The Croatian media is agog at the arrest of Milan Bandic, the mayor of Zagreb, and at least 15 of his closest associates on corruption charges.
After months of investigations by police and Croatia’s anti-graft agency Uskok, Bandic and a slew of city officials from the Croatian capital were taken into investigative custody on October 19 on suspicion of corruption, abuse of office and trading in influence, according to a statement issued by Uskok on its website.
Although the official charges will not be revealed until October 22, local media reports suggest that the allegations against Bandic include the embezzlement of public funds to support his failed bid to become Croatian president in 2009 as well as the award of public procurement contracts during his more than decade long reign as the undisputed ruler of the Croatian capital.
Among the other suspects arrested during the ‘Action Agram’ police operation– named after the old moniker for Zagreb – were Slobodan Ljubicic, chief executive of Zagrebacki Holding, the public agency that manages Zagreb municipal services, and Peter Pripuz, chief executive of CIOS, a privately owned waste management company which it is alleged to have been illegally awarded lucrative contracts by Zagrebacki Holding.
The arrests represent the latest stage in a concerted anti-graft campaign in Croatia, whose other high profile targets have included former prime minister Ivo Sanader, Marina Lovric-Merzel, the former prefect of Sisak-Moslavina county and Zeljko Sabo, the former mayor of the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar.
The arrest of Bandic and a large part of the senior leadership of Zagreb, which is home to over 20% of Croatia’s 4.3 million population and accounts for more than 40% of the country’s gross domestic budget, is arguably the most dramatic operation undertaken by Uskok to date and could possibly set the stage for similar operations in other Croatian cities.
Commenting on the arrests Dragan Zelic, head of civil rights organisation Gong, told state news agency Hina: "This case not only illustrates the importance of the fight against corruption, but also the prevention of corruption at all levels. Everything needs to be done to ensure that nothing like this happens again and we need to ensure that there is the lowest possible level of corruption. No expense should be spared in the battle against corruption. It should be remembered that there are very serious allegations against the mayors in Zadar and Dubrovnik and all such cases need to be addressed.”
As the long-serving mayor of Zagreb, Bandić is certainly no stranger to controversy. In 2002 during his first term at the helm of Zagreb, Bandić fled from the scene of a car accident while under the influence of alcohol and was forced to tender his resignation as a result.
Nevertheless he managed to engineer his re-election as mayor in 2005 and has been a permanent fixture of the political landscape in Croatia ever since. Now in his fourth term as mayor, ahead of his arrest there was widespread speculation that he was planning to establish a coalition with a number of other political heavyweights, including former economy minister Radomir Cacic, to contest the next parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of 2015.
An unashamed populist and undisputed king of the photo-opportunity, Bandic enjoys widespread support among the electorate in Zagreb, managing to attract support from both left and rightwing voters which has proved instrumental in his being able to secure a record four terms as mayor.
Under his aegis Zagreb has witnessed an explosion of shopping centre developments, which have transformed the Croatian capital into a regional Mecca for both domestic and international retailers. He is also widely credited with showing enthusiastic support for minority groups in Croatia such as the Roma community.
However, according to local media no less than 250 civil and criminal charges have been levelled against Bandic, although to date no serious charges have stuck. Whether Croatia’s ‘Mr Teflon’ can shake off Uskok’s serious allegations remains to be seen, but given his reputation as a skilled political operator it is highly unlikely that Bandic will relinquish his grip on power without a fight.
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