BALKAN BLOG: Riots in Croatia spell trouble for tainted political elite

By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2011

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Popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya may have grabbed the lion's share of headlines across the globe in the past couple of months, but North Africa and the Middle East are by no means the only places to have seen major anti-government protests in recent times.

Normally placid Zagreb has seen more than its fair share of unrest as widespread disenchantment with the current right-wing coalition led by the Christian Democratic Union (HDZ) has resulted in running battles between demonstrators and police in the normally quiet streets in the heart of the Croatian capital.

While Croatia undoubtedly boasts much greater democratic credentials than in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, there are undoubted similarities between the protests in terms of the respective governments' failure to ensure sustainable economic progress and equitable wealth distribution. While the incumbent Croatian administration has been keen to emphasize the fact that the long-term goal of EU membership is finally within sight - the government hopes to finally wrap up accession negotiations by the end of June with a view to securing membership by the start of 2013 - the country's short-term problems have prompted a wide range of interest groups to take to the streets across the country and voice their disenchantment with an administration increasingly seen as being out of touch with public opinion. In the protesters' minds at least, the country's political elite is tainted by a toxic admixture of corruption, economic illiteracy and toadyism towards the EU.

Cosmetic changes

Croatia may have been one of the last of the states in Central and Eastern Europe to have been hit by the global economic crisis - growth only went south at the start of 2009 - but with little sign of any upturn in the country's financial fortunes since then, there's a distinct lack of confidence in a government which faces parliamentary elections towards the end of the year. Prime Minister Jadrankra Kosor may have reshuffled her ministerial pack at the start of the year - for example replacing the unpopular finance minister Ivan Suker, a former tax official, with Martina Dalic, a commercial banker - in an attempt to restore the government's dwindling credibility, but there's been precious little evidence of positive developments on the economic front.

A key bugbear with the electorate is unemployment, which at the latest count had hit over 335,000, or almost 20% - the highest level since 2003 and up 150,000 since Kosor took over from disgraced former premier Ivo Sanader in July 2009, who epitomizes another of the problems Kosor has to battle with.

Sanader, who resigned unexpectedly, is currently in prison in Salzburg awaiting extradition to Croatia on suspicion of corruption and abuse of power. While Kosor is widely credited with finally getting tough in the battle against graft in Croatia, the fact remains that many of the figures associated with a whole raft of corruption scandals that have emerged in the last couple of years are either current or former members of her HDZ party.

The widespread perception is that HDZ members have enriched themselves while the general populace faced growing impoverishment as GDP slumped by 7.2% in the past two years. With little sign of the economy improving, this has inevitably stirred popular unrest and prompted the largest anti-government demonstrations for over a decade. What started as small-scale protests organised via Facebook by student demonstrators enraged by factors such as poor employment prospects - youth unemployment has surpassed the 30% mark - has been followed by much bigger demonstrations by veterans of Croatia's 1991-1995 independence war, protesting the that government has failed to honour their sacrifices and protect them from what they view as spurious war crimes prosecutions. While the student protests are hardly unique in Europe, the demonstration by Croatian war veterans, which attracted over 15,000 people to Zagreb's main Ban Jelacic square at the end of February, are much more unusual in nature.

War veterans have traditionally been staunch supporters of the HDZ thanks to its implementation of generous pension arrangements and their mobilisation to protest perceived ill treatment has clearly rattled the regime. Disgruntled farmers, fishermen and trade unionists have also taken to the streets to protest against the HDZ's handling of the economy. The fact that there has also been a strong anti-EU tone to recent demonstrations also threatens to undermine the government's already shaky re-election prospects, as securing entry into Europe's elite politico-economic club remains one of its few achievable goals in the foreseeable future.

Images of riot police being first stoned by protesters and then attacking those protesters with batons and pepper spray is unlikely to sit well with politicians in Brussels who are concerned with making the next round of EU enlargement less contentious than the inclusion of economically weak and hopelessly corrupt Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.

With Croatia seen as the test case for the inclusion of the former Yugoslav states of Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia into the EU, Eurocrats will no doubt be hoping that the powers-that-be in Zagreb can get their act together in the coming weeks and achieve some measure of political calm.

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