Croatia officially joined NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme on Thursday, 25 May, in Florence, Italy, becoming the 26th nation to join. Croatia's new status followed last week's signing of a military cooperation agreement with Italy. On the eve of Croatia's accession to PfP, NATO Secretary General George Robertson sent a message "to the people of Serbia... that Croatia is proof that a country does not have to remain a victim of history," Associated Press reported. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that "in a few short months, Croatia has made dramatic progress toward a democratic society, has demonstrated a renewed commitment to the [Bosnian peace] process, and has taken steps to promote stability and security in southeastern Europe," AP added.Domestic Politics
A statement released by the Office for National Security (UNS) released on Wednesday, 24 May, announced that President Stipe Mesić has ordered a "reorganization" of the Croatian Intelligence Service (HIS). The statement claimed that the move had the backing of Prime Minster Ivica Račan and the Sabor's Internal Affairs and National Security Committee. While the HIS' mandate is to focus on foreign intelligence, it became former president Franjo Tuđman's private domestic intelligence agency. Reflecting the political tug-of-war between Mesić and Račan over the use and reform of the nation's intelligence services, conflicting reports and statements on the extent of the "restructuring" followed the announcement. Večernji list reported Damir Lončarić is the new HIS chief. A former police renowned for his battles with organized crime, Lončarić was serving as director of security for Zagreb International Airport at the time of his appointment.
Only 33.7% of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, but the 12 May Zagreb municipal elections may well help reshape the national political scene, Croatian media reported last week. Local observers had long predicted that the Zagreb elections would be the "first test of the victorious coalition parties after the parliamentary and presidential elections this last winter," Croatia Weekly reported. The political foundation of the ruling Social Democratic-Social Liberal (SDP-HSLS) coalition was "seriously shaken" by the elections, the influential weekly Nacional reported, saying that the election's true victors were President Stipe Mesić and the Croatian People's Party (HNS), of which he is a member. In total, the SDP-Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU) coalition won 15 seats, the HSLS 10, the HNS nine, the Liberal Party-Social Democratic Action (LS-ASH) coalition six, the former ruling Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) five, Democratic Center, the new moderate right-wing party of Mate Granić, three, and the Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) two. On 13 May, the parties announced that the SDP's Milan Bandić will be the city's new mayor, while the HSLS' Filip Borać will head the city council.
For the third time, right-wing factions in the Sabor's House of Representatives forced the defeat of the Račan government's bill on reconstruction on Friday 19 May. The bill, which would have extended reconstruction funds to Serbian and Croatian victims of the war in Croatia, was the subject of heated debate, but ultimately failed under pressure from the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), Democratic Centre (DC) and Croatian Party of Rights (HSP). The law, seen by many MPs as vital to Croatia's continued international rehabilitation, would have provided for respect of "the right to property, return and reconstruction of and for every Croatian citizen."
The same week the reconstruction bill died, the Chamber of Deputies finally passed amendments to the Constitional Act on the Rights of Minorities, after much debate and arm twisting, with the two-thirds vote in favour. The move was widely portrayed in local media as an important political step toward EU candidacy. In the wake of the vote, the Chamber requested that the Račan government present Parliament with a new version of the act within six months. Also passed were acts on "minority languages and alphabet usage" and on "education in minority languages and their respective alphabets." Commentators in Croatian media claim that the standards for minority rights - on paper - now exceed European Union standards.Economic News
After right-wing groups in Croatia threatened to disrupt the economically vital summer tourist season, Minister of Internal Affairs Šime Lučin visited his native city of Split last weekend to reassure local authorities. Lučin noted that "the safety of tourists [will be] the most important task of the Croatian police in the upcoming tourist season, ensuring that visitors are completely safe during their visit to Croatia," HRT reported. Earlier this month Marinko Liović announced that his Veterans and Invalids of the Patriotic War (HVIDRA) would even go so far as to block border crossings and airports if the government did not backtrack on ICTY cooperation, among other political demands.
Thursday, Prime Minister Ivica Račan released highlights of a government audit of the current financial status of 1850 companies in which the state has a majority interest, calling the conditions "devastating." Račan added that the audit had prompted the government to "speed-up" the process of privatization, HRT reported.
Croatians celebrating a possible reduction in the nation's much hated PDV, the 22 per cent value added tax, had their hopes dashed last week. Under the Račan government's "100-day economic program" designed to encourage job creation and economic growth, announced 13 May, the PDV was to have been cut from 22 per cent to 19 per cent. The government backtracked five days later, the dpa news agency reported, as the administration felt the measure would "adversely affect the state budget." The PDV is widely seen as cutting into the meager wages of pensioners, the working poor and the unemployed. Meanwhile the economic program was prefaced on 12 May by a Parliamentary vote which annulled legislation that would have required to government to bail-out failing banks using public funds. Last month, Central Bank Governor Marko Skreb said that the cost of resolving the 25 bank failures could have amounted to USD 5.5 billion, a sum roughly equal to two-thirds of the 1999 state budget.Foreign and Military Affairs
In what was otherwise a "good news" week for Croatia, Carla del Ponte brought mixed news, and received mixed interpretations in Croatia's press. The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia's chief prosecutor was in Zagreb 24 May for her second visit to Croatia since the regime change. Del Ponte used the opportunity to express concerns over slowness in the handover of documents requested by the tribunal, and expressed grave concern that recent media reports on the primary suspects in the 1993 massacre in the Bosnian town of Ahmići may have "tipped off" the suspected war criminals. Meanwhile local media reported that del Ponte had ceded jurisdiction in the Ahmići case to the Croatian judiciary. The massacre of 103 unarmed Bosnian civilians remains a highly charged issue in Croatia, and this week's edition of Nacional reported that police inaction may have allowed the four men to escape Croatian jurisdiction despite a tip-off from Jutarnji list before that daily released an expose on the case.
In an exclusive interview with HINA, Minister of European Integration Ivan Jaković said Tuesday that "I expect Croatia will sign the Agreement on Stabilization and Association [with the European Union] in the first half of next year at the latest, thus opening wide the door to difficulty but sweet negotiations on full membership," and said Croatia's candidacy deserves to be "fast tracked." The EU's Council of Ministers must still adopt a commission report on the feasibility of such talks before they may open. The Council could review the report as soon as its upcoming 13 June meeting.
Minister of Internal Affairs Šime Lučin announced Sunday, 20 May, that Croatia will reinforce its border with Bosnia-Hercegovina in a bid to clamp down on smugglers taking advantage of relatively porous border areas. "We must reinforce control of our border with Bosnia-Hercegovina due to the recent increase in illegal crossings," HINA reported Lučin as saying. Lučin claimed much of the illegal traffic originated with Turks, Iranians and Romanians. International drug monitoring and policy organizations have long claimed that Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo are relatively important traffic routes for the Turkish and Central Asian heroin trades.
President Stipe Mesić and Prime Minister Ivica Račan will meet with US President Bill Clinton as part of their trip to Washington, DC, 2 August. The announcement came in the wake of a US House of Representatives vote that unanimously supported Croatian admission to the World Trade Organization. ed 19 May.
The recent shift in Croatian foreign police was lauded by EU foreign and defence policy chief Javier Solana at this week's Brussels conference on peace implementation in Bosnia. Solana noted the "outstanding significance of Croatia's political changes and their positive impact on BiH's prospects," HINA reported, while Foreign Minister Tonino Picula reiterated Croatia's commitment on refugee return to RS-entity Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, saying that Croatia was on-target to meet the 9 June deadline of 2000 Serb returnees.
Talks between Prime Minister Ivica Račan and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán bore fruit on Tuesday, 24 May, as economic talks gave way to a new border agreement and a potential free trade agreement, among others. Economic discussions dominated the meeting, which saw the two sides hammer-out a first draft of a bilateral free trade agreement that would open the door to Croatian membership in the Hungary-Italy-Slovenia regional trade and political group. Negotiations on the agreement area slated to resume on the first of June, Jutarnji list reported. Under the visa agreement signed by Prime Minister Ivica Račan and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, Croatians and Hungarians may cross their mutual border using national identification cards alone. The agreement is scheduled to come into force on 1 July.
Five thousand veterans of Croatia's "Homeland War" marched in Split on 10 May against what they claimed to be the "criminalization" of war veterans by President Stipe Mesić and the Račan government. Demonstrators proclaimed the recent parliamentary "Declaration on Cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia" as an "act of high treason," and demanded that the government promise not to extradite troops who fought in operations Flash and Storm.
On Thursday 18 May, President Stipe Mesić received a delegation from the Democratic Union of Croatians in Vojvodina (Demokratskog saveza Hrvata Vojvodine, or DSHV). After the meeting, HINA quoted delegation spokesman Belo Tonković as saying that "we talked about the situation of Croats in the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), particularly in Vojvodina, and about the possibility of bettering relations between Croatia and Vojvodina."And finally...
Norijada lives up to its name as the nation's capital was woken from its late-morning quiet last Friday, 19 May, by whistles, screamed chants and sacks upon sacks of flying flour as city streets and squares were taken over by gremlins sporting hair dyed to match their vibrantly coloured clothing. The gremlins were newly minted high school graduates, and the "festival," known as norijada or "tomfoolery," was to mark the last day of public school in Zagreb. While festivities generally centered around bathing in public fountains and throwing flour and water on fellow students and the occasional passer-by, last Friday's celebration was one of the more violent in recent years as students in some areas clashed with police after at least half a dozen trams were damaged, Jutarnji list reported. Twenty two were treated for alcohol poisoning.
Patrick FitzPatrick, 29 May 2000