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A sobering assessment of Croatia

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The economy is stagnating, unemployment is rising and many young Croats are poisoned by hate. Some flirt with fascism, and the country is riven by intolerance of those "who think, live, pray, write and speak differently.''

That's not the rallying cry of an opposition leader, but rather the sober assessment of President Ivo Josipovic of Croatia, a Social Democrat.

At least this year the economy may stop contracting after five years of shrinkage. With unemployment at more than 20 per cent, however, it is no surprise that Croats are losing faith in their leaders and in the European Union, which Croatia joined only last July.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, another Social Democrat, is uninspiring, finds economics boring and baffles even supporters with his decisions. Even more unpopular is Tomislav Karamarko, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the main opposition party, which has seen support leach away because of internal corruption.

It is not only Croats who are disappointed. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany did not go to Zagreb to celebrate the country's accession to the EU. The Germans let it be known this was because the Croatian government was blocking the extradition of former Yugoslav secret-service agents wanted in Germany for the 1983 murder of a Croatian defector. One of them, Josip Perkovic, went on to help set up Croatia's secret service. His son is Josipovic's national-security adviser.

Although Perkovic was close to Franjo Tudjman, the president through the war years, right-wingers are trying to make political capital by connecting the defector's murder to former communists who are now Social Democrats. Many on the right ask why Milanovic should be so protective of Perkovic. This has fed disillusion with both main parties, which now could lose out to new, angrier groups.

On the right, the Catholic church, embittered ex-soldiers and many young Croats, who historian Neven Budak says are noticeably more conservative than their parents, are behind different actions that some are calling Croatia's conservative revolution. After a successful anti-gay-marriage referendum in December, their next targets may be abortion and a fight against official signs in Serbian Cyrillic.

In the centre and on the left there also is talk of new parties that could grab a chunk of the Social Democrats' electorate. Milan Bandic, the mayor of Zagreb, is one man who could throw his hat into the ring, along with Nikica Gabric, an ophthalmologist and politician who has spoken about a "third way'' in Croatian politics. Mirela Holy, a former Social Democratic minister, has set up a new Green party, and a few regional parties are emerging as well.

In the past, says Dejan Jovic, the president's chief analyst, Croatia's elite managed to agree on such goals as independence, recovering Serb-held territory and EU and NATO integration. Those who did not accept these goals were marginalized.

Now, talk of further reform cuts little ice because, as the 45-year-old Jovic says, "I have been hearing this since I was 5."

Today, he adds, there is also less reason to say, "Don't raise such-and-such an issue now.'' The political landscape is changing and, in a morose country, many of the newcomers will be anything but liberal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 D6

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