A man who shot three men whom he believed were drug dealers to death has become something of a folk hero in Croatia. That says more about the government's priorities than the man or the people who are celebrating him.
Twenty-five-year-old Filip Zavadlav was in no rush when he went to the center of Split, a city on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, at 3.30 p.m. on January 11 wearing a black leather jacket and black pants. He had just spent the last of his savings on rent and a Kalashnikov. He looked relaxed with the weapon in his hand. His targets were five men whom he believed were drug dealers, and he quickly found three of them on motorcycles, fired 36 bullets and killed them. Two to go. Zavadlav would not find them. With his mission partly accomplished, he threw the weapon away, went home and changed clothes. The police found him at a cafe at about 6 p.m., having coffee with his father and brother.
A mass shooting in a city center would be shocking anywhere in the world. But not this one, not in Croatia. More than 20,000 people have joined a Facebook group in support of Zavadlav. They have hired a top lawyer and announced a protest in Split for Thursday. Leaflets have circulated with a simple message: "Filip, the hero. Death to drug dealers." The public interpreted the killing as revenge, but he told his landlord that it was either "me or them."
There is widespread mistrust in Croatia's judiciary.
Cycle of impunity
The current mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandic, was arrested in 2014 on suspicion of malfeasance. Six months later the Zagreb County Court ordered Bandic released from prison until trial. He has resumed his position as mayor.
In 2011 a businessman from Zagreb, Tomislav Horvatincic, killed two foreign citizens when his speedboat crashed into a sailboat. The court reached a guilty verdict three times, but he remains free.
That same year, the US's Drug Enforcement Agency and Croatian anti-drug units arrested a group of dealers with 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of cocaine. The dealers negotiated a 2.5-year prison sentence. In 2018, a couple was arrested for the possession of 1.5 kilogram of cocaine and stayed in prison a short seven months. In July 2017, another dealer ended up with 11 months of mandatory "community service."
Ivan Tuduric, the head of Zagreb's regional court and the acting head of Croatia's High Criminal Court, was cited for speeding. He has ignored four summonses. The average Croatian does not enjoy this privilege.
In 2019, a police officer reported that a colleague had sexually assaulted her during their night shift. The court refused to take the case because the assault happened for the "first time."
It is hard to have faith in a judiciary system that is so slow and merciful in such high-profile cases. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told French media that Croatia needs to make a strong effort to deal with corruption. However, there have been few visible results of this during his three years in office.
At a press conference, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said schoolchildren who cheat on tests were an example of the widespread corruption in Croatia. She held office for five years, with little to show in the fight against corruption. In fact, she has links to many people who have been tried for corruption — including Bandic.
The Business Anti-Corruption Portal has found a high risk of abuse in Croatia's judiciary. They identified political patronage, inefficient bureaucracy, and corruption in the judiciary and public procurement as major challenges.
Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018, the most recent year on record, places Croatia at No. 60 out of 180 countries, with a score of 48 of a possible 100 points. Some Croatians note that other Balkan countries scored lower. But Croatia, as an EU member, should be comparing itself with other nations in the bloc, such as neighboring Slovenia, which is several notches up, in 36th place.
The system failed
Zavadlav was a sailor. He and his family were known to the police and social services for years, ever since he and his brother reported domestic violence at home when he was 13. Their father chained them up and beat them regularly. Social workers placed his family on a watch list and checked in at least 10 times. But, otherwise, officials did not intervene. Two brothers became addicted to drugs, and Filip is now charged with murder.
The street price of a Kalashnikov is €300-500 ($330-550) in the Balkans. Thousands of such weapons remain in the region following the wars of the 1990s. Serbia leads the list, with 1.5 million unregistered weapons; Croatia has about 600,000. Some of the weapons and ammunition used in the 2015 attacks in Paris came from Serbia and Bosnia.
All of these facts — the slow judiciary system, chronic injustice, failed social services, widespread corruption — contributed to the murders that Zavadlav has been charged with committing on that Saturday. More than 20,000 people have joined a Facebook group called "Filip the Hero" — not to justify the murders, but to express their view that Zavadlav was victim of a failed system. They are attempting to push officials to solve the problem.
On Thursday, protesters — potentially thousands of them — will gather in Split. Will authorities take them seriously and make earnest efforts to fight corruption and crime? Or will they once again try to change the narrative?
A society that makes murderers its martyrs has serious problems. Croatia is a country in which authorities tolerate — and benefit from — cheating in school, the forging of diplomas by the already-privileged classes and official corruption. Why would anyone be surprised when people start taking justice into their own hands? It is a logical consequence. Instead of dealing with the consequences, officials must examine the true problems.