Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Watergate-Style Spying Scandal Rocks Zagreb

Revelations that the secret services placed the president under surveillance have pushed Croatia to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

A showdown between President Stjepan Mesic and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader in a controversial case of alleged spying has raised tension between the country’s two most powerful politicians, at one point even provoking fears of a constitutional crisis.

The affair broke at an inconvenient time for Croatia, mid-way through its negotiations with Brussels on setting the date for the start of talks on joining the European Union.

At a dramatic meeting on December 10, Sanader caved in to Mesic’s demand for the head of the secret service, Josko Podbevsek, to be dismissed. Under Croatian law, such a decision requires the consent of both president and prime minister.

Mesic submitted a written request for Podbevsek’s dismissal on November 25, claiming the secret service, known as POA, illegally interrogated Helena Puljiz, a reporter who at one point had been assigned to cover the president’s activities.

Mesic said that on October 5, POA agents grilled her for five and a half hours in search of compromising details about his personal life and official duties. At the time of the interrogation she was no longer working as a reporter on presidential matters, and was out of work.

According to Mesic, offered Puljiz a job with the media of her choice if she cooperated. Instead, she reported the whole affair to the council that supervises the conduct of the secret services.

Sanader initially resisted Mesic’s demand for Podbevsek’s removal, according to the Croatian media. TV and newspapers reported that after Mesic submitted his request, the prime minister reacted by telling aides, “Signing a decision to relieve the secret service chief of his duties is the last thing I will do.”

The prime minister denied that the POA had done anything illegal, and gave the agency chief his firm backing.

The constitutional wrangle broke shortly before the start of campaigning for the presidential election scheduled for January 2 next year.

Mirjana Kasapovic, a professor at the Zagreb faculty of political sciences, told the weekly newspaper Globus that the crisis was the result of the incomplete reform of the presidential office in Croatia.

After the death of Franjo Tudjman, the first president of independent Croatia, parliament scrapped many of the powers he had enjoyed, she said. But shared authority over the appointment or removal of the head of the secret service was not one of them. This creates the conditions for stalemate because there is no constitutional provision for the event that the president and prime minister cannot agree on some issue.

Ivo Josipovic, a Zagreb law school professor, told IWPR, “From a legal point of view, it’s clear. The secret service chief can be neither appointed nor relieved of his duties without the signatures of both the president and the prime minister.”

Josipovic’s verdict is that “the problem requires a political solution”.

However, for two weeks after the crisis broke, there was no such solution in sight, as both Mesic and Sanader firmly stood their ground.

Meanwhile, serious charges against the POA surfaced in the pages of Nacional, a weekly well known for its connections to the police. On December 7, the newspaper claimed the secret service had placed Mesic under “operational surveillance”.

The weekly cited POA documents corroborating its sensational story, and said the goal of the operation was to gather as much compromising information on Mesic as possible and undermine him during his election campaign.

Sanader denied he had anything to do with the secret service’s surveillance of Mesic. “[These] insinuations are completely unfounded and unacceptable,” Sanader told a government meeting on December 9. But his remarks failed to clarify whether he accepted that the secret services had placed the president under surveillance.

Mesic, on the other hand, gave credence to the Nacional report. He told the newspaper Feral Tribune on December 8, “I really have reason to believe that the POA took an interest in my personal life and character.”

Asked exactly what the POA was interested in, Mesic said, “They asked questions about me and my daily habits.”

Mesic added that he did not believe Sanader was behind the operation. Instead, he said he had reason to believe it was masterminded either by someone trying to score points with Sanader, or by the secret service itself.

A source close to Mesic told the IWPR that the president had no wish to aggravate the matter further; all he sought was the removal of the head secret police chief.

“Draw your own conclusions from the fact that Sanader backed down after two weeks and agreed to relieve Podbevsek of his duties,” the source said.

At their showdown on December 10, Mesic and Sanader agreed to name Tomislav Karamarko as successor to Podbevsek.

Karamarko was earlier in charge of the Tudjman-era national security office or UNS which has since been dissolved.

He has now been instructed to assemble a team of experts to draft a new law on the secret services that rules out abuses of authority such as the apparent surveillance of Mesic.

Professor Zlatko Cvrtila, chairman of the council for civilian supervision of the secret services, has also resigned over the affair, disappointed with the fact that the majority of his fellow council members did not want to discuss the issue of Helena Puljiz and her interrogation.

He told IWPR that the law should extend the council’s authority to include oversight of human rights violations by the secret services, in addition to possible unlawful actions.

“The council shouldn’t be the only of its kind,” said Cvrtila. “There should be more bodies involved, and parliament’s committee for internal affairs and national security should also play a crucial role.”

Cvrtila said the parliament’s national security committee should always be controlled by the opposition. This was not the case at present, he added, which had made cover-ups of such irregularities possible.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor from Osijek.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Internet Censorship Looms in Kyrgyzstan
Draft law would allow authorities to block websites deemed to contain inaccurate information, with no need for a court ruling.
Azerbaijan’s Coronavirus Cover Up
Coronavirus: Armenian Doctors Fuel Fake News