prompted Croatia’s government to launch a campaign within the EU to pressure Bosnia into changing its election law, which then brought accusations about meddling in internal affairs of the neighbouring country.

One of the potentially most explosive events of this year was a war veterans’ protest held in Vukovar in October. The veterans complained about the lack of prosecution of persons suspected of committing war crimes against Croats in the Vukovar area in 1991, which was a problem which they discussed earlier in the year as well. However, many believed that the protest was actually just a guise for a right-wing attempt to bring down the government led by moderate Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and replace him as HDZ president with a more extremist candidate. Plenković and his team appeared at first worried that the attempt might succeed, but with time they managed to limit its consequences. Once held, the protest passed without incident and has been more or less forgotten, except when occasional arrests in the area do happen, which then draw condemnation from local Serbs who say the police is arresting then just to satisfy the Croat war veterans. In the meantime, tensions in the town continue.

Throughout the year, rumours about impending ruling coalition reshuffle and/or early parliamentary elections continued. However, unlike in 2017, which brought about a change in the ruling coalition composition, with MOST being replaced by HNS, this year the government was more or less stable. One potential candidate for another reshuffle was Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić, whose parliamentary group somehow manages to “convince” previously opposition MPs to switch parties and cross to his side. Numerous legal proceedings against him have not made him any less desirable patron. The substantial Zagreb city budget which he controls probably has something to do with it. In two years, he has managed to increase the number of his MPs from 1 to 12, with additional expansion of his parliamentary group expected early in the new year. The fact that people did not vote for his party did not discourage him at all. There are rumours that Bandić will use the increase in the number of his MPs, who are crucial for the parliamentary majority, to demand several ministerial posts in the new year.

As for the opposition, turmoil in SDP continued, with several attempts being made to topple the party president and “the leader of the opposition” Davor Bernardić. Fortunately for SDP opponents, these attempts have been unsuccessful, so Bernardić remains in his seat while his party’s popularity continues to plummet, with the latest polls showing it dropping to the third position, behind HDZ and Živi Zid. An increasing number of SDP MPs are leaving the party, with some of them joining the government ranks.

The migrant crisis continued, particularly on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the police employing ever harsher measures to control the borders and NGOs publishing increasingly critical reports about the alleged police violence and irregularities. The police have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, despite video evidence to the contrary.

The migration issue also brought us another controversy, this time with the signing of the Global Compact for Migration in December. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who this year marked three years in office, initially supported the agreement, but then suddenly changed her mind, announcing she would not travel to Marrakesh where the UN conference was held. The government immediately said that Croatia would support the declaration nevertheless, which caused protests from right-wing circles. In the end, the non-binding resolution was supported by Croatia, but no-one really expects it will be implemented.

The final few days of the year brought us another major scandal, whose consequences will become clear in the following months. The president decided to dismiss her domestic policy adviser Mate Radeljić, who many believed had influenced the president to take a more critical position towards the government. After he was dismissed, Radeljić said he was threatened by a Security-Intelligence Agency (SOA) official not to try to damage the president politically after being dismissed. He was allegedly told that the agency was ready to run into him with a car if necessary. The president’s office and the SOA issued statements saying they had acted legally, but interestingly they did not outright deny all of Radeljić’s claims. It is expected that Radeljić’s dismissal will result in better relations between the president on the one side and the government and HDZ leadership on the other, just in time for the presidential elections next year.

Another exciting political year is ahead of us. It will include at least two elections (for European Parliament in May, and for president probably in December), and there is always a possibility the early parliamentary elections might take place. Stay with TCN for all the latest political and business news.

 

Page 9 of 39

Search