Croatia: Poor Levels of Democratisation Continue as Corruption Prevails

Over the past thirty years, Croatia has witnessed democratic transitions take root across all levels of government and society. That was, after all, the choice its people had overwhelmingly made from 1990. Millions of oppressed people in Croatia, who voted in 1991 (94% of voters) to secede from and sever all ties with the totalitarian regime of communist Yugoslavia, are still struggling to realise true freedom and shared opportunity due to deep rooted corruption in governments. The transition from communism to democracy has since year 2000, after President Dr Franjo Tudjman’s death, been teetering on the edge of truly meaningful transition to more free society because former communist high operatives in Yugoslavia took hold of the government and power in their main stations.

Democratic gains made up to year 2000 stalled after that year or even deteriorated as fragile democratic institutions buckled under the enormous challenges of governance that was and is still nurturing corruption and nepotism and equal opportunities and competition on merit rather than political suitability remained the enemy of true progress with democracy.

It is usual to keep asking the question of how far along has Croatia come in developing its democracy after all these years? How does one measure the degree and even the type of democracy Croatia was desirous of developing and for which it spilled rivers of its own blood during the Homeland War of 1990’s?

Despite a vast academic literature on democratisation in the past twenty years in particular, the factors that allow some democratic transitions to succeed as others stall or backslide remain poorly understood by policymakers and, indeed, much of the public or consumers of democracy. And particularly so in Croatia which sees incompetent, often with strong traces of communist indoctrination, people employed in government institutions through family or friendship ties (nepotism) regardless of their abilities to perform the job they are employed to do. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the relative importance of economic development and modernisation, economic structure, inequality, governance and rule of law, civil society and media, structure of government, and education have been exhaustively debated throughout the world and so too in Croatia.

Several civil society and academic organisations have launched projects that measure the health of democracies across the world. Components of measuring democracy and according to three indexes, among many, are as follows:
Freedom House Index:
• Elections • Participation • Functioning of Government • Free Expression
• Organisational Right • Rule of Law • Individual Rights
Economist Intelligence Unit Index: • Elections • Participation • Functioning of Government • Political Culture • Civil Liberties
V-Dem Index: • Elections • Participation • Deliberation • Egalitarianism
• Liberalism (individual rights)

While one would struggle to find a body or institution, or even professional research, in Croatia whose main aim is to provide measures and progress and state of democracy in Croatia it is perhaps most useful to examine the two basic indicators of democratisation that can be used separately to measure the level of democracy, but, because they are assumed to indicate two different dimensions of democratisation, it is reasonable to argue that a combination of them would be a more realistic indicator of democracy than either of them alone. These are Participation and Competition. Participation is as important dimension of democracy as competition. If only a small minority, or barely half of the adult population eligible to vote takes part in elections, the electoral struggle for power is restricted to the upper stratum of the population, and the bulk of the population remains outside national politics and influence for change. In Croatia there has been both dwindling and gradual decline of turnout at elections since year 2000, Parliamentary or National Assembly/Sabor and Presidential elections have followed a similar trajectory of participation reduction.

In the first multi-party elections in 1990, at the dawn of wanting secession from communist Yugoslavia, three parliamentary chambers were elected in a two-round majoritarian system: the Social-Political Council, the Council of Municipalities and the Council of Associated Labour. Turnout for the election each chamber varied. It was as follows: Social-Political council (84.5% in first round in all constituencies, 74.82% in second round in 51 of 80 constituencies), Council of Municipalities, which was abolished in 2001, (84.1% in first round, 74.6% in second round) and Council of Associated Labour (76.5% in first round in all constituencies, 66% in second round in 103 of 160 constituencies).

In 1991 the referendum for secession from Yugoslavia, the Croatian Independence Referendum, saw a staggering 93.24% electoral turnout and participation.
In 1992 General Elections for Parliament or National Assembly saw an admirable 75.6% turnout,
1995 elections saw 68.8% turnout,
2000 elections saw 70.5% turnout,
2003 saw 61.7% turnout,
2007 elections saw 59.5%,
2011 elections saw 54.3% turnout,
2015 elections saw 60.8% turnout,
2016 elections saw 52.6% turnout,
2020 elections saw 46.4% turnout.

Similar pattern of dwindling and reducing participation was seen at Presidential elections in Croatia and referendums during the same decades.

One may say that reducing voter turnout is a pattern seen in many democracies across the world. For Croatia, though, a country that was so highly determined to exit the communist regime voter turnouts were expected to remain high for several decades as transition into full democracy continues. But former communists made sure such a transition was not to be smooth or thorough! Sadly! The exceptional will to fight for a fully democratic Croatia we witnessed in the 1990’s Homeland War in Croatia appears weakened and intimidated, just as it used to be during the life of communist Yugoslavia that saw progress into freedom and autonomy cruelly crushed. Today, the crushing is done in sophisticated and stealth ways.

Power sharing is then certainly more superficial in societies where voter turnout at elections that are competitive with multiple parties running is low and significant proportion of voters do not participate in deciding who and how the new governments will move forward than in societies where most of the adult population takes part in elections. Both dimensions, participation and competition, are equally important and necessary for democratisation. Political competition in Croatia has been strong with almost too many political parties and independents competing. It is often heard that comparing to its voting population (around 3.6 million) the existence of some 170 political parties, many of which compete at general elections, is a nightmare of its own. It suggests wide distrust in existing political parties and political leaders as well as the hopeless notion that just about anyone can be a politician and successfully lead the country. But does such a relatively high level of competition compensate for the relative lack of participation in the democratic processes in Croatia is a question the answer to which is obviously no. Just as a high level of participation cannot compensate for a low level of competition. While closely associated with the level of democratisation each of these two dimensions contain factors and facets that are equally important if democracy will thrive.

The level of democratisation is considered high if both participation and competition variables are high. While competition is high in Croatia its value for democratisation is low because elections have since year 2000 become not free elections but rather marred by justified distrust in the electoral commission, in vote counts and corrupt practices. Hence, competition at elections in Croatia means very little as the overt healthy competition does not end up with healthy or trusted true results of voter choice. Votes stolen or falsified, or suspected of being stolen and fabricated, is a scandal that had blanketed all general elections in Croatia since year 2000.

Gradually, over the past two decades in Croatia voter distrust has become the main culprit for relatively low participation. The justified fear of unwanted communist mindset and practices having crept into Croatia’s power corridors has influenced significant disappointment and distrust in the electoral procedures and democracy itself, which led to significant voter abstinence during elections. One often hears in Croatia ‘what’s the use of voting when the election results have been determined or fixed in advance’! In more than two decades Croatian authorities have failed miserably in building people’s trust in the electoral system and have in this way also contributed to a relatively poor level of democratisation. Croatia has failed miserably at providing for proper and due access to polling stations for all its voters and voters living abroad, which are many due to massive emigration, suffer the gravest discrimination and denial of voting right through lack of reasonable access to polling.

Measuring democratisation of Croatia has not, as I said, been pursued in Croatia with any vigour, regularity, credibility, or reliability. Perhaps that is because the government is not in the business of either measuring its democracy itself or funding NGO’s or institutions to do the measuring of progress. Perhaps also because of fear of reprisals from the government in case any such measure inevitably means criticism of the government. It is not unusual in Croatia to see government critics and opponents being ostracised, ignored, or blackened purposefully. But thankfully external organisations across the world who monitor democracy and democratisation have produced ample reports and studies on the state of democracy in Croatia and while some may be biased on political grounds many provide solid guiding information. For example, in 2020 Freedom House has in its ‘Nations In Transit’ report among other things said the following about democracy in Croatia:

“The year 2020 saw no real improvement in Croatia’s democracy… In 2020, the Croatian judiciary convicted former prime minister and HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) leader Ivo Sanader, as well as the HDZ itself, on corruption and money-laundering charges. These convictions came more than 10 years after the crimes were committed and may yet be appealed. Sanader and the HDZ had previously been convicted in 2014, but those sentences were later overturned.

The year was marked by notable cases of grand corruption, including a major pre-election scandal involving the high-ranking HDZ official and former Knin mayor Josipa Rimac. Alongside a dozen other important political figures, Rimac stood accused of favouritism in assigning a lucrative wind farm contract. An illegal private club in Zagreb frequented during the COVID-19 lockdown by politicians (including the president) was run by Dragan Kovacevic, former CEO of the state-owned oil transport company JANAF. Under his leadership, JANAF mismanaged public procurements, and Kovacevic was found to have personally accepted large bribes. These and other instances demonstrated a pattern: unless scandals come to the surface through journalistic investigations or other means, Croatian institutions do not wholeheartedly pursue inquiries into grand corruption…

The relatively large electoral competition in Croatia has seen during the past five years increased electoral campaign-finance laws passed that have increased transparency but, also, have failed to close several loopholes. Political influence over the media is strong, with reporters who criticise the government subject to dismissal, and defamation suits often used to intimidate or harass journalists. Media pluralism is quite limited. Hence, high competition hides low competition as access to mainstream media by all competitors is selective and discriminatory.

Regulations are sometimes inconsistent and subject to frequent change. Courts lack independence, and a significant case backlog persists. High-profile politicians and public figures have been indicted, but many prominent individuals have been acquitted after interference by powerful interests.”

The state of democratisation in Croatia has not changed since 2020, which saw the lowest turnout at presidential and general elections in the history of Croatian independence and secession from communist Yugoslavia. Participation, therefore, as a key variable in the level of democracy is dangerously low and with grand corruption (corruption at all levels of society and economy whether by theft, nepotism or bribery) plaguing the country still serious political crises loom. In February of this 2022 year Croatian construction minister Darko Horvat was arrested in a corruption probe and investigations continue into his alleged abuse of power while in office. In March of this year, former Sisak-Moslavina County Prefect Marina Lovric Mercel was sentenced by the Zagreb County Court to seven years in prison for a series of corrupt practices while running one of Croatia’s poorest counties.

Until a different path is taken by the country’s leadership, the government first and foremost, it is unlikely that Croatia’s democracy will fundamentally improve. It is likely that the communist mindset will continue ruling; it is likely that corruption and thievery will hold their front of co-dependency within the leadership and power corridors unless, of course, drastic measures are taken by the people that have at their helm a steel determination to rid Croatian power lines of communists and communist Yugoslavia high operative’s children and grandchildren whose mindset and behaviour have been shaped by communism.

It is said that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! It is impossible to make something very successful or of high quality out of something which is unsuccessful or of poor quality. Yugoslav communists knew ‘sod all’ about democracy and they did not care for true democracy and power sharing; egotistic pursuits were the threads in the fabric of Yugoslav communist pursuits. Since year 2000 Croatian leadership has been saturated with the proverbial sows! People in positions because of their political weight and personal association with those already in power and not because of professional merit. Democratisation in Croatia maintains a cosmetic mask – Croatia’s leaders keep associating themselves and their policies with those of the European Union. But, in fact, the application and practice of those policies are at pathetic level ruled by corrupt practices on the ground. Ina Vukic

Comments

  1. Very interesting, Ina. It was worth a second reading to take it in a bit more. It feels like the whole world is corrupted. The type of people who run countries, seem to be the people who are least suited for the job.

    • Indeed Ronnie and it hurts so much more when one considers how much blood was spilled to achieve the opposite of what is occurring

  2. Corruption is universal. If we took all the cowards who are in positions of leadership (I call them in positions of leadership, that doesn’t mean they are leaders, most are not), and placed them on a battlefield and arm them with instructions they are to settle their own battles with their own bloodshed; I would venture to say they would run away like scared rabbits and hide. Hopefully never to be seen from again. I guarantee you they would not spill an ounce of their own blood. Take common middle class people with common sense to replace them, people who only care about people and doing the right thing, this world would be a lot better off and our creator would be proud. But, we know that isn’t going to happen, we’ve already been warned as much by Him!

    • Yes Arlin it is, however corruption defines some societies or their public administration at every level in communist or former communist countries. In Western countries corruption is rarer and is usually dealt with swiftly if discovered. And yes they do not fight, they are cowards always but after battles are done they know how to creep into power. Perhaps we may still see masses of people rise up against them but I fear that will not be until their living standard is harsh and threatened…

      • Corruption was once upon a time in the U.S. rare because, as you mentioned it was dealt with if discovered. However, the rareness has evaporated because we have become more aware and have discovered it (corruption) as it was before well hidden. The corrupt have become more arrogant, they no longer fear being dealt with because we have not been dealing with it as swift as we once did. JOE BIDEN!

      • True, I see that

  3. Americaoncoffee says:

    The more that we submit ourselves to God, more horrors will disappear.

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