Monday

20th Feb 2017

Croatia PM struggles to tame own party

  • Former diplomat Andrej Plenkovic became prime minister in October (Photo: Consilium)

Croatia's new prime minister has promised to ease growing political tensions in the country and in the region, but his first weeks in office have shown it will not be easy.

Andrej Plenkovic, a former diplomat and until recently an MEP, became prime minister in a coalition government on 19 October, five weeks after winning a snap election.

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He has tried to present himself as the leader of a more moderate Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a nationalist right-wing outfit that was the main party in the previous government.

HDZ leaders were embroiled in a series of public spats during the last government's tenure, fostering a rise in nationalist rhetoric, tolerating verbal attacks on minorities and threatening to crack down on free speech.

So far, Plenkovic has overseen "an obvious improvement in decency" in public discourse, analyst Zarko Puhovski told EUobserver.

Taxes and factions

He has chosen ministers largely from the moderate arm of the HDZ, jettisoned divisive figures from the previous cabinet, and promised to create "political stability, rule of law, economic growth and development" as well as improving "social solidarity, justice and inclusiveness".

But he has missed obvious opportunities to act on this new-found moderation.

For example, he has failed to even respond to escalating attacks on the president of the Croatian journalists society, Sasa Lekovic, who recently had screws rammed into his car wheel.

And controlling even his closest allies in the HDZ is not always easy.

On 24 October, new foreign minister Ivo Stier attended a "pro-life" gathering with guests including Raymond Leo Burke, a US Catholic cardinal who advocates a complete abortion ban.

Stier said the gathering, which was organised ahead of a constitutional court debate on abortion, was "good for pluralism and democracy” and "healthy for the development of society".

For now, the prime minister has managed to control the right wing of his party "because he unexpectedly won the election", political analyst Puhovski pointed out.

But if the HDZ faction opposed to Plenkovic makes gains at the local elections organised in May next year, "there will be serious quarrels within the party", Puhovski said.

Given that his government has just announced hugely unpopular tax reforms - including VAT increases on bread, milk and medicines, and income tax changes expected to benefit the rich - it is possible that his popularity with the public will suffer.

Bosnian controversies

In the region, Plenkovic's alleged new style is also still a work in progress.

After rising tension between Zagreb and Belgrade, under the previous HDZ-led government, Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vucic said on 1 November that the "atmosphere is not easy" but that he hoped that relations would improve.

Earlier this year, the previous government tried to block Serbia's accession talks with the EU, and the two governments traded accusations of nationalism.

"Since relations last year were the worst since the 1990s, I'm sure the improvement is not only possible, but necessary. It became obvious that previous policies towards neighbours were not productive," Aleksandar Popov, director of Serbia-based NGO Centre for Regionalism, told this website.

The new government supports EU accession for Serbia and also Bosnia-Herzegovina because "Croatia doesn't want to remain an EU external border country", foreign minister Stier said.

Plenkovic's first visit abroad was to Bosnia.

In the capital, Sarajevo, he expressed his friendship and emphasised his government's will to help Bosnia on its EU path.

But in Mostar, which was the centre of the Croat-Bosniak war in the 1990s, he met only Croatian officials and Catholic dignitaries, not Bosniaks.

Just after his visit, the Bosniak member of the Bosnian presidency Bakir Izetbegovic accused Plenkovic of supporting Bosnian Croats' longtime requests for more federalisation that he said are contrary to the constitution.

Plenkovic said that his government opposed the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but would support "political representatives finding the best solutions" for power sharing between the country's communities.

The new prime minister has also had to react to the arrest of 10 former Bosnian Croat soldiers on war crimes charges.

He said his government would "protect the country's legitimate interests and any human rights that could be violated".

The reaction was "expected, because they want to show they protect Croats” in Bosnia, Mile Lasic, a political scientist at Mostar University, told this website.

"But defending 'our heroes' in advance, even if they are not heroes, just prolongs the agony in Bosnia-Herzegovina, preventing empathy for war victims of other nationalities and developing selective collective memory," he said.

Analysis

Croatian election fuels regional tensions

Despite some conciliatory voices, Croatia's latest election has been overshadowed by nationalistic rhetoric, irking its neighbour, Serbia.

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.

Analysis

Why Romania erupted in protest

Current anger over corruption laws can be traced back to a night-club fire in 2015, when many died because of lax safety standards. Romanians then realised that corruption can kill.

Dutch election: EU's most unpredictable vote

Polls suggest that four or five parties will be needed to form a majority after the 15 March vote. The shrunk size of the establishment parties means that smaller parties may play a role of kingmaker.

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