The Poisonous Croissant Scandals Overshadow Croatia's EU Accession

Croatia plans to sign the official European Union accession treaty on Dec. 9, despite its high level of external debt and a series of political scandals. The ruling party is suffering as a result of a series of trials against its members and is likely to lose upcoming elections. Meanwhile, some are wondering if the EU is really ready to absorb the Balkan country.

He hasn't been this close to the people in a long time. So close, in fact, that he can hear them breathing heavily, sneezing and whispering on this morning, less than 2 meters (6.5 feet) behind his back. But he remains silent and composed.

Ivo Sanader, wearing a dark suit, is sitting bolt upright in the dock, looking like a country gentleman who has inadvertently wandered into a group of peasants.

Sanader was the prime minister of Croatia for six years, until 2009. It was Sanader who helped pave the way for his country of 4 million people to move toward joining the European Union. Despite rumors of shady business dealings, Sanader was, until shortly before his resignation, praised by his fellow conservative leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "We have a friendly relationship and work very closely together," she said.

Now, less than three years later, Sanader is sitting in a court in the capital Zagreb, defending himself against the public prosecutor's charges of corruption and war profiteering. The former premier's face reveals a slightly blasé astonishment over what is happening to him now. He was brought to the courtroom in the early morning hours from a cell in a nondescript prison on the outskirts of Zagreb, and he will be returned to the cell after the hearing.

Unstoppable March

Sanader has access to newspapers, so he must know that Croatia is now unstoppable on its steady march toward becoming a member of the EU. The official accession treaty is to be signed in Brussels on Dec. 9, before the European Council meeting that is to be held there. The 27 EU member states have decided to allow the "Croissant," as Croatia is called because of its shape, to become a new member state in 2013.

The current Croatian prime minister, Jadranka Kosor, has said that her country stands to collect a guaranteed €3.5 billion ($4.7 billion) in EU subsidies in the first two years alone. Kosor was once a close associate of Sanader, but she later distanced himself from him. The EU had demanded that Croatia take a tougher stance against corruption, and prominent scapegoats were needed. It's a point of honor for Kosor that she will sign the accession treaty at the Brussels meeting. But as the situation in Zagreb now stands, it will likely be her last major public appearance for a long time.

The premier is likely to experience a rude awakening in the country's parliamentary election, which will take place on Dec. 4, five days before she departs for Brussels. Polls show that her conservative party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), could face a dramatic plunge to only 20 percent of the vote. It would be a low point for a party that, under the leadership of the founder of the republic, Franjo Tudjman, became a state within a state after Croatia declared its independence in 1991. Since then, the HDZ has only lost the office of the prime minister once.

There are reasons for the party's decline. Unemployment is at around 14 percent, and the country's external debt is approaching Greek levels, at 102 percent of gross domestic product. To make matters worse, a flood of trials and investigations against HDZ officials has brought some uncomfortable allegations to light.

Shocking Reports

While well-dressed people clink glasses at a reception inside the EU office in Zagreb, cameramen circle the headquarters of the HDZ on the other side of the square like vultures. The media are full of shocking reports. A judge has already issued an order to freeze the ruling party's assets. Will it even be forced to clear out its headquarters building? The entire party, as a legal entity, is now the subject of investigations into suspected illegal party financing. Former leader Sanader is on trial in two different cases, and the former deputy premier has been charged with corruption.

The prosecutors have also set their sights on a wealthy party supporter who also happens to be Germany's honorary consul in Rijeka, Croatia's third-largest city. In addition, Serbia has filed war-crime charges against an HDZ deputy chairman. Nevertheless, the man is still running for reelection to his seat in parliament.

As if all of this weren't enough, an HDZ veteran, Josip Boljkovac, Croatia's first interior minister, recently became an inmate at the prison hospital in Zagreb. A special-forces unit arrested the 91-year-old politician in connection with murder accusations. According to investigators, Boljkovac ordered the execution of 21 civilians in May 1945, when he was the regional head of Ozna, the communist secret police.

Is this spate of charges and allegations evidence that the rule of law is functioning well in Croatia? Is the country suddenly trying to clear up its entire past at one go, from charges of murder and manslaughter at the end of World War II, to violence during the Yugoslav wars of succession and money-laundering in the following years?

"Of course, it doesn't look very good on the international stage when half of a country's political elite have been arrested or are the subject of investigations," says veteran Croatian politician Stjepan Mesic, sitting in a palace above Zagreb. On the other hand, he points out, the cases are actually proof positive that Croatia is a democracy based on the rule of law, "and that counts more than anything else." Mesic was the last president of Yugoslavia. After that, he served as president of Croatia for 10 years, during which time his declared goal was to help his people heal the wounds that had once been ripped open by the communist partisans and the fascist Ustashi separatist movement.

If someone like the veteran partisan Boljkovac is being hauled off to prison on crutches 66 years after his alleged crime, Mesic says heatedly, it only proves that "in parallel to judicial attempts to clear up our past, there is also an ongoing attempt by extreme right-wing circles to revise history."

Divided Country

On the eve of the signing of the EU accession treaty, Croatia remains a divided country, both politically and psychologically. The economic crisis and daily hardships have increasingly shaken Croatia's view of itself as the leading cultural nation in the Balkans. "According to our surveys, Croatians are second only to the Italians as the unhappiest people on earth," says Dragan Bagic of the Ipsos Puls opinion research institute. Hardly a day goes by without the morning papers reporting new details of the dirty campaign being waged by the parties competing in the upcoming election. Even former President Mesic recently had to appear in court to answer charges that he funded a portion of his presidential campaign with money from shady Albanians. Mesic denies the charges.

His current fellow members of the liberal Croatian People's Party (HNS) form, together with the Social Democrats, the core of the electoral alliance that, according to polls, could garner up to 40 percent of votes and will form the next government. Of course, the new favorites also have skeletons in their closet, says Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

How can it be, Cicak asks, that the liberals are now nominating their party leader as their top candidate, even though he has had one foot in prison since two people died in a traffic accident he caused in Hungary? And how can it be, he adds, that the Social Democrats are touting their own clear records, "while I have a contract here in my hand that shows that they stashed away money in Viennese bank accounts in the 1990s to avoid paying taxes in Croatia?"

There are good reasons for his angry questions. Cicak was expelled from school at 18, because he had had the audacity to write an essay in which he extolled the virtues of a united Europe beyond Yugoslav borders. Because of his supposed Croatian nationalist tendencies, the troublemaker was later locked into a cell in the basement of the building where former Prime Minister Sanader is now on trial. When Croatia became independent, Cicak received death threats, and yet he remains undeterred. "Regardless of the specifics of a given case, our principle is always the same," he says. "A crime is a crime."

Swallowing the Croissant

Can the EU swallow the apparently poisonous Croatian "croissant" before it has even fully digested Romania and Bulgaria? The accession treaty to be signed on Dec. 9 will require the ratification of all member states, but it is unlikely that any will vote against it. Croatia has made significant progress and has conformed to the EU's standards -- at least that's what the country's supporters say.

For the Croatians, a united Europe represents a promise of peace, 20 years after the last violent conflict erupted in the region, when Belgrade tried to separate areas with Serbian populations from Croatia. EU membership would be a turning point for Croatia, a country whose people the poet Miroslav Krleža once described with the following words: "God save me from Serb heroism and Croatian culture."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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