Constitutional crisis heats up
The struggle between Prime Minister Ivica Račan and President Stipe Mesić over the government's proposed constitutional amendments heated up this week.
Early in the week, some among the nation's columnists wrote that the crisis would surely benefit Croatian democracy, and the Sabor in particular, as the two men would be forced to court MPs' backing for their respective visions. Jutarnji list went so far as to suggest that the entire affair may benefit the nation's economic health following the debate's spillover into economic affairs (see last week's news review review for details).
By mid-week, though, Nacional quoted sources inside the President's Office as saying that Mesić would postpone the unveiling of his alternative economic growth plan until after the early November vote on the constitutional package. The President was reported as not wanting his alternative vision to be seen as a mere tool to gain concessions—and speculation in the media generally held that he was planning an all-out struggle to retain a small handful of the powers of the Tuđman-era presidency.
Wednesday, Mesić sent a letter to PM Račan and Speaker of the Sabor Zlatko Tomčić outlining 18 objections to the amendments as they stand. In essence, he claimed the government's package would strip him of any authority to ensure the intelligence services are not abusing their mandates and completely eliminates his role in foreign affairs. He also rejects the notion that the President must be elected by an absolute majority of the electorate.
Saying that the package would turn his publicly elected office into a strictly ceremonial post, Mesić warned against the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's office.
While weary of anything that smacks of a Tuđman-era imperial presidency, the nation's media appear to have a great deal of sympathy for Mesić, who continues to ride high in opinion polls. This week's edition of Globus suggested that Mesić may be right to oppose the creation of the Prime Minister as the nation's most powerful figure—and suggested that at least three of the parties in the ruling Group of Six feel the same way.
The weekly polled the parliamentary parties for their views on the growing flap. Surprising no one, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is swallowing its hatred of Mesić to back his constitutional views in an attempt to preserve some of the powers of the imperial presidency. Their primary objection, it seems, is that Mesić has actually agreed to his office being stripped of many of its powers.
More interestingly, though, Globus reported that the three smaller partners in the Six are lining up behind the President: the People's Party (HNS, of which Mesić is a member), the Liberal Party (LS) and the Istrian Democratic Congress (IDS). Each of the three small, moderate, left-of-center parties has previously pledged to vote for the package when it hits the Sabor, but their sympathy for Mesić's position makes it appear possible that the President will win concessions on at least some of his 18 points.
Acting LS President, Zlatko Kramarić suggested the draft amendments could create instability, and suggested that, "The President's authorities as defined in the existing constitution are not so bad, especially if the rights are not interpreted too extensively, as was the case with the late President Tuđman," he said.
"I do not see a problem in the President [as Commander-in-Chief or as] the supervisor of the intelligence services or influencing foreign policy. As far as the Prime Minister's authority is concerned, we cannot introduce a model such as the German Chancellor, because our Prime Minister is not a Chancellor."
The IDS's outspoken Damir Kajin noted that the President is directly elected, not appointed by the parliament, and should thus retain some authority over foreign policy and the intelligence community.
"The President should not be reduced to protocol duties. He should be enabled to react on his own in those rare situations when the institutions of the system are not functioning, as was the case with the Generals' Letter," Kajin said.
At the week's end, Mesić's senior domestic policy advisor said the President has no intention of proposing his own competing package of amendments to the Sabor—"at this time."
Croatia: "a model for the region"
The nation's foreign policy architects made a strong effort this week to unveil a "new look" in foreign policy, emphasizing Croatia's maturity as a regional leader-in-waiting. The two hallmarks of the new approach: astute manoeuvring to ensure that Yugoslavia will have a place at the table for November's Zagreb Summit—without dominating the proceedings; and, at the same time, redoubling efforts to solidify ties with the European Union.
Foreign Minister Tonino Picula underscored the importance of the 24 November Zagreb Summit as the cornerstone of the new policy.
"In preparations for the summit, we are led primarily by our foreign policy interests," Picula said.
"We expect the Summit will affirm regional countries' rights to an individual approach to the EU, and that official negotiations on Croatian association in the EU will start before that. Croatia would thus become an official candidate for EU membership. I am convinced that Croatia will strengthen its position in the international community after this meeting. Our relations with the EU and the Balkans will be clearly and unambiguously defined, and will catapult Croatia into the new millennium... "
While political reporters by-and-large were late grasping the significance of the policy shift, the nation's financial scribes appeared to understand as Jutarnji reported a 40 percent jump in Croatian exports to the EU in the first eight months of 2000; Novi list noted the first goods for Serbia would pass through Rijeka this week; and Večernji list reported Croatian firms are bullish about the possibility of a boom in trade with Serbia.
Even state television reported that INA's rising oil exports to FRY in the past year—and rising demand for Croatian petroleum on the Serbian market—will guarantee the survival of INA's embattled Sisak refinery.
By week's end, the Foreign Minister appeared to have won a high profile stamp of approval from Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner—who not incidentally is also the current Chair of the OSCE.
Ferrero-Waldner noted, "Croatia has become an example for other countries in the region."
"With its cooperativeness after the January elections, Croatia has forced its way to the position of an unavoidable, even crucial, partner in Southeastern Europe," she said.
"The Croatian leadership has shown great determination in grappling with difficult problems like the return of displaced people and refugees and cooperation with the Hague Tribunal."
At the Biarritz EU summit meeting, Austria stressed that the entire region needs assistance, not just individual countries, implying that Yugoslavia should not be the favourite—a line close to Croatian foreign policy makers' own hearts.
"The Austrian position on individual treatment of each country... in the process of integration with the EU is well known," Ferrero-Waldner said. "Austria has always supported Croatian efforts and aspirations [toward that goal] even when many others were turning their backs."
An in other news...
- The trial of the so-called "Zagreb mobsters," the largest organized crime trial since independence, was postponed until 23 October after 13 defence attorneys walked out in protest of the trial being held at a maximum security prison instead of in Zagreb County Court.
- Responsibility for exchange rate stability is simply not enough: the National Bank (HNB) is also demanding price control authority and the responsibility of ensuring the solvency and liquidity of the banking industry.
- President Mesić met with UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) chief Bernard Kouchner in Zagreb this week before alighting for Budapest to meet with his Hungarian counterpart in a two-day state visit. Mesić and Hungarian politicians underscored the need for increased trade and economic ties between the two nations.
- Speaker of the Sabor Tomčić was in Finland this week for talks with Finnish parliamentarians. Croatian media outlets noted the similarities between the Finnish and Croatian paths to independence and suggested Tomčić was examining the Finnish constitution in search of a path out of Croatia's present constitutional crisis.
Patrick FitzPatrick, 21 October 2000
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