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Croatia Counts Cost of Papal Blessing

The church’s support will be vital if Ivica Racan’s coalition is to stay in power.
By Drago Hedl

Pope John Paul II’s successful visit may have boosted Prime Minister Ivica Racan’s hopes of joining the European Union, but it has also reminded him of a debt Croatia is yet to pay.


The papal visit - which covered several towns from June 5-9 - appears to have strengthened Racan’s position as he prepares for parliamentary elections in the autumn.


However, one senior member of the governing coalition, who did not want to be named, told IWPR, “We realise just how important the Pope’s visit to Croatia was, but we are also aware of the fact that the backing we have received comes with a price.


“Racan will have to meet his obligations towards the church sooner rather than later - and they are not at all insignificant."


In 1990, after repeated requests from Rome, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, government of the late president Franjo Tudjman agreed to return all church assets seized during the communist era. However, this proved problematic, as several buildings had since been converted to schools or state institutions.


When the current coalition government came to power, Racan offered the church shares in highly-profitable companies in lieu of the property. This offer was accepted, but Croatia is yet to fulfil its side of the bargain.


In addition, budget troubles have led to a 24 million euro shortfall in state funding for the church - though a luxury office for the senior most army cleric was recently constructed in Zagreb at a cost of five million euro, financed by the defence ministry.


In spite of these issues, the Holy Father’s visit was hailed as a great success after he voiced support for Croatia’s bid to join the European Union.


Now Racan is hoping that during the EU enlargement process the Pope will employ the same influence and moral authority that he used in 1992, when the Vatican was the first to recognise Croatia as an independent state.


Following his meeting with the pontiff in Rijeka on June 9, the prime minister said, “If we managed to win our independence in difficult circumstances, thanks to the Pope’s backing, we are certain to succeed now with his support to our accession to the European Union.”


Zagreb filed an official request for accession to the EU in February, and Racan hopes that Croatia could become a member by 2007 – and he has a strong desire to be in power if this happens.


His chances have been boosted by the papal visit, which has left Racan’s left-centre coalition in a far stronger position in the run up to the parliamentary elections expected later this year.


Their most dangerous rivals, the HDZ, can no longer boast that the Pope had visited Croatia twice during its reign. Observers say that this third trip has proved that the Holy Father is not really interested in who is currently in power.


Public opinion surveys carried out prior to the papal visit showed that the three strongest parties in Racan’s coalition - his own Social Democratic Party, the Croatian People’s Party and the Croatian Peasant Party - enjoy the support of 34 per cent of voters, with the HDZ trailing with 23 per cent.


But Racan, as a pragmatic politician, will be aware that the opening of a newly-built highway between Zagreb and Split, a drop in unemployment and an increase in production may not be enough to win the election for him.


Analysts say that if the coalition is to get another term in power, Racan will now have to maintain the church’s perceived support for his government by solving some of the problems that have angered the Vatican over the years.


As well as completing the process of transferring the promised shares to the church, the authorities must also work to rectify the ecclesiastic budget problem.


In the meantime, the church is extending its influence in everyday life in Croatia.


Having insisted on the introduction of religious teaching in all state schools, it is now putting pressure on the government to ban all work on Sundays. Racan’s coalition is looking for a compromise on this issue, and has responded by drafting legislation to limit working hours on the Sabbath.


The church is also pushing for religious programming to be switched from late evening to prime time slots.


All of which has raised concerns amongst some international observers who believe the Vatican is having far too much influence over domestic affairs.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek


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