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New Zagreb Constitution Promises Stability

Croatia is on course for stability as new constitution emerges from fractious party squabbling
By Dragutin Hedl

Croatia hopes to move into a new era of stable democracy following abolition of the quasi-tsarist presidential powers formerly held by the late Franjo Tudjman. A new constitution, adopted two weeks ago after much inter-party haggling, shares power between the president, prime minister and parliament.


President Stipe Mesic will no longer have the right to nominate the entire cabinet. Instead, he will appoint the prime minister who then will make his own selection of cabinet ministers. Mesic will no longer be able to dismiss his entire government, a power which Tudjman could and did use.


Even in foreign policy, Mesic will no longer be able to do what Tudjman considered one of his natural rights: to name and dismiss Croatian ambassadors. In future appointments will be decided jointly by Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan,


Ever since Mesic moved into his official residence, Marshal Tito's former Zagreb villa, last February, he has shown a conspicuous lack of pomposity or arrogance. Tudjman had grandiosely called the villa his "Presidential Court". Mesic dropped that title.


The constitutional changes fulfilled electoral promises made by the six-party coalition which came to power in the elections of January 3. But they were implemented only after prolonged dispute over the division of powers between Mesic and Racan.


The prime minister believed that a Croatian president should in future become little more than a figurehead. Mesic resisted this. Although he had promised during his election campaign to reduce the power of the presidency, he made plain he had no intention of following the German system where the great bulk of power resides with the chancellor while the president concerned himself largely with ceremonial matters. "I do not want to be an object of decoration," Mesic insisted.


Mesic feared that Racan, a Social Democrat, planned to seize the major share of power so that, like the German chancellor, he could run most of the important affairs of state. "The goal of reducing the presidential powers is not to move them into the prime minister's hands," Mesic declared.


One of the most serious disputes was over who should control the secret services and appoint their officials. An idea was floated that some services should be controlled by the head of state, others by the government. But this was deemed a sure recipe for future discord.


Only a few days before the constitution was agreed, there was a clash between the UNS (The Office for the National Security), the secret service controlled by Mesic's close associate Tomislav Karamarko, and the SZUP (The Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order) run by a Racan ally, Interior Minister Simo Lucin.


The SZUP had refused to submit to control by the UNS. This fuelled suspicions that SZUP was involved in illegal activities which it wanted to hide, possibly the telephone tapping of political opponents and dissidents as happened in the Tudjman era. There was media speculation that SZUP might be tapping the president himself.


Mesic brushed this aside. "I have no information that my office is being tapped," he said. UNS chief Karamarko agreed there was no evidence of illegal tapping but said the SZUP refusal to summit to control kept suspicion alive.


Mate Granic, a former foreign minister under Tudjman, stepped in to mediate. Having himself failed to win the presidency as a candidate for Tudjman's right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ party, Granic left the HDZ and founded a small moderate party.


His intervention achieved a compromise whereby the president would name the heads of secret services with the co-signature of the prime minister.


The new constitution also changed of the name of the parliament. Instead of calling it the Croatian State Assembly, its name during HDZ rule, it became the Croatian Assembly, a small but hugely symbolic move.


The Croatian State Assembly title was used during the time of the Ustashi Independent State of Croatia, NDH, which was a partner of Hitler's Germany in World War Two. The HDZ flirted with the fascist movement and the new authorities wanted to demonstrate that they would have nothing to do with it.


The coalition had trouble pushing the changes through parliament. The constitution required approval by two-thirds of the 151 deputies in the upper chamber of parliament. The six coalition parties had 95 votes and could count on one vote from the Serbian minority plus four other independent deputies. That left one vote short.


Again, Mate Granic came to the rescue. Not only did the four members of his own party vote for the changes but Granic also secured backing from the Croatian Party of Rights, an ultra-right group close to the HDZ.


The new constitution then sailed through triumphantly, opposed only by the 40 deputies of the HDZ.


Nenad Zakosek, a Zagreb University professor and political commentator said, "passing the constitution will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the stability of the government."


With the threat of constitutional crisis behind it, the government can now focus on tax reform and other measures to pull the economy out of recession.


Croatian unemployment is at 21 per cent and rising. Growth is projected at three percent this year. And with corruption rife and national institutions in bad shape, the new administration will not be short of challenges.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.


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