January 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

CrWho lives there?: Around 4.6 million people. 90% are Croats and 90% are Catholic. Most of the remainder are Serbs or Bosnians, who until recently lived in  a number of small enclaves – a result of the civil war. However it appears many are now migrating into the major cities. Croatia’s population is shrinking.

Ethnic Croats also make up a large part of neighbouring nations – in particular Bosnia-Herzegovina where they form a powerful cultural and political lobby which has a profound impact on that nation’s politics, and relations between the two nations.

How does the system work? (the theory): Croatia recently moved from a presidential to a parliamentary system. The President still exists, and has a number of residual powers still on the books, however in reality the role is purely ceremonial. They are elected by two round first past the post for a maximum of two five year terms

The Prime Minister is the head of the government and appoints a cabinet. They are appointed by the Hrvatski Sabor –  the legislative which became unicameral at the same time as presidential rule ended, terms are for four years. 153 members are elected by D’Hondt PR: 140 via 10 constituencies in Croatia, 5 via one constituency for overseas voters and 8 seats are reserved for minorities. These are distributed as follows (also all by d’Hondt): ethnic Serbs elect 3, ethnic Hungarians elect 1, ethnic Italians elect 1, ethnic Czechs and Slovaks elect 1, ethnic Austrians, Bulgarians, Germans, Poles, Roma, Romanians, Rusyns (an eastern Slavic ethnic group with its own distinct language), Russians, Turks, Ukrainians, Vlachs (or Wallachians – a group of Latin ie Romanian origin) and self identifying Jews elect 1, ethnic Albanians, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Slovenes elect 1. There is a threshold of at least 5% in at least one district to be eligible to take seats, however the electoral mathematics of the seats mean that one usually needs more like around 7-8% of the vote to have any chance of winning a seat.

Croatia is divided into twenty regions each of which have control over education, health service, area and urban planning, economic development, traffic and traffic infrastructure. However these policies can be, an often are, overruled by the centre. Rule is implemented through a regional assembly elected by d’Hondt PR.

Underneath the regions are the municipalities which control housing, local area and urban planning, public utilities, child care, social welfare, primary health services, education and elementary schools, culture, physical education and sports, customer protection, protection and improvement of the environment, fire protection and civil defence. They are headed up by directly elected mayors elected by two round first past the post. As such they mayors of major cities are actually very powerful figures.

How does the system work? (the practice): The consensus is that elections are  free and fair and discrimination against ethnic minorities is ebbing  away. The low threshold for nominations to run a presidential bid, and the two round system, means that it is common for there to be multiple candidates for president including several from one party. Recent elections have usually seen 3 or so left wing candidates and five or so right wing candidates.

How did we get here?: The history of Croatia is closely tied to the history of the rest of former Yugoslavia. I wrote about the situation in Bosnia here and that has a strong bearing on the Croatian present.

Nowadays the term Croat is largely used to refer to the culturally catholic inhabitants of former Yugoslavia (as opposed to the culturally Eastern Orthadox Serbs or culturally Muslim Bosnians). This comes out of a shared (if often unspoken) realisation that genuine ethnolinguistic differences between the groups have long since disappeared. However historically there was a distinct ethnic group called the Croats, they came from eastern Europe and they settled in Croatia in the seventh century AD – setting up a number of Duchys.

The next one thousand three hundred years were fascinating – featuring invasion by Franks, Hungarians, Ottomans, Slavs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and various city states and federations. It’s fascinating, but its not that relevant so I’ll skip forward to world war one. Following the defeat of the Austo-Hungarian empire it was decided to give Yugoslavia independence as a lose federation. It was a bit of a disaster and ended with the Nazi invasion in 1941. After world war two there was a fresh attempt.

Under Tito (himself a Croatian born half-Croat half-Slovene) Yugoslavia was fairly functional as a federal socialist republic. However as one of the most prosperous parts of the federation, Croatia began to feel that it was getting a raw deal and that it was being held back by the others. This led to the “Croat Spring” of the early 1970s whereby activists led by Croat Prime Minister Savka Dabčević-Kučar (incidentally Europe’s first female PM) called for greater autonomy. The movement came to nothing directly but it was the first stirring of latent Croat nationalism (until then utterly disapproved-of under Tito’s doctrine of multiethnicity) and can be seen as laying the fondations for what came next.

Nationalism came to the fore following Tito’s death and was further exacerbated when the nationalist Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia and used a series of coups in Kosovo, Montenego and Vojvodina to significantly reduce autonomy. The seeds for the break up of Yugoslavia were sown in the 1990 elections when each parliament within Yugoslavia elected almost exclusively ethnically based parties, with separatists having a majority in many of the component parts.

Croatia and Slovenia acted first, declaring independence on June 25th 1991 following a very one-sided referendum. In a pattern that was to repeated across former Yugoslavia, the Serbian members of parliament withdrew in protest and set up their own government of their own autonomous area, called the Republic of Serbian Krajina. This led to the Croatian war of Independence. This took place in three stages:

The first stage was a fairly typical civil war. The Croatian Army (mostly formed out of the Croatian Police Force) and the Serbian Army fought, supported by Croat volunteers on one side and Serbian volunteers on the other. By 1992 the country was split in half, with the majority of the territory being held by the new internationally recognised nation of Croatia, and the rest being the de facto but unrecognised independent nation of the Republic of Serbian Krajina.

Red=Krajina, pink=Croatia

In the second stage, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, these borders became fairly stable and – whilst there was internal violence in both areas – there was not much in the way of direct fighting between the two halves. Instead both sides engaged in a proxy war through the war in Bosnia, which was by now raging. In particular Croatia supported the ethnic Croat faction and their attempt to create a Croat governed area within Bosnia: the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia; and Krajina and Serbia supported the ethnic Serbian enclave within Bosnia: Republica Srpska.

In the third stage, the spring of 1995, the Croatian Army gathered together the strength to invade and crush the Republic of Krajina. There have been allegations of war crimes by all sides throughout the conflict but most of the most serious allegations centre around this final stage: Operation Storm.

And that brings us up to the present day. Croatia fiddled around a bit with its constitution in the early 00’s, and has been accepted into the EU in principle. They still have 16 more chapters of the accession treaty to complete and it is expected that they will formally join at some point this year.

Who’s in charge?: Traditionally the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) have dominated Croatian politics, a result of the key role they played in the war of independence. They have only lost the Prime Ministership during three years since 1990. However their support had been on the slide and so in 2000 they lost to the Social Democrats and since 2003 have had to form ruling coalitions.

2007 saw the tightest parliamentary result yet. The HDZ won 66 seats, with the centre-left Social Democrats winning their best ever result with 54 seats. Meanwhile the right wing “green-yellow coalition” won 8 seats: 6 for the agrarian right wing Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS) and 2 for the liberal Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS). A small centre-left party, sometime allies of the Social Democrats, Croatian People’s Party – Liberal Democrats (HNS-LD) won 7. Two regional parties won three seats each: the centre-left Istrian Democratic Assembly, and the centre right Croatian Democratic Assembly of Slavonia and Baranja (a HDZ offshoot). The Pensioners Party won 1 seat, the far right HSP won 1 seat and the 8 seats for ethnic minorities predictably went to different ethnic movements (the Serbian party SDSS winning 3). There were also six independents elected.

This made forming a coalition difficult but in the end the HDZ, the HSS, the HSLS, and 7 of the 8 ethnic representatives formed a ruling coalition.



However then things started to go very very wrong for the HDZ. The HDZ Prime Minister Ivo Sander stood down unexpectedly following criticism of his handling of the economy, he announced that he would play no further part in politics- prompting criticism that he was deserting his post. He then unexpectedly made a return, voiced severe criticism of the HDZ and then disappeared again. Then there was a investigation into corruption and potential abuse of power and he reactivated his seat and rejoined politics (and thus regained his parliamentary immunity) just before he was due to be arrested. Then he was thrown out of HDZ and parliament. Then he went on the run – finally being arrested by Interpol in Austria in relation to allegations of fraud. There have been more dramatic political suicides, but few as prolonged and tortouus, and this, along with the aforementioned economic problems, caused HDZ support to freefall.

However the coalition remained intact and so HDZ’s Jadranka Kosor took over becoming Croatia’s second ever female PM (and first since independence).

As a result, when it came to the 2009-10 presidential elections, the HDZ were not competitive. However the Social Democrats were not without problems of themselves. Milan Bandić had just risen to fame following his landslide victory as mayor of Zagreb. However, following many allegations of corruption, a series of prominent figures on the left campaigned to make sure he was not the Social Democrat candidate. In the end the Social Democrats ran an internal election in which Bandić was not an officially endorsed candidate. He could have run in the internal election anyway, but taking offence at the deliberate slight, he instead decided to run a presidential campaign as an independent. Ivo Josipović eventually secured the Social Democrat nomination.

With the incumbent Stjepan Mesić standing down there were a record 12 candidates. The first round was a humiliation for the right in general and the HDZ in particular. They came third with a mere 12% of the vote. Josipović came first with 32% and Bandić second with 14%. In the second round Bandić tried to reposition himself on the right to cash in on HDZ transfers and the many thousands of disaffected former HDZ voters. But it didn’t work and Josipović won by 60% to 40%

What does it look like?: Croatia is beautiful. It consists of the area on the collision between the Balkan mountains and the Pannonain Basin (a dried up former inland sea which created the Hungarian plain). It has a dramatic Karst (dissolved limestone) topography, a stunning Adriatic coastline, lost of woods and cliffs and many national parks.

What are the issues?: Ethnic issues are fading but are still there in the background. Now the main issues are the economic downturn and who is to blame for it (with most people pointing the finger at the HDZ). Croatia was passionately pro-European integration but recent economic problems and the collapse of the HDZ has resulted in a dramatic rise in Euroscepticism. It seems much of this sentiment is not genuinely anti-European but more Euroscepticism as a form of co-opted anti-establishment sentiment. All the established parties are pro-Europe, and this feeds into the resentment as anti-European Croats feel they have no voice. It is likely that at the next election the HDZ will take a tonking and it is likely that new Eurosceptic parties (or newly-Eurosceptic established parties) will fill the void.

A good source of impartial information is: There is a vibrant free press but various aspects of politics – particularly ethnic issues – are seen as being taboo. Of course all the media is in Serbo-Croat: Globus is very highly regarded.

A good book is: King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Croatia hasn’t been as well studied as Bosnia, so the best you are likely to get is the extraordinary (but not light) The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers. Also worth mentioning is Imagining the Balkans which is the regional equivalent of Edward Said’s Orientalism – discussing how western exoticized discourses on the Balkans have warped perceptions and political realities in the region. It is by all accounts a tour de force.

Distorting exoticism is a criticism which, at a cursory glance, I would have thought could be levelled at Destiny’s Dowry – arguably the most famous novel about Croatia. However I’m told it is a very good read and genuinely does get to the heart of the Croatian psyche. The author did conduct an ethnographic study in Croatia so maybe it is not quite as trashy as it looks.

A couple of quirky books which look really interesting to finish off. Croatians of Chicagoland talks about the defining impact of Croat immigrants on the creation of Chicago, which was once known as “the true capital of Croatia”. Two lines of life is the autobiography of an unconventional life in Croat politics: Sonia Wild Bicanic was an Englishwoman who moved to Croatia in 1940 and married a senior member of the ruling communist party.

The next elections are: Fascinating parliamentary elections will be held in the Autumn on this year. Presidential elections are in 2014


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