Opinion

Croatia needs more EU pressure

25.03.11 @ 17:12

  1. By Natasha Srdoc and Joel Anand Samy

As the EU accession talks are reaching the final stage, the Croatian government eagerly awaits the closing of a key area - justice and fundamental rights, also known as "Chapter 23".

  • Croatian PM Kosor wants to wrap up justice talks as soon as possible (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

But rather than implementing vital reforms, Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor's efforts against corruption reveal a deceitful cherry-picking scheme with the objective of completing EU negotiations by June in hopes of winning parliamentary elections scheduled for this year.

Mass street protests in Croatia in various cities are calling for the Croatian Democratic Union-led (HDZ) government to step down. Protesters view the government as the root cause problem for the nation's widespread corruption and its sharp economic decline. Unemployment has reached 20 percent. Croatia's GDP has fallen for two consecutive years, by 5.8 percent in 2009 and 1.4 percent in 2010. The budget deficit is projected to reach 6 percent, public sector debt 50 percent, and the foreign debt 100 percent of GDP in 2011.

A closer look at Croatia, hailed as the EU's next accession country reveals that it does not meet the basic requirements of the EU acquis. Croatia should not be given the green light to close EU talks until structural reforms are verified by independent bodies rather than merely taking the word of a tarnished government.

EU policies in the area of judiciary and fundamental rights are foundational for a well-functioning market economy. In the EU's own words, "the establishment of an independent and efficient judiciary is of paramount importance. Impartiality, integrity and a high standard of adjudication by the court are essential for safeguarding the rule of law."

The justice chapter succinctly conveys that "member states must fight corruption effectively, as it represents a threat to the stability of democratic institutions and the rule of law."

This is of utmost importance, bearing in mind Interpol's stern warning that Croatia is one of the countries directly linked to the perilous Balkan route which thrives on human trafficking and illegal trade, bringing heroin and weapons into Europe.

The nation's recent display of a few politicians arrested for corruption has not led to final court rulings. It demonstrates the severity of Croatia's problem with a majority of former and current politicians accused of corruption, untouched.

Nothing has changed since last November when the 2010 EU progress report for Croatia stated: "There have been no final court rulings in serious political corruption cases" and that "a track record of effective investigation, prosecution and court rulings remains to be established, especially for high level corruption."

Prior to his abrupt resignation in July 2009, Ivo Sanader, Croatia's then-prime minister embarked on a campaign with an offensive charm wooing Brussels' political elite and leaders in member state capitals proclaiming success in tackling organised crime and rampant corruption.

In September 2010, Croatia's head of customs and treasurer of Croatia's ruling party - the Christian democratic HDZ - was arrested on charges of corruption including siphoning off funds from state-run enterprises for political financing and bringing 'bags of cash' to Sanader's office. In December 2010, Sanader was arrested on corruption charges and awaits extradition to Croatia from an Austrian detention facility.

Austria's Public Prosecutor's Office against corruption announced it was investigating Sanader for suspected money laundering. Friedrich Koenig, spokesperson for the Vienna-based prosecutor's office stated, "We have launched criminal proceedings against Sanader, against one of his relatives, and against a third person."

Croatia's current Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, a former protege and close aide of Mr Sanader, reshuffled the government in December 2010, dismissing four of the most exposed ministers alleged of corruption. There have been no investigations of the tainted dismissed ministers however. A minister of transportation remains unscathed by numerous allegations of corruption and abuse of power; the minister maintains his position due to the HDZ votes he is expected to bring in Croatia's next elections.

With a population of 4.5 million, Croatia has over one million unresolved court cases, with a large proportion concerning property rights and some stuck in the court system for 20 years.

One of the most devious acts of private property theft performed in 2003, which recently surfaced in the public domain, is a real case study of the absence of the rule of law, disregard of property rights, political corruption at the highest level of the government and a politically influenced judiciary.

Local independent media Index.HR and Vecernji list (the latter owned by Austria Styria Media Group AG) reported that then-Mayor of Zadar, Bozidar Kalmeta, now Croatia's minister of transportation was responsible for the expropriation of 18,000 square meters of land from 53 individual owners by simply proclaiming them 'unknown'. The land was immediately sold to an individual for private use. The legitimate owners are making attempts to get justice through Croatia's courts.

When asked about this case, Mr Kalmeta claimed that the details were known to Ana Lovrin. The same Ms Lovrin was appointed by then-prime minister as Croatia's justice minister.

Similar cases of property theft initiated by government officials in Rijeka, Croatia's largest port, have been submerged in the parlous court system for two decades.

Would EU taxpayers welcome such an unscrupulous lot to one day govern their economic policies and justice system?

The recent protests express the desperation of Croatia's citizens yearning for economic freedom and equal justice under the rule of law. Croatian citizens were not able to reap the widely touted benefits of the EU accession - the rule of law, independent judiciary, protection of property rights and the strengthening of democratic institutions for a functioning market economy.

Since the mid-1990s, EU and US taxpayers have sent over $1 billion to aid reforms in Croatia without results. Through the pre-accession process, the EU has carved out over €400 million for Croatia's government and has promised €4 billion in EU taxpayer funds when it enters the Union.

A principled approach in addressing Croatia's grave problems should come in the form of EU support directed at deploying visiting judges and prosecutors from countries with a strong rule of law tradition to assist a remnant of Croatia's honest judges in creating an independent judiciary and protecting property rights. EU regional funds and other pre-accession funding should be brought to a halt until corrupt politicians and their cronies are brought to justice and citizens' fundamental rights fully protected.

Croatia is far from being ready to close Chapter 23 - Justice and Fundamental Rights. Moreover, rushing to complete the EU-Croatia negotiations by June 2011 would be highly irresponsible of the EU. A disingenuous approach in addressing Croatia's problems threatens the EU's credibility and its coveted enlargement policy.

Natasha Srdoc and Joel Anand Samy are co-founders of Adriatic Institute for Public Policy, Croatia.

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