Zagreb's Next Political Crisis

The Croatian right is set to exploit increasing unemployment due to restructuring of the police and army.

Zagreb's Next Political Crisis

The Croatian right is set to exploit increasing unemployment due to restructuring of the police and army.

In a bid to reorganise the army and police and start essential reforms to bring Croatia in line with European norms, Prime Minister Ivica Racan could spark another political crisis further undermining his government.

Mass dismissals in the police and army are planned to restructure these former strongholds of late president Franjo Tudjman into standard peacetime forces. The country has not been at war since 1995.

But the government's approach, including the dismissal of 3,800 policemen in a single day on August 7, might further weaken its own position. Major cuts have also been announced for the army.

There are already 400,000 unemployed people in Croatia - 10 per cent of the entire population, or an unemployment rate of 22 per cent. They represent a substantial force that could provoke social unrest - and an early election.

The Croatian right, composed of hard-line parties such as the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, the Croatian Party of Rights and the Movement for Croatian Identity and Prosperity - the newly founded political association led by Miroslav Tudjman, son of the late president - are poised to exploit the mass dismissals to criticise the government.

The reduction of the police force from 16,000 to 12,200 people caused a huge revolt among the rank-and-file, who barricaded themselves in several police stations and have also threatened to blockade the Zagreb-Karlovac highway, which many western tourists use when visiting the Adriatic coast. The policemen's union has announced that protests will continue, with the backing of other unions close to the Croatian right.

The policemen's union has also called for the dismissal of Simo Lucina, the interior minister, and Ranko Ostojic, the police chief, and has threatened a strike if Prime Minister Racan refuses to meet with them to discuss their concerns. All right-wing parties have expressed their support for the police protests, and the most prominent opposition party, the HDZ, also demanded an emergency session of parliament to debate the issue.

At the beginning of the crisis in Croatia in the early Nineties, the police underwent a dramatic change. Prior to 1990, the proportion of Croatian Serbs in the police force was nearly twice their proportion in the population. While Serbs represented only 17 per cent of the population, they held 30 per cent of the positions in the Croatian police force. Under Franjo Tudjman's watch, as HDZ ministers used to boast, by 1994 Serb participation in the police force fell to less then 2 per cent.

With so many positions freed up through this effective ethnic cleansing of the force, the HDZ was able to fill the ranks with their people, including Croatian refugees from the territories then under Serb occupation, as well as Croatians from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart from their loyalty to the HDZ, no other qualification was necessary. According to Police Chief Ostojic, at least 1,000 of policemen recently dismissed only have a primary school education.

Ostojic also noted that the number of people employed by the police has doubled since 1990. Interior Minister Lucina pointed out that, while in Austria there is one policeman for every 600 civilians, the ratio in Croatia as a result of the previous government's hiring policy has been 1:209.

This has meant that 10 per cent of Croatia's overall budget went to the police. The new government slashed this to 5.3 per cent, but this is still well above the European norm of 2-3 per cent.

Lucina also criticised the management of the force, pointing out that around 6,000 policemen would take sick leave at once. He also stressed the connection between the Croatian mafia and the police, which he said makes a reshuffle essential.

Many local analysts support the minister's stance, warning that the HDZ policy was destroying Croatia's economy and only hiding the country's real unemployment level. Using the police and army as a provider of jobs ensured that otherwise unemployed would not cause a political problem.

Although the current Croatian government has promised to find jobs for the majority of dismissed policemen, the police union is not satisfied, claiming the government is acting under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, IMF.

The IMF has suggested to the Croatian government many times that drastic reductions of public expenditure are necessary for the recovery of the country and influx of foreign credits. The IMF representative in Croatia, Hans Flickenschild, has announced financial credits to create new employment.

As if the police cuts were not controversial enough, only a week later, Deputy Defence Minister Zlatko Gareljic revealed that around 17,000 people would have to leave the army. In an interview for the Zagreb daily Vjesnik, he said that after consultations with NATO experts he had concluded that the Croatian army should be reduced within the next two years from 42,000 to 25,000.

NATO insists on an army reshuffle to confirm Zagreb's transition to peace. Croatia is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, and Racan's government has strong intentions to join the alliance.

If sustained, protests by the police and potentially by the army could present the Croatian government with a very serious crisis. The government only recently survived a marathon emergency parliamentary debate over its cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Its continuing reforms, intended to bring the country closer to Europe, could prove its undoing.

Zeljko Peratovic is a journalist with the Zagreb daily Vjesnik.

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