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

Croatia – Time Coming To Outvote Communist Chameleons  

While the fact that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had in its ruling on 21 December 2021 a declaration that states have a right to dissolve or refuse to register parties that do not distance themselves from former Communist Parties  that may surely work to the advantage for a further democratised European Union, one huge problem exists that will, regretfully, see the communist mindset flourish for some time to come. This is because the chameleonic nature of both communist parties and communists that saw strictly communist parties, such as Croatian SDP/ Socialist Democratic Party, simply change its name to reflect political changes that ensued after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the saturation of the ruling HDZ/Croatian Democratic Union Party with former communists and their mindset subscribers. It is easy for them not to put in writing any support for former communist parties. They are adapted to lying and changing their visible characteristics without notice, without regard to anyone bar themselves.

Also, former communist Yugoslavia dignitaries and their children, like chameleons, have adapted to the efforts in transitioning from communism into democracy by acting as if they genuinely wish for full and functional democracy but, in fact, they hold their backs propped up supporting corruption and nepotism that defined communist Yugoslavia. It would be fair to say that no functional democracy can evolve while the same cadre in power that existed in communist Yugoslavia exists in Croatia. Lustration was and still is the answer however late some say it is for it in Croatia. Furthermore, the mere existence in writing in the Historical Foundations of today’s Croatian Constitution of the communist Croatia i.e. Antifascist National Council/AVNOH as a legitimate foundation of independent Croatia in effect legitimises all communist mindsets and beliefs in today’s Croatia. The irony is one most cruel: communists/antifascists fought against and independent Croatia in World War Two and did also in the 1990’s Homeland War!

Ultimately, there can be no smooth transition from communism into democracy in Croatia without a clear and decisive cut from of the former communist party and/or its sympathisers’ repressive political grip. 

Perhaps this line of consideration lies in the lining of the reported European Court of Human Rights thinking that communist parties should not exist? Undoubtedly, this line of thinking would seem grossly debilitating and misleading without recognising that the power and might of the EU has been the exact backing the former and current communist sympathisers or operatives needed to maintain their political grip. Croatia has no official Communist party, but it surely has too many communist chameleons for any democratic and lasting comfort.

November 1989 the fall of Berlin Wall. Photo: Getty Images

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 laid the groundwork for new institutions, new states, and, in some cases like former Yugoslavia, new conflicts. In the more than three decades since Germany’s reunification and the European Union (EU) has taken a big growth in territorial shape along the way, with pains that persist, still. Some of those deep pains include corruption and theft prevalent still in many former communist countries that have become member states of the EU. Hence the rather recent move by the EU to install an office of audit and control over expenditure of the generous EU development funds that have seen gross misappropriation and theft. Croatia is one of those.

With the U.S.A. also extending its arms to keep an eye on corruption in Croatia by having its corruption watchdog present there, things may look up in a better light in years to come.

 Like the continent Croatia also has had to grapple with economic and political crises, demographic decline, illegal migration pressures, as well as the ongoing repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic during the past thirty or so years.

Functional democracy, the natural complement to Croatia’s emerging post-communist market economy, is disturbingly complex with its underlying corruption and fraud scandals that emerge to the surface too often. Croatia’s economy is small but at the same time very important for the political and economic stability of Southeast Europe, regardless of its Central Europe physical pull and orientation. The communist mindset and corruption that still define Croatia’s political elitism has made a genuine and thorough political liberalisation almost an unachievable goal. Too many people, it would seem, about 30% of voters who always turn up at the polls for the ideals of communism, are incapacitated to see beyond the personal perks and gains they enjoy from Yugoslavia times, such as high-end public housing, descendant Yugoslav Partisan pensions to dare to vote away from former communists … and the majority are simply too disappointed in communism still weaved into the country’s fabric that they simply have no energy to vote at elections or have abandoned all hope for a better tomorrow for which rivers of blood were spilled in the 1990’s. . 

Unfortunately, Croatia has not fully completed the transition to a market economy. A socialist/communist mindset still prevails in large parts of Croatian society. The income of most Croatians still comes from the government budget, social insurance, or public monopolies, not from revenues of truly competitive companies that operate strictly on market-based principles. So, any reforms that address public overspending, corruption, or bureaucratic and judicial inefficiency usually face strong resistance from the privileged majority and can take a long time to implement.

Fortunately, there are also a growing number of vibrant, innovative entrepreneurs leading small-and-medium-sized and internationally competitive companies across many industry sectors in Croatia. These companies have strong potential to grow and could become the locomotive of the Croatian economy and catalyst in the transformation of Croatian society. A problem does arise for Croatia with its alarming demographic picture though. The 2021 census results reveal that the total population of Croatia has fallen below 4 million to 3.88 million, or close to 10% in last ten years. A relatively huge number of working age Croats have emigrated from Croatia in search of employment and a more orderly and predictable future for their families; 400,000 in the past ten years in fact! The governing HDZ government attributes much of this to expected people movement because of Croatia becoming a member state of the EU some nine years ago. Others though insist that this fall in population, especially the young working people, has occurred as Croatia in its supposed transition from communism to democracy has held to the former political habits firmly. Corruption and nepotism meant and means that all young people, or older ones, simply do not and did not have equal opportunities in employment. And the increasing number of innovative entrepreneurial small to medium companies are largely formed by expats returning to live in Croatia because they love the people and country as homeland. Relatively very few of the returnees have to my information and knowledge succeeded in obtaining employment in the public owned and run companies that form the strongest of infrastructure of Croatian economy.    

Majority of people in Croatia cannot remain excluded from discussions of their future by abstaining from voting at general elections as they do now and in doing so, they help communist mindset and habits (e.g., corruption, theft, nepotism) thrive as acceptable standards of living in a democracy. The low turnout at general election has become an alarming trend in Croatia, as also in neighbouring countries of Former Yugoslavia. Widespread bitterness in governments of past two decades especially seeps through, almost paralysing many voters to turn up at the polls.

The question now is how far the political communist chameleons in Croatia – will go, and whether their evidently waning electoral popularity will remain adequate to form a government, whether their seeming popularity among voters will diminish markedly or grow as more and more dormant voters assemble the courage to step into the voting stations at next elections.

Croatia’s imminent stepping into the Eurozone in January 2023 will surely result in political fallout or gain by the time parliamentary elections are due in 2024, unless they are rushed forward should the government fall ahead of regular four-year parliamentary mandates. Certainly, Croatian government has fallen before, e.g. 2016 and new elections ensured. The scandals whose foundations lie in government officials or high functionaries embroiled in corruption and theft, insider trading or misappropriation of public or EU funds appear a very threatening force to the government. And when we add to this unsavoury formula of scandals the ongoing bickering and bitching between the Prime Minster Andrej Plenkovic and Croatia’ President Zoran Milanovic we may be witness to another political crisis in Croatia which no alternative other than early general elections could alleviate. The introduction of the Euro currency may prove a fertile ground for many radical changes such as hurried general elections with a highest turnout of voters since May 1991 referendum for Croatia’s secession from communist Yugoslavia!  

I would like to think that the thirty years since that referendum have shown the Croatian people ample evidence that communist chameleons truly exist – to the detriment of the values of the Croatian Homeland War. Not to mention that majority of those who fought for Croatian independence and democracy, who earned their stripes and medals for their significant contributions in the creation of that wonderful and beautiful independent state as a democratic one are hardly ever acknowledged in Croatia and its diaspora. If one is looking for the evidence that communist chameleons exist – look no further! Ina Vukic

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