Sunday, 12 January 2014

Croatia far right on the rise, forces referendum on reducing minority rights


With the economy stuck in the doldrums, the centre-left government faces more challenges in the year ahead from right-wingers bent on undermining its agenda.
After the brief period of euphoria over joining the EU in July 2013, it will be back to politics as usual in 2014.
Croatia faces serious economic and political challenges in the year ahead, from cutting the budget deficit under EU auspices to constitutional and political uncertainty caused by right-wing assaults on minority rights.
The economic situation worsened in 2013 for a fifth year in a row, marked by rising debt and a growing deficit.
The European Commission in December advised that Croatia be included in the so-called Excessive Deficit Procedure in order to ensure that the deficit and debt are brought back into the line with EU targets.
At the same time, unemployment continues to rise, exceeding 20 per cent in November 2013, while growth predictions for 2014, at less than 1 per cent, remained modest.
While the economic crisis has become an everyday situation for Croats, the political challenges could be even more serious, threatening Croatia’s standing within the European club that it joined on July 1.
The biggest challenge for the governing centre-left politicians is likely to be an attempt by right-wing groups to limit national minority rights by changing minority rights law in a referendum.
The government has said that such a referendum cannot be held, since it would violate basic human rights, but it remains to be seen whether the government has the legal and political strength to prevent it, even though the proposed changes would jeopardise the country’s obligations towards EU and international human rights conventions.
In December 2014, presidential elections could additionally electrify the political scene.

Taming the deficit:

On the economic front, in December 2013, the European Commission said it would inform the EU Council of Ministers that an “excessive deficit” exists in Croatia, as a result of which it will recommended that the Council proposes budgetary targets for the country.
While the EU requires that the deficit of a member state should not exceed 3 per cent of its budget, the Commission noted that Croatia’s deficit had reached 5 per cent in 2012, and would stay above 3 per cent over the period 2013-2016.
Croatia’s EU treaty also requires that total government debt should not exceed 60 per cent of GDP, while Croatia has said it expects total debt to rise to 62 per cent of GDP in 2014, rising further in 2015 and 2016.
A decision on the application of an Excessive Deficit Procedure, EDP, to Croatia will be discussed at EU finance ministers meeting on January 28.
It has also been proposed that Croatia announce what measures it plans to take to cut the debt and deficit by April 30, 2014.
Croatia would be the 17th EU state currently included in the EDP procedure.
The public reacted to the news with expressions of fear of fresh wages cuts and further belt-tightening.
Development and EU Funds Minister Branko Grcic fuelled concerns by warning that 2014 “is going to be very challenging because we simply must cut the debt and the deficit”.
Finance Minister Slavko Linic then tried to calm the public by saying that the government would not cut public sector wages but “rationalise” the whole sector instead.
“The government doesn’t want to cut wages and pensions but rationalise the public health and education systems,” Linic said on December 12, commenting on the proposal to start the EDP procedure for Croatia.
The problem in the public sector was not caused by high wages but by poor organisation and functioning, Linic said.
He said the government would explain its deficit and debt plans to the European Commission by the end of this year.
One measure is a plan to realise 10 billion euro in investment in 2014, Linic said, announcing measures to rebalance the budget by March 2014.
Some good news for Croatia came from the World Bank assessment for 2014, which predicted positive GDP growth for the first time since 2008.
The Bank assessed this growth at a modest 0.8 per cent, however, which is well below the 4-5 per cent needed to trigger real economic recovery.
At the same time, unemployment continues to rise, especially among the young.
In November, the number of unemployed peaked at 360,000, which is more than 20 per cent of the active population.
According to some estimates, more than half of all people under 30 are unemployed.

Populists on the march:

Analysts say the gloomy outlook feeds extremism and explains the success of populist right-wing campaigns that have taken the country by storm in recent months.
In a referendum held on December 1, almost two-thirds of those who turned out voted to add a sentence to the Croatian constitution defining marriage as the union of a man and woman only.
The civic initiative behind the ballot, “In the name of the family,” said the aim was to outlaw even the possibility of gay marriage and gay adoption.
The referendum was held after supporters collected more than 750,000 names, well over the 300,000 required for a referendum.
Ruling party politicians said the referendum question was unconstitutional because it violated the rights of a minority, but after parliament and the Constitutional Court declined to rule on the matter, it went ahead
Another referendum meanwhile has been announced on minority rights.
The “Defence of Croatian Vukovar”, an initiative of war veterans, has already collected about 680,000 names demanding a referendum on the public use of ethnic minority languages and scripts.
Effectively, the referendum would be about the use of Serbian Cyrillic signs in the eastern border town of Vukovar, which Serbian forces overran in 1991, after which they executed 200 patients found in the local hospital.
Current minority laws say minorities have the right to official use of their language and script if they make up more than a third of the population in a certain area.
Referendum organizers want that figure raised to 50 per cent, which would exclude Vukovar from the provision. Just over a third of the population of Vukovar are Serbs, according to 2011 census.
If the referendum succeeds, apart from Serbs in Vukovar, ethnic Italians, Hungarians and other minorities who make up more than a third but less than half of the population in various areas could potentially be affected.
The government has refused to exclude Vukovar from the minority rights law, and Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has said that the law must be respected everywhere.
After the petition was handed to parliament on December 16, when the head of the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, Tomislav Josic, said parliament now had to do its part, Milanovic responded by saying that while he was Prime Minister, “such a referendum will not be held”.
President Ivo Josipovic said the referendum would be unconstitutional, as it would violate minority rights, which Croatia is obliged to respect according to its EU and international obligations.
Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic raised the tempo further by saying that Croatia should “quit the EU if it wants to organise such a referendum”.
For all the bluster and strong words, there are no guarantees that the referendum won’t be held, as more than enough names have signed the petition calling for it.
Failure to hold the ballot would also raise serious questions about democracy, the constitutional system and whether parliament or the Constitutional court is authorised to decide on whether referenda are legal or not.
Meanwhile, in December 2014, the country holds presidential elections, because Josipovic’s first five-year mandate expires on February 14, 2015.
The election campaign, which is already slowly starting in the media, could additionally polarise the political landscape in what looks set to be a difficult year.


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