Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Croatian president pledges anti-corruption drive

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Zagreb

Ivo Josipovic
Croatia's new president is a professor and composer

"It's not often well-tuned," Ivo Josipovic said, sitting down at the grand piano.

He could be talking about Croatia's campaign to crack down on corruption as part of its bid to join the EU.

But Mr Josipovic, who took office as president on Thursday, has pledged to help the country change its tune.

It may be unusual to find a grand piano at a party headquarters, but Mr Josipovic, a Social Democrat, is no ordinary politician.

A softly spoken professor of international criminal law specialising in war crimes, he is also a composer of edgy, avant-garde music.

But for the majority of those who voted for him in January, what counts is his image as the Mr Clean of Croatia's often murky politics.

He has promised to entrench the rule of law.

Corruption, he told me, "has started to be a way of living here in Croatia. It's very, very dangerous for our country, not only because they're stealing some money and property but because they are very influential in political life".

So many senior people have been arrested in the last few weeks that Croats have renamed the Remetinec prison in Zagreb as RBA, short for "Remetinec Business Academy".

Food giant scandal

Among those recently investigated for corruption are executives of the national highway and railroad companies, university professors and a former defence minister, charged with embezzling $2m (1.5m euros, £1.3m).

But the biggest case so far concerns a food company called Podravka.

Partly state-owned, Podravka employs 7,000 people, most of the working population of the small town it is based in, Koprivnica, an hour's drive from Zagreb.

Podravka's Vegeta products
Podravka's Vegeta products are regional favourites

Its best known brand is Vegeta, a special blend of spices and dried vegetables used by generations of south-eastern Europeans to enhance the flavour of their soups, sauces and salads.

The main factory is spotlessly clean, with a delicious smell of soup wafting over huge vats and conveyor belts carrying glass jars.

But the success of Podravka, which exports Vegeta all over the world, has been soured by an unsavoury corruption scandal.

Six of its managers were among eight people arrested in connection with a complex share-buying operation, suspected of embezzling $47.5m.

Then the deputy prime minister responsible for the economy and privatisation, who had long-standing links to the company, stepped down. A source close to the investigation told me senior suspects were under investigation, in a file that runs to 11,000 pages.

Reporters at risk

Every day, the Croatian media uncover fresh scandals and report more arrests. But covering corruption can be dangerous.

In a smoky Zagreb cafe, I met Dusan Miljus. An investigative reporter for the respected Jutarnji List daily, he was badly beaten outside his home in 2008 by two men wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying baseball bats.

Scene of Zagreb bomb
Ivo Pukanic and a colleague were murdered in 2008

A few months later, Ivo Pukanic, a prominent magazine editor, was killed in a massive car bomb explosion in the centre of Zagreb, along with a colleague.

It was a reminder of Croatia's brutal Balkan past and a serious setback to the country's EU bid. Now, Dusan Miljus is one of seven journalists who live under almost constant police protection.

"It's a disappointment that criminals feel secure in Croatia but not journalists," he said.

The men who almost killed him were never caught, but Mr Miljus senses greater political will than before to break the links between organised crime and politics.

'Point of no return'

Many Croats agree that things have been changing, especially after the surprise resignation last year of the veteran prime minister Ivo Sanader. His centre-right party remains in power, but the new government, like the new president, has pledged zero tolerance for corruption.

Justice minister Ivan Simonovic strikes a confident note.

Ivan Simonovic
Ivan Simonovic thinks corruption will no longer be tolerated

"We've reached the point of no return," he said. "It's visible that a lot of people, both in the prosecutor's office and in the police, were waiting for this moment and that they are happy to be more radical than they were."

But Mr Simonovic insists that there are a lot of factors leading Croatia in the same direction.

"In the society there is an atmosphere that corruption will not be tolerated," he said. "It's related to the decrease in standard of living. It's related to our European future and negotiations."

In fact, when you consider corruption perceptions in the Balkans, Croatia does better than most.


Don Markusic, an Australian-trained barrister who sits on the board of Transparency International in Croatia, showed me the rankings compiled by the anti-corruption watchdog.

My perception is that Croatia is good enough, or will be good enough very soon
Ivo Josipovic
Croatian President

Croatia comes in at number 66 in the world, with EU members Bulgaria, Romania and Greece well below.

In terms of EU membership, Mr Markusic said, Croatia "is making the grade, but it's paying for Bulgaria and Romania, which didn't get their act together before they entered".

Amid widespread expansion fatigue, the EU now requires countries like Croatia to enforce those standards before they join.

Some, including the new president, complain that the bar has been set higher.

"Honestly speaking, I think the comparison between Croatia and Bulgaria and Romania is not correct - we have a better situation," Mr Josipovic said.

"I can understand some kind of mental reservation about a country having this level of corruption but my perception is that Croatia is good enough, or will be good enough very soon."

If Croatia maintains momentum, it is expected to complete EU membership talks this year and join in 2012.

Mr Josipovic jokes that he might even be inspired to compose an opera about corruption - but only after he retires.

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