11 April 2003, Volume 7, Number 10
CROATIA ENTERS ELECTION SEASON. The Croatian government is rapidly losing public support as the next parliamentary elections draw closer. The elections are due to be held by 2 April 2004, but the ballots may be cast as early as October this year. The governing parties are calculating that a potentially successful tourist season this summer will bolster their ratings among the disenchanted Croatian population, which is deeply frustrated with the slow pace of economic reforms and high unemployment levels.
The leader in recent public surveys is the party of the late President Franjo Tudjman -- the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) -- which would receive 22 percent of the vote if the elections were held now, according to "Vjesnik" of 26 March.
Although the HDZ has slowly reformed after losing power in 2000 and has gradually excluded the most notorious nationalists from its ranks, there has been little change in its policy of opposing cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal and in the party's centralized structure. The HDZ is mostly supported by Croatian nationalists and veterans of the 1991-95 "Homeland War" of independence. Some Western experts warn that a return to power of the HDZ could reverse Croatia's present direction toward Euro-Atlantic integration and stable democracy.
The reformist coalition government led by Prime Minister Ivica Racan has managed to bring Croatia back toward Europe and the trans-Atlantic community after almost a decade of international isolation stemming from the nationalistic policies of the authoritarian Tudjman regime. The country has applied for membership in the EU and NATO and has received the praise of NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson for its progress in implementing military reform (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002). Croatia's microeconomic indicators, the GDP growth of 4-5 percent per year, and the relatively high levels of foreign direct investment are favorable, according to the IMF report in 2002.
However, as in most East European countries, where people unrealistically expected quick results by proreform governments, the Croatian public grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of noticeable change in their lives and the continuing high unemployment figures. As a result, support for the major governing party -- Racan's Social Democratic Party (SDP), which together with the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) won the previous elections with 40 percent of the vote -- has now dropped to only 13 percent. The HSLS, which subsequently split and no longer participates in the government, is not likely to cross the electoral threshold of 5 percent.
Even more significant is the fact that the SDP has lost seven percentage points in public support since the fall of 2002. Its major coalition partner, the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), would now win 10 percent of the vote, down by six percentage points compared to its ratings in 2001. The only governing party on the rise is the Croatian People's Party (HNS), which scores 9 percent, up by four percentage points compared to last fall.
Since 70 percent of the population feels that the SDP bears the lion's share of responsibility for the government's performance, it is not surprising that public dissatisfaction with the work of the cabinet mostly affects the SDP. Racan is blamed for his hesitation in implementing radical economic reforms and speeding up privatization during the first half of his mandate.
Another reason for public dissatisfaction is the fact that the current government avoided revising the controversial and allegedly illegal privatization deals of the Tudjman regime. Those deals are widely seen as having enriched Tudjman's cronies, many of whom remain influential (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 7 and 14 November 2002).
The HSS also shoulders part of the blame, mostly because of the delays in launching agricultural reforms. Since this process is expected to be very complex and controversial, the Peasant Party has so far preferred to avoid addressing it.
Moreover, the SDP and HSS have been at odds on important issues more often than they have acted in agreement. Although the HNS has played a mediating role between them within the cabinet, there is little likelihood that they can run in a coalition in the next elections. All major governing parties have so far stated their intentions to compete separately. Moreover, some members of the HSS have asserted that the formation of a coalition between the HSS and the HDZ cannot be excluded.
While ideologically the center-right HSS has more in common with the right-of-center HDZ than with any of the current center-left or liberal parties, the possibility of a HDZ-HSS coalition is widely viewed as self-destructive for the HSS. According to one high-ranking Croatian diplomat, in such a scenario the Peasant Party would face an identity problem and could lose its credibility and simply be swallowed by the HDZ. It seems that the ideological differences between the HSS and the SDP have paradoxically helped to maintain the identity of the HSS in the current coalition.
While all political parties are testing the waters in the months before the elections, the parliament adopted an amended electoral law for the next general elections on 2 April. According to Peter Semneby, OSCE representative in Zagreb, the electoral law provides for a fairer representation of Croatia's minorities in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April 2003).
At the same time, the new law included a flexible quota for members of the parliament elected by the Croatian diaspora, which will depend on the number of votes cast. This provision is expected to reduce the number of parliamentarians elected mostly by Croatians residing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are generally supporters of the HDZ. (Margarita Assenova is a consultant with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. firstname.lastname@example.org)
SLOVENIA WELCOMES U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT... Reaction in Slovenia to the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report has been positive. The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released the 2002 "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," covering 196 countries, on 31 March 2003. Legislation requires the State Department to assess human rights practices in countries receiving U.S. aid, but the reports also include countries not receiving American assistance.
A "Delo" article of 2 April stated that the reports fairly criticize both "allies and opponents" of the U.S. The Slovenian article cited in particular the reports' criticism of Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, despite their close political ties with the U.S.
The beginning of the report on Slovenia states that the government "generally respected the human rights of its citizens." Rather than mild praise, this is actually a ringing endorsement, which was also pointed out in the 1 April coverage at the online news site "24ur.com." As the introduction to the reports states, the phrase "generally respects" reflects the fact that it is impossible to certify that any country fully respects human rights at all times. The phrase "generally respects" is "thus the highest level of respect for human rights assigned by this report."
The area of greatest concern is Slovenia's status as a transit country for the illegal trafficking of women for prostitution. The report cites Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Moldova, Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria as countries of origin and Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands as destination countries. Although Slovenia lacks legislation specifically prohibiting human trafficking, the law punishes enslavement, rape, pimping, procurement of sexual acts, and inducement into prostitution.
Another prominent concern is the tendency for the usually active and independent Slovenian media to occasionally engage in self-censorship. The report mentions that the media do "not represent a broad range of political or ethnic interests." Of particular note was the ongoing investigation into the beating of the investigative journalist Miro Petek.
In the area of women's rights, violence against women and spousal abuse are continued concerns. This is tempered by awareness programs, NGO services such as counseling, state-funded shelters, and legislation prohibiting such violence.
Slovenia received positive marks for religious freedom. There are no restrictions on the practice of religion in this predominantly Roman Catholic country, and on a typical Saturday morning a visitor to downtown Ljubljana is likely to see a Hare Krishna group chanting near Preseren Square or bump into a pair of Mormons striding off to missionary work. Two problems cloud the picture, however: the unresolved issue of whether and where to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center, and continued unofficial discrimination against Muslims (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 May 2002).
Ljubljana's Muslims continue to await permission to construct a mosque. Ordinary Slovenes may also wait years for building permits, but this does nothing to ameliorate ill feelings over the issue. Discrimination was highlighted when Amela Djogic, the wife of Slovenian Mufti Osman Djogic, was arrested in October for not producing identification papers on demand. Slovenian law requires all persons to carry such papers, but critics complain Djogic was singled out for wearing a headscarf.
Other problem areas include jail overcrowding (prison conditions met international standards) and an overburdened judicial system with protracted judicial processes.
One positive area is the position of Slovenia's Roma (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 March 2002). Although the Roma suffer "disproportionally from poverty and unemployment," the government is facilitating early education and political representation. A "Delo" article of 7 April mentions that Slovenia is among the few countries where the Roma have their own locally elected representatives.
The report is more informative when viewed in the regional context of Slovenia's neighbors: Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Italy. For example, the 85 percent figure for women's vs. men's wages compares favorably to the 74 percent in Austria, Italy, and Croatia. (Women's pay in Hungary was characterized as "lower.") Furthermore, the report commends the high participation of women in politics. Slovenia may therefore set an example for other countries in the region, both within and outside the EU.
Human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of women, is a concern in all neighboring countries, demonstrating that the problem is truly international. The respective reports cite Austria's conviction of "Carinthian Porno King" Hellmuth Suessenbacher on trafficking charges, the discovery of Slovenian trafficking victims in Croatia, and Hungarian trafficking of persons to Western Europe and the U.S. for prostitution and forced labor. The reports also characterize violence against women and spousal abuse as a problem in all the countries bordering Slovenia.
In assessing overall trends, the introduction to the reports observes that "the push to meet European Union entry requirements resulted in positive human rights developments in aspirant countries." For Slovenia and other Central and Eastern European countries, continued adaptation to EU norms will continue to produce positive effects.
The human rights reports for Slovenia and other countries are available at: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2002. (Donald F. Reindl, email@example.com)
...BUT THERE ARE MIXED REACTIONS IN MACEDONIA. The State Department reports on human rights prompted mixed reactions in Skopje. Police violence, incidents caused by members of a special security unit known as the Lions, as well as the judiciary's failure to investigate and punish a variety of human rights violations were responsible for some negative observations in the report on Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 November 2002 and 31 January 2003). The report noted that many -- but not all -- human rights abuses were linked to the interethnic conflict that shattered the country in 2001.
Presidential spokesman Borjan Jovanovski said on 4 April that President Boris Trajkovski hailed the report as "positive" and providing a strong impulse for improving the human rights situation and democracy in the Balkans.
The governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), for its part, stressed that most of the negative remarks in the report referred to cases that occurred during the term of the previous government led by the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE).
The SDSM's coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), has so far refrained from any comment.
Both the SDSM and the BDI must have been pleased by the fact that the report lauded their "commitment to improving the country's human rights observance through concrete actions."
But for the VMRO-DPMNE, the report was less favorable. Not only did the report state that the former government's human rights record was poor but it also made former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski directly responsible for the questionable investigation of the unlawful killing of seven illegal immigrants from Pakistan and India. Independent investigations have dismissed the official version, according to which the slain immigrants were international terrorists.
In a first reaction, Boskovski denounced the report as being written by "some below-average analyst." He added that the results of the initial police investigation are still valid in his view. Meanwhile, Boskovski's successor, Hari Kostov, pledged that his ministry will soon make known the results of its investigation into the case (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 May 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2002 and 3 April 2003).
Somewhat surprisingly, the VMRO-DPMNE leadership has not reacted to the report (Boskovski dropped out of the party leadership after the election defeat). This may be partly due to the fact that the party's chairman, former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, is apparently planning to leave that post. And it seems that the other party leaders are too preoccupied by a power struggle to pay much attention to the report. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, firstname.lastname@example.org)
CONFUSION OVER MACEDONIAN CENSUS RESULTS. On 3 April , Macedonian authorities and representatives of the international community dismissed as "pure speculation" reports in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and the Berlin daily "Tagesspiegel" of 1 April, according to which the results of the October 2002 census might include an unpleasant surprise for the Albanian minority, "Dnevnik" reported. The two German dailies quoted unnamed Western diplomats as saying the census results might show that the Albanians' share of the population has fallen below 20 percent, mainly through emigration. This could lead to political problems, because the August 2001 Ohrid peace agreement and subsequent constitutional and legal amendments grant greater rights only for those minorities that make up more than 20 percent of the population.
However, unnamed experts told "Dnevnik" of 4 April that the figure of 19 percent, which appeared in the preliminary results and which was quoted by the dailies, could refer to the number of Albanians actually living in Macedonia. Together with those Albanians who have been living abroad for less than 12 months, their share of the country's population will almost certainly exceed 20 percent.
The major ethnic Albanian parties ruled out the possibility that the Albanian minority could account for less than 20 percent. Ermira Mehmeti of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration quoted party leader Ali Ahmeti as saying that "it is not a question whether there are fewer than 20 percent Albanians, but how many more than 20 percent."
For Iljaz Halimi of the Democratic Party of the Albanians, it is illogical to claim that the most recent figure was lower than those registered in previous population counts. "Given the [high Albanian] birth rate, [the new] figure must be much higher," Halimi said, adding that the real number must be around 30 percent.
Meanwhile, the government temporarily suspended the work of the State Census Commission. It is not clear whether the government decided to do so because of the discussion about the census results, or because the commission is not needed in the current data-processing phase, as one commission member suggested. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, email@example.com)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "The Americans' view of Europe and the Europeans' view of America are sometimes really stupid." -- Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, quoted by Reuters in Berlin on 3 April.
"The EU must be politically manageable and controllable." -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, quoted by dpa in Berlin on 3 April.
"At a moment when we are living through a sense of Europe having failed to find its voice in an adequate way on the Iraqi crisis and in the UN, we look to the Republic of Macedonia to mark one of the successes of the embryonic and emerging common foreign and security policy in Europe." -- European Parliament President Patrick Cox. Quoted by RFE/RL in Strasbourg on 8 April.
"For the first time, the [Balkan] region is beginning to speak with one voice." -- Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic, at the regional summit in Belgrade. Quoted by RFE/RL on 9 April.
"You cannot replace a venue that is not ready." -- IOC President Jacques Rogge, on construction delays in preparation for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Quoted by dpa in Athens on 8 April.