Saturday, November 27, 2004

Just Another Constitutional Crisis in Croatia

There are so many things happening in my country, some of them important, some of them not so important, but I simply can't take time to blog about all of them. One of the more important things that I have missed so far is the escalating feud between two figures which, at least until this point, were the role models of political cohabitation – President Stipe Mesić (Stipe Mesic) and prime minister Ivo Sanader.

When Sanader won the elections one year ago, Mesić, a populist president elected on the waves of 2000 anti-HDZ sentiment, proved to be rather "constructive" towards the representative of his former party. Both Mesić and Sanader had the same agenda – Croatian entry into EU – and with Sanader toning down his nationalist rhetoric, the only differences between the two were based on power and interests rather than ideology and style.

Mesić is definitely more popular than Sanader, but he also had almost four more years to mess thing up than prime minister. Mesić's worst mistake was his attempt to clinch his next presidential mandate by a diplomatic coup – arranging the deal between ICTY and General Ante Gotovina, war crimes suspect and Croatia's most wanted man. Mesić's idea was apparently to kill two birds with one shot – he would take credit for securing Croatian entry into EU and thus gain votes on the left; at the same time, having Gotovina's status reduced to witness or arranging his defence at large would silence right-wingers who had Gotovina as their martyr and hero-figure.

Main problem for Mesić was the fact that this scheme could be arranged only behind the scenes. It also required assistance of certain shady characters that used to hold sway over Croatia during Tudjman's years when the lines between war, politics, business, secret services and organised crime used to be blurred. Some of those characters, at least those associated with controversial Zagreb businessman Hrvoje Petrač (Hrvoje Petrac), turned out to be liability instead of asset for Mesić. When Gotovina refused the deal and opted to continue hiding, Mesić's grand scheme turned into major fiasco – instead of winning him popularity, Gotovina plan has tainted Mesić.

Attempts of damage limitations through friendly media and security apparatus backfired. In 2004 Franjo Turek, chief of POA, one of Croatia's intelligence services, was replaced with Joško Podbevšek (Josko Podbevsek), widely believed to be Sanader loyalist. Even worst blow came when Željko Bagić (Zeljko Bagic), Mesić's national security advisor, received the EU travel ban because of his association with Gotovina. Bagić too was forced to step down.

All that left Mesić exposed for attack from security services loyal to Sanader. One such operation backfired, though. Less than a month ago, Helena Puljiz, free-lance journalist known for her closeness with President, was summoned to POA. There she was subjected to five hours of interrogation during which the agents hinted about most intimate details of her life. POA wanted Puljiz to give information about people in President's circle who give aid to Gotovina and "thus endanger Croatia's entry to EU and national security". Of course, this kind of information may also be very useful during presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, POA agents miscalculated since they hadn't taken a cue from Severina affair. Puljiz did, knowing that whatever POA had recorded would probably be of little interest to Croatian public. Instead of co-operating she informed Sabor and media about her ordeal. Public opinion quickly turned on Sanader and his security apparatus.

Mesić used this as a pretext to finally establish his authority and on Thusday he signed the decree removing Podbevšek from the helm of POA. Unfortunately for Mesić, constitutional changes adopted during the feud between him and Račan also require that the decree be co-signed by prime minister.

Sanader, who is very submissive when it comes to any request by EU or USA, is firm when it comes to protecting his people, especially those who, like his foreign minister Miomir Žužul (Miomir Zuzul), share his Dalmatian background. Since Podbevšek is Dalmatian, Sanader refused to co-sign the decree. Instead he went on the offensive and accused Mesić of trying to remove Podbevšek because of POA criminal complaint against Turek and Bagić. Zagreb police have confirmed receiving complaint and Mesić reacted by accusing POA of not informing him about such move.

Next month or so is going to be very interesting, because the issue of Podbevšek's removal is both political and constitutional. In most likelihood, at the end of the day, both sides are going to claim victory – Mesić would get his second term in January, while Sanader would keep his men thanks to firm support from EU.


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