Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Associate, RAS Institute of Slavonic Studies, RIAC Expert
On June 16, 2016, yet another Croatian government collapsed. On June 20, Croatian legislators voted to dissolve Parliament (Sabor), and this decision will take effect on July 15. In accordance with the Constitution, new parliamentary elections should take place within 30–60 days. The country has thus been plunged into a governmental crisis. But this crisis did not begin today or even last week: during the 25 years of its independence, Croatia has gone through 13 governments. Does the crisis in Croatia seem to be a permanent condition?
The Croatian Democracy Theory
It has almost become the norm for governments in modern Croatia to resign prematurely. But we have never reached the point of the dissolution of the Sabor and early elections being called.
Between 1990 and 1995, Croatia changed government five times: the shortest time that one of those governments spent in power was three months, with the longest reign being 18 months. However, these “changeovers” happened smoothly, almost as a matter of course, because the country essentially had a one-party system and presidential rule. Another incident occurred in 2009, when Prime Minister Ivo Sanader resigned his post. Yet collapse was prevented then by inviting representatives of small parties to the Parliament, and a new government soldiered one without much trouble until the next elections (which the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, lost).
Current events allow some intermediate findings to be made about the political cycle that started in Croatia in 2015, when both regular presidential and parliamentary elections were held. Eighteen months ago, I noted that Croatia was entering the new electoral marathon in a new capacity. In 1991–2013, the Croatian state was more concerned about finding a direction for the development of its statehood (the fight for independence, democratization, joining NATO and the European Union). This had an impact on the work of any government, be it nationalist and center-right (1990–2000, 2003–2011) or center-left (2000–2003, 2011–2015). Whichever party they belonged to, there was a certain continuity to their work linked to preparing Croatia for Euro-Atlantic integration. When Croatia was finally built into the western system, the restrictions for the country’s political system disappeared. The domestic political situation became more similar to Adam Przeworski’s definition of democracy: “Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections,” while the process itself is a system of “ruled open-endedness, or organized uncertainty.” According to the words of another theoretician, Joseph Schumpeter, the “competitive struggle for the people’s vote” had grown stronger.
The parliamentary elections of November 8, 2015 were a harbinger of crisis. For the first time ever, there was no clear winner: the gap was so small that neither of the leading political parties could single-handedly form a government (the HDZ won 59 seats, while the Social Democratic Party won 56 seats). It resulted in lengthy negotiations (lasting 75 days) about how to form the government. Eventually, it was the party that came third in the elections (with 19 seats) – the Bridge of Independents Lists – that seized the initiative. A compromise was achieved: the leaders of the HZD (Tomislav Karamarko) and the Bridge of Independents Lists (Božo Petrov) would not stake their claims to the main office. Instead, they became Deputy Prime Ministers, and the office of the prime minister would go to the independent candidate Tihomir Orešković, a Canadian of Croatian origins. Orešković had previously been a top manager at the transnational pharmaceutical company Teva, a shareholder in Croatia’s Pliva, which was acquired by western investors in the 2000s.
Orešković seems to have emerged from nowhere. His name was not on a single electoral list and the public saw him for the first time just a month before the government was formed. However, he definitely has connections with the HDZ. Firstly, the party has traditionally maintained close ties with the Croatian diaspora abroad. Secondly, it is known that the HDZ and Orešković had had contacts prior to the elections. However, exactly what the nature of this connection is depends on how we choose to view the developments in the region: either that the HDZ succeeded in finding a convenient candidate to control the government, or that Orešković is a protégé of certain external corporate forces, and the HDZ merely legitimized his appointment (such theories have popular in the Balkans recently).
Why Did the Government Collapse?
The Croatian government collapsed as a result of a corruption scandal involving HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko and his spouse that was reminiscent of the scam in which Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (2003–2009) had become embroiled. In both cases, the scandals involved ties that Croatian government officials had with the Hungarian oil company MOL Group, which owns 49 per cent of Croatia’s INA Group. Ivo Sanader was accused of receiving a 10 million euro bribe to assist in the sale of the Croatian oil company to the Hungarian side (the guilty verdict was then revoked). Karamarko is accused of providing consulting services to Hungarian lobbyists. He is said to have been involved in selling delicate information since 2004, when he was head of the country’s Counterintelligence Agency. The INA–MOL affair is a sort of stigma that is used to brand Croatia’s leading politicians, who, by a strange coincidence, are members of the same party. It is possible, however, that the reason was only a pretext, since the first information attack on the future Prime Minister was carried out back in the summer of 2015, before the parliamentary elections. The HDZ leader was accused of cooperating with the financial circles of Israel, Austria and Russia, and the Telegram rather openly accused Karamarko of cooperation with Russia.
Ultimately, six months after the government was formed, and two years after the first compromising article was published, Karamarko resigned his post as First Deputy Prime Minister, and then stepped down as the leader of the HDZ.
As for the Prime Minister, he emerged from nowhere and had no significant influence on events when the clouds started to gather above the government.
MOSTt-Chefs Bozo Petrov und Drago Prgomet
The new elections are to take place in mid-August–early September. This latest embarrassment for the HDZ gives Zoran Milanović’s Social Democratic Party a chance to regain power. However, the most recent elections demonstrated a new trend: new parties and young leaders are appearing who are hot on the heels of the political veterans. The biggest threat comes from the MOST (Bridge) party (formed in 2012), which positions itself as the main victim of the failed government. There is also the Human Shield (sometimes translated as “Living Wall”) movement, whose leader, Ivan Sinčić, looks quite confident – not only when he is criticizing the existing situation, but also when he is making constructive proposals. The new elections offer a chance to these parties, since the current two-party system, according to which the parties in power rotate following failure after failure, cannot work indefinitely for Croatian society. It is also possible that the right-wing conservative parties will perform well within the overall European trend.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, Russia–Croatia relations are unlikely to change drastically. The two countries are objectively interested in friendly partner relations. Not a single Croatian government, whether right- or left-wing, has ever denied this. Today, however, it is very likely that a third force will appear and ride the wave of dissatisfaction with the comprador oligarchy. And this force could destroy the existing two-party system and give impetus for transformation across the entire region.
1. Pliva is a Croatian pharmaceutical company. In 2006, it was sold to the American Barr Pharmaceuticals company. In 2008, Pliva became part of the Israeli–American Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries after it bought Barr Pharmaceuticals.