Wednesday

23rd May 2018

Analysis

Croatian election fuels regional tensions

  • Zoran Milanovic (r). The former prime minister and center-left candidate angered neighbouring countries. (Photo: SDP/flickr)

Whoever wins power in Sunday's (11 September) parliamentary elections in Croatia will face worsening relations with neighbouring countries, fuelled by the verbal excesses of a few political leaders.

Croats are voting after the government led by Croatian-Canadian businessman Tihomir Oreskovic collapsed in June because of internal divisions in his coalition.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Center-right candidate Andrej Plenkovic has started to move his party to a more moderate stance. (Photo: HDZ)

Two main political blocs are fighting for votes: the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the People's Coalition, led by the Social-Democratic Party (SDP).

The bridge of independent lists (MOST) and several other parties also have the chance to win parliamentary seats.

There are no major differences concerning economics between opposed political blocs, and none have announced any serious reform plans.

The People’s Coalition claims that it rescued the country from a seven-year recession while it was in power from 2011 to earlier this year and promises continuity. Croatia's growth is expected to reach 1.8 percent this year, compared to a 0.4 percent shrinkage in 2014.

HDZ claims it would perform even better, but has given no details on how it intends to achieve that.

The main campaign themes have been basic democratic values, such as media freedom and the independence of the public broadcaster, amid reports of political pressure on journalists.

Relations between Croats and minorities, such as the Serbs, or the reform of the elementary school system, are big topics.

On 1 June, about 40,000 people protested in the capital Zagreb against the decision by Oreskovic's government to halt school reforms, intended to promote secularism, started by the previous government.

The People’s Coalition has promised to restart the programme, while HDZ plans to reverse its content in accordance with its Roman Catholic values.

Polls suggest similar election results to those of November last year, when HDZ and SDP failed to win a majority and Oreskovic, a businessman, ended up leading a government with HDZ and MOST ministers.

That means coalition bargaining and political instability could continue in Croatia.

EU concern

Such a situation would not help to ease tensions in the region.

"The relations in the region are poisoned by war rhetoric and lack of communication, and have been steadily worsening since 2012," Milorad Pupovac, the president of Croatia's Serb National Council, told EUobserver, asking the EU to "engage more".

Early August, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic wrote to European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to complain of "anti-Serb politics" in Croatia.

Juncker replied on 31 August, expressing concerns over the worsening relations between the two countries and appealed to them to "return to constructive bilateral relations".

Relations between Croatia and Serbia started to deteriorate when Tomislav Nikolic became Serbian president in 2012 and worsened further after the Croatian government blocked Serbia's accession negotiations with the EU earlier this year.

Croatia said it would block Serbia's membership unless it changes a law which enables it to arrest and judge Croatian war veterans for war crimes, something Belgrade refuses to do.

In the last several months, the number incidents between Zagreb and Belgrade have multiplied, with exchanges of diplomatic notes and verbal mud-slinging at the highest political level.

Former prime minister and SDP president Zoran Milanovic, who is running again for office as People's Coalition leader, added fuel to the fire.

'I will hold my tongue'

In a leaked transcript of a closed-door meeting with Croatian war veterans on 23 August, Milanovic said the Serbian government was "arrogant", adding that he would be willing to close the border between Croatia and Serbia, as he did during the migration crisis in 2015.

Milanovic also said of Bosnia that "this is not a state" and that he has "nobody to talk to" there.

He added insults about both countries, causiong outrage.

"I will hold my tongue, because I don't want to insult the Croatian nation. Say what you want. Our job is to keep the peace," Vucic said after Milanovic's comments went public.

"If you ask me, Milanovic really won't have anybody to talk to in Bosnia in the future," said Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of BiH's presidency, adding that Milanovic was "fitting into the Balkan milieu by his arrogance".

"Milanovic's statement shocked his voters, who might abstain, but also people in neighbouring countries, worsening the situation even more,“ Croatian human right activist Zoran Pusic told EUobserver.

The opposing camp, HDZ, is trying to present itself as more moderate under its new leader, Andrej Plenkovic, afterits previous president Tomislav Karamarko advocated restriction of media freedom and indulged in anti-Serb rhetoric.

Plenkovic, an MEP and former diplomat, was elected HDZ president in July after Karamarko resigned over a conflict of interest. His wife's firm is financed by Hungarian oil producer Mol, with which the Croatian government is in dispute at the International Court of Arbitration.

Conciliatory statements

Karamarko, who advocated nationalistic politics, restriction of media freedom and supported anti-Serb rhetoric, was dubbed the "Croatian Orban" by the media, in reference to the Hungarian right-wing prime minister.

Unlike Karamarko, whose politics were labelled "illiberal", Plenkovic announced a shift to the centre and expressed confidence in liberal values, media freedom and tolerance towards ethnic minorities.

But Plenkovic included on his party's list of candidates the controversial culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic, who induced protests of liberals by his hostile politics towards critical media and culture, becoming the symbol of extremist politics of Karamarko's HDZ.

The HDZ also announced its plans to have the controversial ultraconservative physician Davor Pavuna, who claims that "contemporary physics suggests that God exists", working on the education reform.

Despite uncertainties over the reality HDZ's change of political rhetoric, analysts welcomed the new tone.

"Plenkovic surprised me pleasantly by his conciliatory statements, which could initiate easing the tensions in the region," Pusic told this website.

Serbian representative Pupovac pointed out that the HDZ had appealed to "nationalism and strengthening anti-Serb sentiments“.

"The situation has now reversed: HDZ stopped the old ways and wants to improve the state, while Milanovic seized what Karamarko's HDZ left behind.“

This article is the first in a series about the situation in Western Balkan countries. It will be followed by articles from Bosnia and Serbia

Croatia and Serbia in war of words

The 1990's wars are again straining relations between Croatia and Serbia amid reinterpretation on both sides of World War Two memories.

Same old scandals drag down Croatia's government

Scandals over oil money and World War II history, attacks on democratic standards risk unseating Croatia's government in a confidence vote just five months after it took office.

Croatia PM struggles to tame own party

Andrej Plenkovic has shifted Croatia's government towards the centre-ground, but must already deal with strained relations with Bosnia.

Russia courts Serbia amid EU dispute

Serbian PM Vucic cut short a trip to Brussels, the same day as Russian foreign minister said the EU was pushing Balkan countries to "antagonise" Russia.

Analysis

Orban, the 'anti-Merkel', emboldens European right

Hungary's premier Viktor Orban has inspired 'illiberalism' across central Europe and far-right politicians in the West. His expected re-election this Sunday will further reinforce his standing as a symbol for being tough on Europe's political mainstream.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  2. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  3. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  5. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  7. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  10. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  11. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach
  12. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May

Latest News

  1. 'Killer robot' projects eligible for EU defence fund
  2. Funding for European values needs radical changes
  3. Feeble EU format deflates Zuckerberg 'hearing'
  4. Are EU data watchdogs staffed for GDPR?
  5. EU pessimistic on permanent US trade exemption
  6. US asks EU to go after Russian and African villains
  7. Facebook threatened with removal from EU-US data pact
  8. Defence firms 'reap benefits' of advice to EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  2. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  5. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  7. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  8. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  9. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  10. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  11. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  2. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  3. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  6. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  7. European Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris
  8. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  9. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  10. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  11. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  12. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations