Saturday, 28 December 2019

Croatian Politics 2019: A Year in Review

What follows is a review of events in Croatian politics in 2019, as reported by TCN. If you would like to refresh your memory about the events which has led us here, read the reviews for the three previous years (2016, 2017, 2018).

The year started with a high-profile failure by the government. Months after it was announced that Croatia would buy used Israeli F-16 fighter planes, the US government vetoed the sale and the whole project fell through. Despite earlier warnings from experts that the deal was in question, ministers continued to claim that everything was alight. However, after a meeting between high-ranking officials from the United States and Israel, the truth was revealed. Ministers lost their nerves and the government launched an immediate investigation, which expectedly ended without any real results, and also announced that it would re-start the process. To show its level of seriousness, it even established a commission! Twelve months later, the process of deciding which aircraft to buy still hasn't move any further on and is not expected to end for at least another year.

The migrant crisis continued to be in the news this year. The inflow of migrants over the borders with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia increased somewhat, together with media coverage about alleged brutality of Croatian police and illegal pushbacks of migrants to Bosnia. The authorities were quick to deny everything, but the sheer number of documented cases makes it apparent that at least some of the allegations are founded.

Efforts to limit media freedoms continued this year and some reporters were even briefly arrested. Journalists, NGOs and international organisations stood up to these attempts, but the final score is still unknown.

Repression continued in other ways as well, with courts ruling that peaceful protesters should go to prison, Croatia's human rights situation being criticised from abroad, ethnically-motivated assaults (several of them) taking place, ombudswomen’s warnings not being heard, journalists receiving instructions from the president on what to do, and diplomats spreading hate...

Historical revisionism was in full force once again this year. As a result, representatives of Jews, Serbs and anti-fascist organisations once again boycotted the government’s annual commemoration at the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp.

European elections were held in May (with even Pamela Anderson giving recommendations to Croatian voters). While the ruling HDZ party had high hopes earlier in the year (and was supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended one of its rather controversial rallies in Zagreb), the actual results were much tighter and were interpreted by everyone as a success for the opposition (particularly SDP) and a disappointment for the government.

June brought us a few days of excitement when it seemed possible that prime minister Plenković might just succeed in his life-long dream of getting a top EU job. Despite denying he ever wanted such a thing, he was rumoured to be trying to become president of the European Commission (or president of the European Council, or perhaps something else). In the end, he had to return to Croatia empty handed, again denying his alleged attempts.

Unlike Plenković, foreign minister Marija Pejčinović-Burić was more successful in the area of career development. In June, she was elected secretary-general of the Council of Europe. She promptly resigned her post in Croatia and has not been heard about since. Another happy politician is Dubravka Šuica, who has been appointed Croatia’s commissioner in the European Commission.

Mostly good economic news continued. Public debt is at its lowest level in decades, the European Commission concluded that Croatia no longer suffered from excessive economic imbalances, and GDP growth is holding up.

One of the companies which was in the public focus this year was Croatia Airlines, Croatia’s national flag carrier. Its business results were dismal and the search for possible strategic partners was on, but without any real results. The government eventually decided to cover some of the debts, but as the year comes to and end, there is no long-term solution in sight. In the meantime, Zagreb Airport continues to lose airlines using its services.

The construction of an LNG terminal on the island of Krk has apparently started out with strong support from the US government, after many years of delays and announcements. The project is funded from the state budget, since there was no interest among anyone to actually use the terminal. The government claims that there will be interest once the terminal is built, but it would not be the first major government-funded project in Croatia’s history to fail to deliver on its promises.

The construction of Pelješac bridge continues to go at an even faster pace than expected (despite occasional Bosnian protests), mostly thanks to the efforts by the Chinese construction company which won the tender, which also brought about a marked improvement in the relations between Croatia and China. Unfortunately, the construction of the access roads leading up to the bridge has not progressed nearly as fast, with tenders being decided just several months ago. It is quite possible that, when the bridge is built, it will be unusable for a while because there will be no roads leading to it.

Emigration continues amid Croatia's demographic crisis, although somewhat slower than in previous years, probably as a result of the fact that most of those who could have left have already done so. The authorities talk about demographic revival, but nothing much has happened so far.

Political scandals were as numerous as ever. The regional development minister had an accident while driving without a driving license, the agriculture minister forgot to list all his assets on an official statement, the administration minister had his own scandals which were too numerous even to count, and the state assets minister had problems of his own. The Prime minister strongly supported his ministers before some of them resigned, and then he changed his mind and dismissed the rest of them.

The ruling coalition remained stable this year, despite occasional rumours of impending collapse. Ultimatums were rejected, resignations demanded, talks announced, decisions to stay in coalition made, threats given... Just the usual stuff.

As expected, the border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia has not been resolved this year. Slovenia was disappointed with the EU’s decision not to get involved in a dispute between its two members. The chances that this issue will feature in our review for 2020 are quite high.

In October, the European Commission announced that Croatia has fulfilled all the technical conditions to join the Schengen area. However, the final decision will require the unanimous support of all EU member states, and Slovenia does not seem ready to give its approval until the border dispute with Croatia is resolved. 

Another major project is the introduction of euro in Croatia. After a lot of talk, the government has finally sent an official request. The process will certainly take years and opinion is divided as to whether it is a good idea or not.

One of the highlights were the trade union's activities. Earlier in the year, the unions managed to collect enough signatures for a referendum against the government’s pension reform and an increase in the retirement age. The government capitulated and revoked already approved laws (although it previously warned that such a decision would be a disaster).

The other major trade union success was the primary and secondary school strike later in the year. After almost two months, the government capitulated and gave the unions more or less everything they had asked for.

One of the highlights of the next six months will be Croatia’s EU presidency. The government is promoting it as a great success, although all EU member states sooner or later get their chance to hold the rotating presidency. While Croatia's plans are ambitious, their delivery will probably be more modest.

The major event at the end of the year was the first round of Croatia's presidential elections.

While the post is largely ceremonial, elections are held every five years and still manage to occupy public attention for months. Three major candidates launched their bids: incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (officially an independent candidate who in reality is HDZ), former SDP prime minister Zoran Milanović, and singer Miroslav Škoro, who presented himself as a candidate of change, despite having been an MP, a diplomat and a former HDZ member.

The first round was held on December 22. Zoran Milanović won with 29.6% of the vote, followed by Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović with 26.7%. Škoro was third with 24.5%. Milanović and Grabar-Kitarović will take part in the run-off on January 5.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Unions Demand Urgent Meeting with Plenković over Đuro Đaković

ZAGREB, December 19, 2019 - The Metal Workers' Union (SMH) and the Alliance of Autonomous Trade Unions (SSSH) warned on Thursday that the situation at the Đuro Đaković mechanical engineering group was alarming, demanding an urgent meeting with the government to set a date for the appointment of a new management board and to restart production.

"We demand that Prime Minister Andrej Plenković receive representatives of the workers of the Đuro Đaković Group and trade unions not to discuss promises but specific dates and solutions," SSSH leader Mladen Novosel told a press conference.

Novosel expressed fear that the situation in the company, based in the eastern town of Slavonski Brod, resembled that at the failed Uljanik shipyard. "An identical scenario, promises, the same characters and actors," he added.

"Is this the government plan for Slavonia? This is not an emigration, but an exodus. We are calling on the government and the prime minister to receive us as a matter of urgency to agree dates and see when we will get a new management board and investment, when we will restart production," the head of the strike committee, Ivan Barić, said.

Barić said that the situation in the company is dire, production has been suspended because of the strike, and 95 percent of their products are exported to Europe.

"Over 100 million kuna (13.5 million euro) is blocked, 96 percent of products cannot be delivered to their clients. The company's account is blocked and we cannot buy goods," Barić said.

More about Đuro Đaković can be found in the Business section.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Government and Public Servants Unions Sign Agreements on Pay Rise

ZAGREB, December 6, 2019 - An annex to the Basic Collective Agreement for public servants and a wage supplement agreement for education sector employees was signed in Government House on Thursday.

The annex to the Basic Collective Agreement for public servants was signed by Labour and Pension System Minister Josip Aladrović and representatives of nine trade unions.

"After a longer period of time we have decided to sign the annex to the Basic Collective Agreement and we must express our satisfaction. The negotiations were not simple, they were demanding, however we did find a compromise solution. We have accepted it so that our people, after a certain number of years, could have higher base pay next year," said Anica Prašnjak, president of the nurses' union.

The wage supplement agreement for education sector employees was signed by Science and Education Minister Blaženka Divjak and education union representatives.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said his government has shown that it has continued to implement its consistent policy of increasing salaries through the base pay and annexes to the Basic Collective Agreement.

"During this government's term, salaries in state administration and public services will have gone up 18.3 percent by October 2020," Plenković said.

More news about the public sector can be found in the Politics section.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Plenković Pleased with Compromise with Teachers Unions

ZAGREB, December 3, 2019 - The agreement reached with the teachers unions is a good compromise that will ensure a cessation of the strike as of Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said after a meeting with union representatives on Monday.

"Schools will resume classes as of Tuesday. A compromise has been reached in the interests of children, pupils, parents, teachers and normal functioning of the education system," the prime minister told a press conference.

The government and the unions have agreed an increase of the job complexity index of 3% as of December 1 this year, an additional 1% as of June 1, 2020 and a further 2% as of January 1, 2021.

In this way the unions have agreed to what was agreed through the basic collective agreement, namely the 2+2+2 percent increase, the increase of the Christmas bonus from 1,250 to 1,500 kuna, the increase of the holiday allowance from 1,250 to 1,500 kuna, the increase of a gift for children from 500 to 600 kuna, and the increase of severance pay by about 2,100 kuna, the PM said.

"A decree on job complexity indices is expected to be adopted at a cabinet meeting on Thursday," Plenković announced, adding that the decree would regulate the status of secretaries, accountants, principals, lecturers and artistic assistants in higher education.

He said that the issue of non-teaching staff would be settled by an annex to the branch collective agreement which would be valid until December 2022.

Apart from entitlements, the agreement also provides for the adoption of an action plan against violence in schools, and the repeal of the possibility of filing anonymous reports against teachers by amending the Education Inspections Act.

Reiterating that the agreement could have been reached without a strike, Plenković announced an analysis of the entire wage system to ensure a sustainable system in the long term. "We are trying to be accommodating as much as we can. This government is a friend, first of all to taxpayers, because it is not running up debts for future generations like some previous governments."

He said that the days spent on strike would be paid for. "If the strike is paid for, it is only fair that the compensation classes are not," he added.

Plenković recalled what the government had offered the unions in the past weeks, noting that in the current year the government did not have additional funds to increase the indices as of September 1, as initially demanded by the unions.

"During the term of this government the total pay rise for the public and state administration sector will have been 18.3%, which is a consistent policy of this government to increase wages," the prime minister said.

Asked if he regarded this as his personal defeat, Plenković said that this government was raising wages for everyone and should not be criticised for it.

More education news can be found in the Politics section.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Striking Teachers' Unions and Government Reach Agreement

ZAGREB, December 2, 2019 - After 36 days of strike in primary and secondary schools, the unions and the government on Monday agreed on an increase of the job complexity indices for teachers, ending the longest strike in the Croatian education sector.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković told the press after negotiations with the unions that an agreement had been reached that would ensure the cessation of the strike and resumption of classes throughout the country as of Tuesday.

The government has offered the unions an increase of the job complexity indices of 3% as of December 1, an additional 1% as of June 1 next year and a further 2% as of January 1, 2021, Plenković said.

The unions had demanded a pay rise through an increase of the job complexity indices of 6.11% to close the pay gap with other public-sector employees.

The head of the independent union of employees in research and higher education institutions, Vilim Ribić, said that his union would not put the latest government offer to a referendum among the membership because they already said that they would not accept any other offer but an increase of the job complexity indices.

The leader of the independent union of secondary school teachers, Branimir Mihalinec, said that his union did not have to put the government offer to a referendum, while the Preporod union said that its members would vote on the latest proposal.

The Science and Education Ministry has recommended that the schools that did not hold classes during the strike or did not hold classes on Saturdays to make up for the lost lessons, should shorten the holidays and prolong the school year.

More news about the school strike can be found in the Politics section.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Customs Officers' Union Also Demands Higher Wages

ZAGREB, December 2, 2019 - The customs officers' union on Monday held a meeting in the Ministry of Labour regarding working conditions and adjusting the wage indices in customs services, with customs officers claiming that their wage indices are 20% lower compared to other employees in the Ministry of Finance.

"Customs officers are working in poor conditions. Legal provisions and the collective agreement are not adhered to. We are rarely given new uniforms and we have to buy our own toilet paper and soap. Overtime work is not paid and regular health check-ups are not conducted," union leader Rino Štorić said after the meeting with the ministry's representatives and in the absence of Labour Minister Josip Aladrović.

Štorić said that legal provisions and the collective agreement for about 2,800 employees are not adhered to.

He claimed that there is a lot of differences in the wage indices within the customs service and that they have warned the Ministry of Finance of this discrepancy for years, but without any response.

"Our last demand was sent to the prime minister personally, yet we did not receive any response. I hope that the government has realised that for years it is has been causing confusion in public services. They are the ones who adopt regulations on indices and define the rules of the game," said Štorić.

The customs officers' union expects a concrete response to its demands within seven days at the most. If the government does not respond in that time, the union will submit a complaint to the International Labour Organisation that workers' rights are not be respected.

Štorić added that customs officers are prepared to wait for the foreign consultants the government has announced will amend the regulation on wage indices.

He added that the union wants its status to be resolved as it is currently exposed to unprecedented pressure which threatens to shut down the union.

More news about trade unions can be found in the Politics section.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Negotiations with Striking School Unions Continue on Monday

ZAGREB, December 2, 2019 - The Croatian government on Sunday evening stated that the negotiations with the striking unions of education-sector employees would continue on Monday, which was why Prime Minister Andrej Plenković cancelled his attendance at a UN summit meeting in Madrid.

One of the leaders of the striking unions, Branimir Mihalinec, said after a six -hour-long round of the negotiations on Sunday that the talks would go on Monday, as well as the 36-day-long industrial action.

"We have concluded that we still need some time for talks and we will continue negotiating tomorrow. We expect the conclusion (of the negotiations) tomorrow," the unionist said in his brief comment on Sunday's meeting in Government House.

"We have also agreed that we will not give statements to the press," Mhalinec said urging reporters not to ask any more questions.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković was to have attended the opening of COP25 climate summit.

More news about the school strike can be found in the Politics section.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Meeting Between Government and Striking Teachers' Unions Ends Inconclusively

ZAGREB, November 30, 2019 - A meeting between Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and the striking education unions ended inconclusively on Friday evening after three hours of talks.

Emerging from the meeting, Science and Education Minister Blaženka Divjak said that talks would continue. "Consultations with the unions are continuing," she said.

Divjak said she was pushing for a quick solution that would end the strike already on Monday. "Everyone understands that we should really act quickly, so this dialogue will continue," she added.

The leader of the primary school teachers' union, Sanja Šprem, said that the strike would continue on Monday.

The unions refused the government's offer of a pay rise of 3+3+1 percent for next year, along with a base wage increase of 6.12 percent for all public service employees. The offer was rejected at a referendum by 95.26 percent of primary school teachers, 88.93 percent of secondary school teachers and 69 percent of employees in scientific and higher education institutions.

Teachers have been on strike for 35 days.

The head of the secondary school teachers' union, Branimir Mihalinec, said that they had also discussed job complexity indices. A 6.11 percent increase of job complexity indices is the unions' main demand.

Mihalinec said they had told the prime minister that they were available for talks over the weekend, and if a solution acceptable to the unions were to be found, the unions would end the strike immediately.

Responding to questions from the press, Mihalinec said that a ban on the strike had not been discussed.

More news about the strike can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Education Workers Reject Government Offer, Strike Continues

ZAGREB, November 29, 2019 - The lion's share of education workers who took part in a vote turned down the government's latest pay rise offer so the strike in the education system is continuing, union leaders said on Friday.

In a two-day referendum, 95.26% of the strikers in primary schools, 88.93% in secondary schools and 69% at faculties voted against the offer, reporters were told.

In primary schools, 31,670 workers voted as did 14,046 in secondary schools.

Therefore, said the Croatian Teachers Union, the Independent Union of Secondary School Employees and the Independent Union in Science and Higher Education, the general strike in primary and secondary schools and occasional strikes at faculties are continuing.

Earlier today, it was said that 88% of the strikers from the Preporod union had rejected the government's offer, so they too are continuing the strike in 383 primary and secondary schools.

The rejected offer envisages a pay-rise for education workers in 2020 as well as a 6.12% base pay rise for all civil servants.

Independent Union of Secondary School Employees president Branimir Mihalinec said the results of the referendum showed that education workers would not bargain over wage supplements. "The refusal of the government's offer means that education employees want to resolve the issue of their status through higher job complexity indices."

He said the rejection represented strong support to the unions to continue to demand higher job complexity indices.

Croatian Teachers Union president Sanja Šprem said being underpaid was not the only reason for the rejection. "Education employees have a problem with unnecessary red tape, the hiring freeze, the system of anonymous complaints."

Igor Radeka of the Independent Union in Science and Higher Education said the strike at faculties and science institutions would continue to be held once a week, the next one on December 5.

More news about the teachers’ strike can be found in the Politics section.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

School Strike Continues, Unions to Consider Government Offer

ZAGREB, November 27, 2019 - The ongoing strike of education-sector employees will continue until Friday. Whether or not it will continue after Friday depends on whether the striking unions will accept the government's offer of a cumulative 10.4% wage increase, which was put on the table late on Tuesday evening.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said that education-sector workers' wages would be increased in four turns.

As of December 1, wages would be increased by 3% through an annex to the branch collective agreement, as of 1 January 2020 they would increase by an additional 2%, as of 1 June 2020 by 3%, and as of 1 October, 2020 by an additional 2%.

Teachers' wages would go up by a total 10.4% in 2020. A 1% safeguard has been offered due to the job complexity index, which will be discussed after the election to prevent politicisation, and a regulation on it would be in force throughout 2020, said Plenković.

"We expect the strike to end and school to start as of Friday, after the unions conduct the necessary procedures," said Plenković.

Unionist Branimir Mihalinec said that the government's offer was not what the unions had asked for and that he would leave it to union members to vote on.

"We had asked for (an increase in) the job complexity index and the government said that we would discuss it next year," Mihalinec said, adding that the previous offer was zero and that the latest offer did not meet the unions' demands.

He declined to say if he personally was satisfied with the offer, saying only that it was not as the unions had expected it to be.

The meeting between government officials and the striking school unions started on Tuesday around 4.30 pm and ended around midnight. It was first chaired by Prime Minister Plenković's chief of staff Zvonimir Frka Petešić, and Plenković joined the negotiators after a government session.

Due to the strike, which on Wednesday enters its 33rd day, primary and secondary school students have not attended school for 13 days. Science and Education Minister Blaženka Divjak has said that the time spent on strike would be compensated for by prolonging the academic year and making holidays shorter.

More news about the school strike can be found in the Politics section.

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