No Takers For Croatia’s Head of Corruption and Organised Crimes Prosecution Job

A historic first for Croatia!

Nobody wants the head job of prosecuting corruption and organised crime!

Advertisement to fill the vacant position, one of the top positions in Croatia, important hierarchy-wise, of head of USKOK/Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organised Crime, did not bear fruit. With applications closed last week there were no takers! Nobody applied!

To my view, this is largely symptomatic of an overwhelming lack of confidence among the public or the pool from which applicants could be drawn, in the ability to work in the job without political and other pressure or interference, perhaps to even “look the other way” when fraud or corruption show their ugly head, and fear of prosecuting corruption for fear of nasty reprisals. This did occur at this time when corruption is high and government officials have been found guilty of and were involved in many corruption scandals or have been alleged to be involved in serious corruption or fraud whether under investigation or not.

Perhaps the loudest opinions regarding this alarming turn of events where there are no applicants to fill the vacancy of a very prominent job in the country, even the locum or temporary person working in that position did not apply for the permanent position, are the echos in Croatia’s roads, streets, and lanes are the ones that go like this: “Everyone is corrupted and so nobody wants to apply for that job,”… “who would want that job, the whole country is corrupted,” … “that job is like a greased plank, and everyone is greasing it…you will slip off sooner or later,”… “that body operates like an extended arm of the government and, therefore, there is not even an “i” in the independence in its work,” … while the former director of USKOK, Zeljko Zganjer, thinks that today this job, or function, is neither attractive or has anyone to rely upon “if you intend to do this job independently, deal with facts and evidence while ignoring whether today something is politically opportune for criminal prosecution or not opportune for prosecution.”

Speaker of the Croatian Parliament Gordan Jandrokovic said, rather stupidly in my view, that the situation that no one applied for the position of head of USKOK is an indicator that the Government does not control or supervise DORH/State Attorney Office and USKOK, because if it did control them, it would probably find a person to install into that position. This of course does not prove anything regarding government’s pressure upon USKOK, of course, for it could also mean that the government tried to find someone suitable for the position behind the scenes but did not find anyone willing to do the job that could even find it necessary to prosecute the Prime Minister for corruption in the future. And that would surely mean own sinking into social and career oblivion. Certainly, the fact that prosecuting former government minister Gabriela Zalac for fraud and corruption regarding EU funds, where there have been suspicions of the Prime Minister having had his fingers in that pie, was abandoned, and could well be hiding or stifling a whole range on unpleasant goings on for the government and parliament.  The opposition accused that words by Jandrokovic point to political instability in the country and not that government has no influence on the work of the anti-corruption body.

As things stand now, current acting director of USKOK, Zeljka Mostecak, appointed to this position by the chief state attorney Zlata Hrvoj Sipek at the end of April this year (after the previous director Vanja Marusic resigned from the position amidst a scandal of not reporting her chauffer being in car accident when not on duty and covering his cost) will continue at the USKOK helm for the time being. One cannot discard the possibility that in this pre-parliamentary election year the ruling HDZ/Croatian Democratic Union party most likely does not want any new corruption or organised crime investigated that could implicate its members and, hence, the technicality of no applicants for head of USKOK suits it perfectly!?   

No country is immune to corruption. That is a fact. The fact is also in that abuse of public office for private gain erodes people’s trust in government and institutions, makes public policies less effective and fair, and siphons taxpayers’ money away from schools, roads, and hospitals. Political will can turn the tide against corruption and Croatia evidently lacks much of that, or rather its government and governments before it since year 2000, some of whom, like SDP/Social Democratic Party, are currently in opposition. The other parts of opposition in Croatian Parliament have commented last Thursday that nobody is crazy enough to put their head on a chopping block by applying for the head of USKOK position. Alluding in no uncertain terms that, given high-level corruption scandals and convictions and many in the pipeline, fear for own safety and livelihood could well have poisoned most of the enthusiasm for that well-paid, important position.   

A few days ago upon his visit to Croatia (an OECD membership hopeful), the former Australian Minister of Finance and currently OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Secretary General Mathias Cormann warned about the weak control of corruption in Croatia in the public sector compared to other EU members. In other words, it points to non-existent or ineffective measures put in place to firmly control corruption and eradicate most of it.

It was in late June 2023 when the Paris, France, based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international financial crime watchdog, placed Croatia on the so-called “grey list” of countries that would be subject to “increased monitoring”. This essentially means the country on that list has committed to implement an Action Plan to resolve swiftly the identified strategic deficiencies within agreed timeframes. According to the FATF website there is a FATF-Interpol partnership to ignite global change to take the profit out of crime! About time! Many would agree. Money laundering and financing terrorism are among the top priorities to tackle.

Croatia will reportedly work to implement its FATF action plan by: (1) Completing the national risk assessment, including assessing risk of, and vulnerabilities to, being used by money launderers and terrorist financiers associated with the misuse of legal persons and legal arrangements and the use of cash in the real estate sector; (2) Increasing human resources and improving analytical capabilities; (3) Continuing to improve LEAs (Law Enforcement Agency) detection, investigation and prosecution of different types of ML (Money Laundering), including ML involving a foreign predicate offences and the misuse of legal persons; (4) Demonstrating a sustained increase in the application of provisional measures in securing direct/indirect proceeds, as well as foreign proceeds subject to confiscation; (5) Demonstrating the ability to systematically detect and where relevant investigate TF (Terrorism Financing) in line with its risk profile; (6) Establishing a national framework for the implementation of UN TFS/Targeted Financial Sanction measures and providing guidance and conducting outreach and training to the reporting entities; and (7) Identifying the subset of NPOs (Non-Profit Organisations) most vulnerable to TF abuse and providing targeted outreach to NPOs and to the donor community on potential vulnerabilities of NPOs to TF abuse.

If these warnings were not enough to set Croatia on the straight and narrow against corruption and organised crime then one can always add the fact that in July 2023 the European Commission recommended that Croatia increase the efficiency of investigations and prosecution of corruption offences.

The European Commission recommended that Croatia revise the criminal procedure code and the law on the office for the suppression of corruption and organised crime, as set out in the anti-corruption strategy, to increase the efficiency of investigations and prosecution of corruption offences.

Evidently the task for Croatia in curbing and controlling corruption and organised crime still looms larger than life itself. The legitimate concerns of financial probity that have ended up with Croatia on the FATF grey list will surely adversely impact Croatia reputation wise. But also, being on the grey list for monitoring should be the stimulus needed to increase scrutiny of the illicit money and assets allegedly and evidently flowing to and through Croatia. Croatia remains mired in corruption, especially at high levels of government and corporate leadership, but it has done nothing to truly comb through corruption at local government levels or health and academic service where bribes are commonplace and, indeed, necessary to have anything done on time, like building licence for instance or surgery …and so, no wonder nobody is currently applying for the important permanent job of head of prosecution of corruption and organised crime in Croatia. Perhaps at the next round of advertisements or …? Ina Vukic

Croatia: Major Corruption Scandal Silenced, Judiciary Paralysed

The just passed three-day slot, 21, 22 and 23 July 2023, was a historic moment for the Croatian Parliament in that for the first time in more than 30 years of its existence the President of the country (Zoran Milanovic) has called for, convened an extraordinary session of Parliament, making this a precedent of modern Croatian parliamentarianism.

Insults, “hits below the belt”, recriminations, and even grubby personal offences hurled across the chamber of the Croatian Parliament. While hopes for clear resolutions were widespread among the people it was clear from the start that this was not going to solve anything for the better for the people or the country, especially given that President Zoran Milanovic and Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic have done nothing jointly for the nation except cause distress and alarm due to their inability and/or unwillingness to work with each other as a matter of constitutional protocol and people’s expectations. For the first two days of the extraordinary session insults against the government flew at the empty seats usually occupied by the ruling HDZ party and their coalition parliamentary representatives. Then on Sunday 23 July 2023, in the morning part of the sitting these seats were occupied, almost every one of them and insults hurled both ways – it was when voting on the opposition motion, behind which President Zoran Milanovic stood, was to occur. The vote was for the furthering of clarification of culprits in the massive corruption affair of state-owned HEP selling gas reserves ridiculously cheaply: “that the Government undertake to determine within 15 days who is responsible in the ‘gas for a cent’ affair”, and, “that the government ensures the orderly functioning of the judiciary”. Of course, the vote did not go in favour of the motions or conclusions of the proponents – majority of HDZ and coalition partners came to vote and then go back to sunbaking on some beach or swimming pool.  

With majority 77 votes, President Milanovic’s motion/conclusion (presented to parliament via government opposition parties) was rejected by which the Government would undertake to immediately, and within 15 days at the latest, take all necessary measures to ensure the orderly functioning of the judiciary in Croatia. The motion of the President of the Republic, which would oblige the Government to determine within 15 days which institutions and persons are responsible for the financial damage caused to HEP, the state-owned power utility, in the implementation of the Regulation on eliminating disturbances in the domestic energy market, was also rejected.  

The conclusions of the ruling majority were, of course (!), accepted, stating adamantly that the convening of an extraordinary session by the President of the Republic of Croatia was unnecessary because the Government is taking all necessary measures to ensure the orderly functioning of the judicial authority, as well as all necessary measures to determine the circumstances in the implementation of the Decree on eliminating disturbances on the domestic energy market. Parliament also rejected the conclusions proposed by the entire opposition, that the Government should be tasked with making a decision by which civil servants and employees will be paid for all days spent on strike, and that within three working days, the members of the HEP board, the members of the HERA board (Croatian Energy Regulatory Agency), the HROTE board (Croatian Energy Market Operator), and the State Secretary for Energy in the Ministry of Economy, Ivo Milatic, would be dismissed. The opposition proposal to pay the strikers wages for the days on strike received 67 votes, and 74 voted against. Unlike the voting on other points, three representatives of the SDSS (Independent Democratic Serb Party) did not participate in the voting for this proposal at all.  

As I wrote in my last article, a huge corruption story implicating the involvement, either by omission or active role, of government officials or ministers in the abominably damaging low-price sale of surplus gas reserves by government-owned HEP mainly to private company PPD, seemingly enjoying government favouritism and, hence, destroying any changes of a truly free trade in Croatia, is shaking Croatia. To add to this crisis is the standstill or paralysis of the judiciary amidst unresolved claims for higher wages is also shaking Croatia, the rattling of a massive political crisis seeking the demise of those from the government responsible for this situation. The judiciary is already swamped with hundreds of thousands of unprocessed cases, causing the notoriously frustrating and unreasonable delay of ten to fifteen years in the processing of claims and this standstill due to industrial action of protests will surely list Croatian judiciary as the worst bastion of inefficiency and corruption in a democratic country’s judiciary operations. For months now the protest of the judiciary has lingered on with untold damage to the people and economy. Only matters of life and death are being heard by the courts and everything else is at a standstill for months, even thousands of applications for new business registrations!  

During the marathon debate that ensued in the parliament at the weekend, the opposition stated that the Government satisfied judges’ and doctors’ claims for higher wages, while ignoring judicial officers’ and administrative staff ‘ claims without whom the judiciary cannot function. It was pointed out that they work for miserable wages on which they cannot survive, and that Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic “trains strictness on the weakest, tramples women on strike, that he doesn’t care”. The opposition claims that the judiciary is paralysed, the rule of law does not work, that Croatia now has a constitutional crisis, and that the situation is extraordinary.  

As expected, HDZ party members, on the other hand, emphasised that the situation is neither extraordinary nor true that the judiciary is not functioning. Their frequent criticism was that President Milanovic did not appear at the session, even though he is the proposer, calling him a coward and that he aligned himself with the opposition. They defended the government that in recent years it has continuously increased wages and that it is not true that the government is doing nothing or that it has no will to pursue resolution of the judiciary strike situation. They are convinced that the Government will resolve the situation as it has until now and ultimately increase the salaries of civil servants by adopting the new Law on Salaries in Public Administration and regulations.  

Government defending its actions was to be expected but the significant unity achieved at this extraordinary session of parliament was not in the votes against President Milanovic’s motions delivered by the ruling HDZ party and its coalition but rather in the almost perfect government opposition unity on display.  Rarely has almost the entire Croatian government opposition been united in the past thirty years on issues that are important to citizens and the country as a whole: anti-corruption and the functioning of the judiciary. While the fact remains that Croatia is, ahead of the 2024 mega elections year, well into the pre-elections campaigning, the accentuation of intolerable markers of corruption at high levels in the country as well as the disfunction of the judiciary that must be addressed remain pressing topics for Croatia that is still and visibly struggling to transition fully from communist Yugoslavia.  

In Croatia, which was created independent by 94% people vote at May 1991 referendum and the consequent bloody Homeland War that defended such a strong people vote from Serb and Yugoslav Army aggression, nothing significant has changed in relation to the government-owned companies’ management model that what was had in the one-party communist system of former Yugoslavia. The corruption scandals that keep plaguing the public space in Croatia all these years since the secession from communist Yugoslavia have uncovered repeated chaos and robbery in public goods, repeated attempts to bury corruption scandals before they are unravelled and culprits punished – all in all, chaos, and robbery in public administration appear at all levels. If such an odious track record is to continue then the summer break, until parliament sitting restarts in September, will do nothing to address and answer the question people, not just government opposition, are asking: who is responsible for the shocking loss to the public purse due to the perversely cheap sale of government surplus gas to private companies and what are the consequences for the culprits? Whose hands, if anyone’s, have exchanged cash under the table?  Ina Vukic  

Croatia: HDZ vs SDP – Pot Calling The Kettle Black

It is becoming tiring that new corruption scandals, involving the government or highly positioned officials or politicians of any creed, are unravelling just about every month before our eyes and there seems to be no end to this agony for the Croatian nation.

Almost as soon as the Croatian media published various mobile phone SMS messages exchanged between numerous public servants and the former director of the public company Croatian Forests, now a suspect with Croatian State Prosecutor’s Office for the Suppression of Organised Crime and Corruption (USKOK), the content of those messages became the main focus of discussions and demands made in parliament, February 1, 2023. The opposition, particularly SDP/Social Democratic Party accuses HDZ/Croatian Democratic Union officials, including ministers in the government, of influence peddling, fixing jobs and employment. A procedure has reportedly been initiated in which the impeachment of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is requested. While the ruling HDZ denies any wrongdoing that points to nepotism and corruption, the opposition comes out with the opposite assessment and calls Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and Croatian parliament Speaker Gordan Jandrokovic, who were also mentioned in those phone messages, to account, putting the Prime Minster forth for impeachment. The SDP complaint clearly states that the HDZ brought the country to a deplorable state where without the influence of the Prime Minister and high-ranking HDZ party officials and dignitaries it is impossible to secure a job in Croatia and that it is HDZ that brought Croatia to this sorry state (HRT News Dnevnik 2, 01/02/2023).

Job-fixing, nepotism, is the root of much evil that has diseased Croatia, resulting in hundreds of thousands people leaving the country in the past decade looking for work and a decent life elsewhere. Addressing this new corruption scandal and plucking out the guilty officials and persons would be a strong start to ridding Croatia of nepotism.  

While it is certain that nepotism is one of the main problems of corruption in the labour market in Croatia under HDZ government, SDP’s opposition also did nothing to eradicate or at least significantly reduce this corrupt practice while it, itself, was in government and other power such as the Office of the President.

Pot calling the kettle black, as it is now done in the Croatian Parliament, and even in the last couple of decades, may be what people call a normal political practice between “warring” political parties vying for power, however, when it comes to eradicating corruption and nepotism this strategy should not be tolerated. It keeps suffocating Croatia from true progress in all fields of life; it is not a solution for the betterment of Croatia. It just keeps corruption alive.

The best thing that could happen for Croatian people and Croatia is to wipe the slate clean from both HDZ and SDP governments and vote in new blood at coming general elections in 2024. Both have proven that they are either incapable of making changes forward away from overwhelming corruption or that they do not want changes.

If one said that, currently and perpetually, Croatia is in a big mess, politically, economically, or otherwise, one would sadly be justified. The current Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic has maintained a stand of aggression and intolerance towards the Office of the President of Croatia regardless of who was/is in that office during his time as Prime Minister.  Of course, again, one blames the other for the intolerance; again, the pot calling the kettle black!

The same can be said for the President Zoran Milanovic and for the former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. They could not find a common language with Plenkovic and Plenkovic could not find it with them. The result is an abysmal image of Croatia as a nation. There is no excuse for such destructive behaviour and ways of collaborating can always be found, unless, of course, neither the Prime Minister or the President of Croatia care much about its independence and the blood spilled for that! So it may well be in their personal political interests and leanings (towards the failed former communist Yugoslav state) that they make no effort in bringing harmony to that country that has as a nation suffered so very much through the ages. 

Each will say the other one is to blame for the scandalous discord at the top echelons in the two “towers” of power in Croatia, when harmony and collaboration is required to achieve the best possible transition out of communism.

Then, last Monday Croatia’s president Zoran Milanovic criticised Western nations for supplying Ukraine with heavy tanks and other weapons in its campaign against invading Russian forces, saying those arms deliveries will only prolong the war. He said that it’s “mad” to believe that Russia can be defeated in a conventional war.

“I am against sending any lethal arms there,” Milanovic said. “It prolongs the war.”

“What is the goal? Disintegration of Russia, change of the government? There is also talk of tearing Russia apart. This is mad,” he added.

Prior to winning presidential election in 2019 Milanovic had Prime Minister between 2011 and 2016, then been disgraced as the leader of the Social Democratic Party to make a comeback as President as a left-leaning liberal candidate, a stark contrast to the middle of the road conservative government currently in power. But he has since made a turn to populist nationalism signs of which he started displaying as Prime Minister.

The fact that the Croatian government headed by Andrej Plenkovic supports Ukraine and its defence against the Russian invasion and aggression and the President does not is yet another marker for the hopeless situation Croatia is in on the road to achieving a semblance of harmony and unity.

Then, also last week, President Milanovic went on to make a grandiose statement in which he claimed that Kosovo was stolen from Serbia! The Croatian government headed by Andrej Plenkovic recognises Kosovo as an independent state and has established diplomatic relations and other cooperative processes! Milanovivc’s statement regarding Kosovo has provoked many reactions of anger and repulsion. Given that Kosovo was created as part of dissolution of former communist Yugoslavia one is thoroughly justified in being abhorred at such a statement by Milanovic. But then again, at the time, being a prominent member of the League of Communists, he was against the dissolution of communist Yugoslavia and never fought for independent Croatia. The latter part could also be said for Prime Minister Plenkovic.

Croatia is led by two politicians of communist Yugoslavia background and leanings, who never wanted its independence, its freedom, in the first place nor fought for it. A terrible paradox is being lived in Croatia. The concerning issue is that this situation and the outward discord between the Office of President and Cabinet of Prime Minister could well be a reeling out of planned action to keep Croatia unstable and keep former communist Yugoslavia looking “attractive”?

It is certainly an ugly discord, and one finds it incredulous that it is permitted to continue for so long.  

On Monday, the Croatian president expanded his narrative by saying he believes that Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, will never again be part of Ukraine.

After months of hesitation, the U.S. said it will send 31 of its 70-ton Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, and Germany announced it will dispatch 14 Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to do the same.

Milanovic said that “from 2014 to 2022, we are watching how someone provokes Russia with the intention of starting this war.”

Although the presidential post is mostly ceremonial in Croatia, Milanovic is formally the supreme commander of the armed forces. One finds in Western media comments such as: Milanovic’s latest anti-Western outbursts have embarrassed and irritated Croatia’s government which has fully supported Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s aggression. Well, the aggression, the discord, the ugly fights between the two have been going on for years but the West hardly noticed. Perhaps because this discord between the Croatia’s powerful did not brush against the policies the West was implementing internationally such as that for Ukraine?  On Monday, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic reacted to the president’s positions on the West and Ukraine by saying they “directly harm Croatia’s foreign policy position.” Well that’s a lukewarm reaction given the depth and intensity of the discord between the two! One would have expected Plenkovic to use much stronger words in response to Milanovic’s rants against the Western politics on Russia and its aggression against Ukraine. The coming year may indeed reveal what lies under the surface of the perpetual, tiring animosity between Croatia’s President and Prime Minister. Whatever the case, voters should not tolerate this destructive and disruptive state of discord, corruption and nepotism amidst the pretence that all is fine. True democracy should have its day! Ina Vukic   

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