Saturday

24th Feb 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.

Corruption report: Hungary gets worse, Italy makes progress

Italians, Czechs and Latvians perceive less corruption than a few years ago in Transparency International's annual ranking. The Berlin-based NGO said Finland was a 'worrying case', whilst Bulgaria - which holds the EU presidency - is EU's most corrupt.

News in Brief

  1. EU calls for immediate ceasefire in Syria
  2. UK's post-Brexit vision is 'pure illusion', Tusk says
  3. EU leaders express solidarity with Cyprus in Turkey drill row
  4. EU to double funding for Sahel forces
  5. EU parliament president: 'The immigration problem is Africa'
  6. May to unveil EU departure strategy next week
  7. Pregnant workers may be dismissed, EU court rules
  8. Romanian minister demands anti-corruption prosecutor fired

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ILGA EuropeAnkara Ban on LGBTI Events Continues as Turkish Courts Reject NGO Appeals
  2. Aid & Trade LondonJoin Thousands of Stakeholders of the Global Aid Industry at Aid & Trade London
  3. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.European Free Alliance Joins MHRMI to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism Year to Promote Business and Mutual Ties
  5. European Jewish CongressAt “An End to Antisemitism!” Conference, Dr. Kantor Calls for Ambitious Solutions
  6. UNESDAA Year Ago UNESDA Members Pledged to Reduce Added Sugars in Soft Drinks by 10%
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsUzbekistan: Investigate Torture of Journalist
  8. CESICESI@Noon on ‘Digitalisation & Future of Work: Social Protection For All?’ - March 7
  9. UNICEFExecutive Director's Committment to Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region 2018: Facts, Figures and Rankings of the 74 Regions
  11. Mission of China to the EUDigital Economy Shaping China's Future, Over 30% of GDP
  12. Macedonian Human Rights Movement Int.Suing the Governments of Macedonia and Greece for Changing Macedonia's Name

Latest News

  1. EU agrees budget to focus on defence, security and migration
  2. EU leaders nix transnational lists, cool on 'Spitzenkandidat'
  3. Regions chief: calls for smaller EU budget are 'impossible'
  4. Election fever picks up This WEEK
  5. EU-Morocco fishing deal casts doubt on EU future foreign policy
  6. EU leaders put 'Spitzenkandidat' on summit menu
  7. European far-right political party risks collapse
  8. The key budget issues on EU leaders' table

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Swedish EnterprisesHarnessing Globalization- at What Cost? Keynote Speaker Commissioner Malmström
  2. European Friends of ArmeniaSave The Date 28/02: “Nagorno-Karabakh & the EU: 1988-2018”
  3. European Heart NetworkSmart CAP is Triple Win for Economy, Environment and Health
  4. European Free AlllianceEFA Joined the Protest in Aiacciu to Solicit a Dialogue After the Elections
  5. EPSUDrinking Water Directive Step Forward but Human Right to Water Not Recognized
  6. European Gaming & Betting AssociationGambling Operators File Data Protection Complaint Against Payment Block in Norway
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Expresses Deep Concern Over Proposed Holocaust Law in Poland
  8. CECEConstruction Industry Gets Together to Discuss the Digital Revolution @ the EU Industry Days
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Relations in the New Era
  10. European Free AlllianceEnd Discrimination of European Minorities - Sign the Minority Safepack Initiative
  11. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Diversity Shouldn’t Be Only a Slogan” Lorant Vincze (Fuen) Warns European Commission
  12. Dialogue PlatformWhat Can Christians Learn from a Global Islamic Movement?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressEJC President Warns Europe as Holocaust Memory Fades
  2. European Free AlllianceNo Justice From the Spanish Supreme Court Ruling
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  4. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  6. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  7. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  8. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  9. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  10. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society