A Turning Point for Croatia

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Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images
Former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader at the Jasenovac Memorial Area, where, in April 2005, he gave a speech expressing regrets to the Serbian, Jewish, Roma, and Croatian victims of the mass killings carried out by the Ustasha during World War II. He was arrested on charges of corruption in December 2010 and is awaiting trial.

December 2010 was the stormiest month in Croatian public life since the war in Croatia and Bosnia ended fifteen years ago. Former prime minister Ivo Sanader learned on the morning of December 9 that judicial proceedings had been launched against him for major acts of corruption and that his parliamentary immunity would be revoked. He fled to Slovenia that afternoon and disappeared completely for twenty-four hours. The Croatian Ministry of Internal Affairs immediately issued an international arrest warrant for him. There were rumors that Sanader intended to fly from Munich to the United States, but the US government revoked his visa. The Austrian police arrested him on a highway not far from Salzburg in the early afternoon of December 10 and took him to a jail in Salzburg. There during Christmas and New Year’s he shared a cell with a notorious international swindler.

How had this happened? Sanader was a rising star in Croatian and European politics. For nine years he had been the president of Croatia’s strongest right-wing party, the Croatian Democratic Union, becoming prime minister in 2003. At one time opinion polls showed him to be the most popular Croatian politician, although he usually ranked behind the president, Stjepan Mesić.

Fluent in four European languages, Sanader was also a favorite among delegates to the European Parliament in Brussels and especially among the leaders of the international European Peoples’ Party, an alliance of center-right political parties from thirty-nine European countries. The heads of four member parties, Angela Merkel, Kostas Karamanlis, Bertie Ahern, and Jean-Claude Juncker, who at that time were the prime ministers of their respective countries—Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Luxembourg—went so far as to appear in a two-minute commercial that ran on television several times a day during Croatia’s parliamentary elections in 2007. They called Sanader “a great statesman” who had “done great things for Croatia,” is “esteemed in Europe and has great influence,” and “is our friend.”

In November 2010, when Sanader sent a desperate letter to these same leaders asking for help because he was being “subjected to political persecution,” not one of them responded. Then on May 9, 2011, a court in Salzburg accepted the Croatian government’s request for Sanader’s extradition to Croatia. However, the legal proceedings for his extradition will probably last several months to a year. Public expectation here is now very high that Sanader’s trial will take place in an open court in which a senior government official will reveal details about the scale and extent of official corruption in the country.

The explanation for Sanader’s fall lies in deeply embedded political …

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