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Croatia: Racan Sacrifices Zagreb Mayor

The resignation of Milan Bandic for drunk-driving is being hailed as a new chapter in the history of a country where officials previously acted as if they were completely above the law.

Supporters of the rule of law in Croatia have welcomed the forced resignation of the Mayor of Zagreb over a drunk-driving incident as a welcome precedent.

The departure of Milan Bandic, a member of Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democratic Party, SDP, is seen as a break with the tradition established under Croatia's former president Franjo Tudjman, when politicians seemed above the law.

Bandic was involved in a traffic accident in mid-January while driving a Range Rover. He was involved in a police chase and after being caught, vainly tried to bribe the police to escape the breathalyser test. The test revealed the high percentage of alcohol in his blood.

The mayor played down the gravity of the offence the following day, claiming he had only drunk two glasses of wine and might have failed the test because he used had "a breath freshener which contains alcohol".

This version of events was exploded when journalists got hold of the police records, which said he had been too drunk to get out of the car and that the police had to lift him from the vehicle.

Bandic took office after local elections of May 2001, in which the SDP campaigned on pledges to strengthen the rule of law.

He soon broke that promise by building a holiday home on the outskirts of Zagreb without planning permission. A media outcry ensued, but Bandic survived.

The public was less forgiving over the drunk-driving incident. As polls showed 54 per cent wanted Bandic to go, as opposed to 28 per cent who still backed him, Racan, the SDP president, demanded his resignation.

Politicians were never prosecuted for traffic offences when Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, was in office. Vlatko Pavletic, for example, Croatia's acting head of state in the period between Tudjman's death and the election of Stipe Mesic, pardoned Ivo Peka, a member of the HDZ council in Split, for killing a girl in a hit-and-run accident. He did not serve one day in jail.

General Djuro Decak, former prefect of Virovitica, was involved in a drunk driving accident in the town in 1998, and was never charged even though his companion was seriously injured. Marko Bagaric, prefect of Osijek, also caused an accident while over the limit, in 2001, but escaped a court summons.

Moreover, Generals Branimir Glavas and Slavko Baric used traffic accidents in which they were involved in 1991 to claim hefty monthly military disability allowances.

Such incidents alienated public opinion and contributed towards the HDZ's defeat in the January 2000 elections. Memories of that may have strengthened Racan's determination to sacrifice Bandic, in spite of his record as an efficient mayor.

After failing to improve a difficult economic situation, the government seems keen to show it can deliver on at least one of its election promises.

Goran Vezic is a journlaist with the independent news agency Stina in Split.

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