Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • 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.

News in Brief

  1. EU warns Turkey as 'Gezi Park' trials begin
  2. EU universities to share students, curricula
  3. Migrant rescue ship loses Human Rights Court appeal
  4. Denmark completes social democrat sweep of Nordics
  5. Johnson offers 'do or die' pledge on Brexit
  6. Weber indirectly attacks Macron in newspaper op-ed
  7. EU to sign free trade deal with Vietnam
  8. EU funding of air traffic control 'largely unnecessary'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  4. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  6. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  7. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  8. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  9. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate

Latest News

  1. EU moves to end car-testing 'confidentiality clause'
  2. EU parliament gives extra time for leaders on top jobs
  3. Europe's rights watchdog lifts Russia sanctions
  4. EU-Vietnam trade deal a bad day for workers' rights
  5. EU 'special envoy' going to US plan for Palestine
  6. Polish judicial reforms broke EU law, court says
  7. EU study: no evidence of 'East vs West' food discrimination
  8. Russia tried to stir up Irish troubles, US think tank says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  3. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  6. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  11. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  12. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  2. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  4. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  5. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us