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Croatia is facing one of its most severe political crises since independence. Its ingredients are corruption, conflicts of interest, personal hostilities - and the future of the Balkan nation.
Soon, Croatians will have two reasons to celebrate. On 25 June, the country at the Adriatic sea will mark the 25th anniversary of its independence. This first of July will mark the third anniversary of Croatia's EU accession. Currently, however, hardly anyone is in a celebratory mood.
A mere five months after taking office, the new government in Zagreb has already split up. After the heads of all coalition partners suggested to their respective counterparts to step down, the experiment of a Center-Right government supervised by independent Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic must be called a failure.
The current crisis was triggered by corruption charges brought forward against Tomislav Karamarko (pictured above), Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the national-conservative HDZ party. He came under pressure because his wife received a consultation fee of 60,000 euros ($68,000) from a lobbyist acting on behalf of the Hungarian mineral oil group MOL. For years, MOL and the Croatian government have been at loggerheads over power control at Croatia's public oil company INA. According to Croatian media reports, MOL appears to have achieved its influence at INA through corruption. Following those allegations, HDZ coalition partner Most (The Bridge) had called for Karamarko to step down as Deputy Head of Government.
As a result, HDZ had labeled Most - a partner in the government until then - as incompetent and called, in turn, for the resignation of its leader Bozo Petrov. Things finally came to a head on Friday (3 June), when Prime Minister Oreskovic endorsed a resignation of both his deputies, Karamarko and Petrov.
Can early elections end the deadlock?
Instead of implementing the necessary reforms, the country's political elite is once again focused on itself. For Josip Juratovic, this does not come as a surprise. Local political structures were organized in a way that favors power, maintenance of power and redistribution of power as opposed to dealing with the country's future, criticized Juratovic, a German Social Democrat MP with Croatian roots. "Restructuring the government wouldn't generate new ideas, or new personnel which could offer perspectives," he added, talking to DW. Early elections could, therefore, offer a chance to find a way out of the government crisis.
Restructuring the government, however, continues to remain a realistic option. Some of the more prominent HDZ members distanced themselves from Karamarko, asking their party leader to resign, for the sake of national interest. Karamarko could also be toppled, so that HDZ and Most could set up a new government without him getting in the way, several Croatian media speculate. This would give HDZ more time to regain voters' trust. However, once again power was at stake, as opposed to policies, criticized Josip Juratovic vis-à-vis DW: "Intraparty democracy simply doesn't work, neither in Croatia nor in the region. Therefore, we keep seeing the same players shaping the same policies, only with a different entourage. If they had had any ideas, they would already have realized them. Obviously they don't have any."
And yet, Croatia needs a long-term national economic strategy urgently. Reforms have been adjourned for years, the public debt amounts to almost 90 percent of the country's GDP, the unemployment rate has reached 16 percent, and the budget deficit by far exceeds the EU threshold. Croatia's credit status has deteriorated, with creditors now demanding more money for Croatian state bonds - due to the current unstable political situation, according to the official reason given for this. The feeling of resignation experienced by many Croats is not even mitigated by a slight economic recovery after years of recession. Primarily young, highly-trained employees are leaving the country. Over the last two years, almost 100,000 Croatian employees have gone to Germany alone.
"Currently, we simply see disorientation in Croatia," says Juratovic: "We in Germany are just at a loss: where is Croatia heading? What are the country's aspirations?"
Political turbulence in Croatia was also a bad omen with respect to EU integration of the neighboring countries. Croatia had joined the EU promising it would be a beacon in the region, emphasizes Juratovic: "Europeans expected that Croatia would radiate hope and motivation for all others in the region instead of unbuckling, segregating and - I'm sorry - staying in some sort of political nirvana right now."
With the split of the acting coalition government, the deep divisions within Croatian society have reached a new peak. Last week, the country saw the largest civilian protests in recent years, with 40,000 people taking to the streets in Zagreb, according to the police. Protesters accused the government of dragging its feet regarding a planned educational reform because, in its view, it does not sufficiently represent Christian-conservative values. For months, critics have been deploring a swing to the right in Croatia, even growing anti-Semitism. In addition, there had been calls from within and beyond Croatia's borders for a resignation of Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic, also a HDZ member - he was accused of conveying fascist messages. At the HDZ party convention, however, it was Hasanbegovic who received the highest number of votes.