Prime Minister Ivica Racan of Croatia resigned his office last Friday, but in doing so won a key victory in the gravest government crisis to date since the political changes of January 2000, a crisis that threatened to force the country into early elections.
Through resigning, Racan was able to engineer the removal of his trouble-making coalition partner, the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), and its president Drazen Budisa, and succeeded in getting a small majority to form a new government without HSLS that will serve until the end of its mandate. One can, however, hardly expect political stabilization and a speeding up of much needed reforms.
Formally, the crisis was brought on by the actions of Drazen Budisa, whose HSLS was the second largest in the five-party government coalition led by Racan’s Social Democrat Party (SDP), or the reformed communists. Budisa was also the deputy prime minister in Racan's government for the past four months, a post he won after threatening to leave the coalition government and cause early elections. Then, however, as deputy prime minister, Budisa refused to support ratification of a key international agreement with neighboring Slovenia regarding bilateral use of the nuclear power plant “Krsko.” Social Christian MPs were ordered to boycott action in parliament for towards ratification and thereby render impossible it impossible to pass.
Slovenia and Croatia are joint owners of the Krsko nuclear plant, which they built together on Slovenian territory when the two countries were still federal republics in the former Yugoslavia. The Croatian share in the plant had been frozen for the past four years because of a dispute regarding the reactor’s use, which had left Croatia without electricity from Krsko. The agreement is intended to enable Croatia to reactivate its use of the reactor. The HSLS president supposedly had supported the agreement when in government session and the ministry of economy, which is headed by an HSLS minister, was insisting on its adoption. Still, at the moment when the agreement was to pass through a parliamentary procedure, Budisa withdrew his support because of some claimed controversial elements regarding nuclear waste – his action left the government facing public humiliation.
Although many experts in fact are criticizing the agreement, it has not only economic but also political importance as a demonstration of goodwill and political maturity towards neighboring Slovenia and, consequently, towards the rest of former Yugoslavia. Racan’s government had already suffered an important setback in this field after most parliamentary parties, including some in the ruling coalition, announced their intention to block a border agreement Racan signed last year with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek. This time, Racan issued a prompt response to Budisa's disruption of parliamentary procedure. Securing a tight majority in the parliament through HSLS “dissidents,” Racan was able to break Budisa’s boycott and finally part ways with a political partner that had been in constant fights with the SDP since jointly winning the January 2000 parliamentary elections. When Budisa, whose career began as a charismatic student leader in the Croatian Spring of 1971 who spent four years in prison under the communist government, subsequently lost presidential elections in an unexpected defeat to Stipe Mesic, he became politically frustrated and the source of constant instability within the ruling coalition.
Last summer, the first indictments of the Hague Tribunal arrived against several Croatian generals, accusing them of war crimes against Serbian civilians in the so-called Homeland War in 1996. Budisa asked HSLS members in the government to oppose unconditional cooperation with the Hague, threatening Croatia with a difficult international situation and, worse, isolation.
After a majority of his ministers rejected Budisa’s motion, he resigned as HSLS president but ran for it again in February 2002 at the party congress and won overwhelmingly. Budisa then asked to purge high-ranking party officials from the government and demanded the office of deputy prime minister for himself. Few believed that Budisa's ambitions and frustrations would be satisfied with these political gains or that conflict within the ruling coalition would end. Many analysts warned that the coalition had shown deep, contrasting positions, especially with regard to the HSLS, and that it was only a matter of time before a new, even deeper conflict would emerge.
In the most recent conflict, however, Racan’s resignation gave him an opportunity to form a new government without the HSLS. Support for the government is narrow and unstable and it is unlikely to accelerate reforms fast enough on all political and economic levels in order to survive a deep crisis, speed up democratization, and achieve some visible results in everyday life for common people, who do not hide their disappointment with the failure of the new authorities to live up to expectations initiated when the corrupt and authoritarian Tudjman’s regime came to an end.
Nobody pretends anymore that reforms are now dangerously late. Racan himself publicly admitted as much following the uncomfortable message delivered by NATO General Secretary Lord George Robertson during his recent victory. Croatia is definitely outside of the circle of countries that will be invited to join NATO at the organization’s meeting in Prague this autumn. Robertson openly said that Croatia has yet a lot to do, not only in reforming the military, but also in general democratization of the society.
Croatia will soon be facing some challenging democratization tests and that is probably one of the main reasons for Budisa and his party to distance themselves from the ruling coalition. Budisa’s rejection of the agreement on the Krsko power plant came at the same time as announcements of new Hague indictments against high-ranking ex-state officials are expected to arrive in Croatia this autumn. Budisa, commenting on the break-up of the coalition, said “If it didn't happen now, it would have happened in a month and a half.”
The Hague indictments will most likely cause even more political turmoil, which could dangerously divide the country. In a situation where the current government has no noticeable results in its reforms and is seeing a difficult economic situation is getting worse (with a record 400,000 unemployed in a country of a little more than 4 million inhabitants) and at the same time polls are showing that the former ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is on the rise, it seems that Budisa has decided it was time to change sides and look for new coalition partners.
At the HDZ’s assembly in May, moderate Ivo Sanader won over Ivic Pasalic, a close associate of the late President Franjo Tudjman and the leader of the party’s extremist faction. Now, the HDZ is attempting to represent itself as a “mild” Christian Democratic right party that rejects extremist nationalism and chauvinism and that would be acceptable to the international community. But not even the HDZ would be able to rule alone in the event of an election victory. Indeed, an election victory would mean nothing for the HDZ if it is unable to break the wide-ranging anti-HDZ coalition established in the elections in January 2000 and to overcome its political isolation by finding some acceptable coalition partners.
The HSLS has now shown that such a scenario is possible. It is the main danger of Budisa’s recent moves. He is the first to show that the anti-HDZ alliance is not forever and that a return to power of Tudjman’s party is not outside the realm of possibility. Budisa’s new policy, however has met with resistance within his own party, which is on the verge of a split because some HSLS MPs are supporting Prime Minister Ivica Racan. However, this division will not likely dampen the negative effects of Budisa's action. Racan's pleasure in finally getting rid of Budisa without early elections may turn out, therefore, to be a Pyrrhic victory. There is too little time until regular elections scheduled for the end of next year to gain visible results for his government, even with a faster pace of reforms.
The broad anti-HDZ coalition which won power two-and-a-half years ago was made up of the Social Democratic Party, the Social Liberal Party, the Croatian Peasants’ Party, the Croatian People's Party, the Liberal Party and the regionally based Istrian Democratic Council. At that time, it seemed that there was a nationwide consensus for radical democratic and economic reforms and for including Croatia into the process of European integration. The coalition, however, turned out to be so heterogeneous that it was not up to the task. The Istrian Democratic Council was the first to leave the coalition last year because of its dissatisfaction with the pace of reforms.
Besides the government’s economic failure, key areas of democratization remain unaddressed. Croatia still does not have a public television and two important daily newspapers are still owned by the state; the juridical system is in a state of total collapse while police and prosecutors constantly fight each other; the military is still highly politicized; and government representatives themselves say that no one knows who actually controls the secret services; and so on. This will be the likely legacy of this coalition against a party that does not enjoy great democratic prestige.
This ruling coalition did not succeed in organizing a normal democratic infrastructure so that political and electoral changes could happen without major disturbances. Now, the coalition parties try to avoid early elections at all costs, although the situation calls for them in order to implement at least some changes. It is more likely that the ruling politicians will be more concerned with their own election chances than by social reforms, biding their time until the next elections.
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At one point, Czechoslovakia came to the idea of a ‘triple’ cooperation, an idea of cooperation among Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, three countries with similar past and problems. Among other reasons, the idea arose from the lessons learned from historical experience: Hitler's expansion was made easier due to the inability of these three Central European countries to develop stronger relations after World War I. After 1989, many people also still did not believe in the possibility of such cooperation. There were many skeptics saying that these three countries, with fragile democratic systems, without experience, and with many problems confronting them would concentrate only on their own countries and not be able to agree on anything, much less on “coordination” on their road to Europe, and thus there would be no possible benefit from the agreement.
But Vaclav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia, wrote in 1991 (in his book Summer Thoughts) that such skepticism proved wrong: “Cooperation among the three [countries] turned out to make some sense and they are starting to realize, as Svatopluk said, that if three are working together, you can achieve more than if everyone did things on his own.” Human memory is fragile, however. Four years later, in the summer of 1995, I had to remind then-Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus of Havel's words after Klaus wrote an article stating that Czech republic was skeptical towards the so-called Visegrad group and the motives behind it from the very beginning.
Central European Benelux
The history of the three-country group officially began on February 15, 1991 in Visegrad, a town in northern Hungary. Presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa of Czechoslovakia and Poland as well as Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antal met there to sign a declaration about cooperation of their three countries. In fact, this Central European "troika" had met for the first time a year earlier in Bratislava. Poland was still represented by General Wojciech Jaruzelski were it not for him the Visegrad Group would have been called by Bratislava instead.
The group’s meetings were always organized at the highest level. In Visegrad, the heads of states, governments, and foreign ministries participated. A year later in Prague, the foreign ministers of the Visegrad group met with the so-called European troika (the current, former, and future presidents of the European Council) as well as with the representative of the head of the European Commission, Frans Andriessen.
The Visegrad Triangle was an excellent example of good relations in Central Europe at a time of a huge success — the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact. But Europe needed Visegrad as a breath of fresh air also at a time when it could not deal with the issue of the Balkans.
Already, on June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia had proclaimed their independence and Belgrade had begun its military intervention. Slovenia left the conflict quickly without heavy casualties, but Croatia had less success. As Antal, Havel, and Walesa were signing a new declaration on intensifying cooperation between their countries on October 6 in Krakow, Vukovar in Eastern Slavonia was already surrounded. It fell on November 18. And when the same three statesmen met in Prague on May 6, 1992, the siege of Sarajevo had already been going on for a month. At the time, the Visegrad group was called — with a certain dose of exaggeration — the Benelux of Central and Eastern Europe. Few people heard bells over Prague announcing the death of the Visgerad group. For it to die, Czechoslovakia had to die, too.
In June 1992, parliamentary elections were held in Czechoslovakia resulting in two completely different political parties holding power in the federation’s two republics. While a majority of citizens were in favor of a joint country, they did not feel so strongly as to defend it to the end.
So, when the election winners Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar concluded that they could not rule together, voters did not protest. On December 31, 1992, the final Czechoslovak hour passed and while many Czechs and Slovaks could be seen crying, they did not demonstratively complain and they were calmed with promises that the two new countries would establish relations among themselves on a level above all international standards. Shocked by the wars in former Yugoslavia, Europe was enthusiastic about Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce.”
The Czech Republic achieved the status of best student among the countries in the region. The West liked the ability shown by Vaclav Klaus, first as Czechoslovakia’s minister of finance and later as prime minister of the Czech Republic, in implementing reforms. The Czech Republic had negligent inflation, especially compared to Poland, an unusually low unemployment rate, and social peace, without strikes or demonstrations. In addition, the Czechs happened on a stroke of genius, coupon, or voucher, privatization, which turned millions of agricultural and industrial workers into shareholders. The Czech prime minister did not have any doubts that his country was the best NATO and EU candidate. Visegrad cooperation seemed an unneeded burden and obstacle and so the Czech Republic became a “skeptic towards the so-called Visegrad group.” Meciar’s Slovakia was also skeptic, especially because of the issue of its significant Hungarian minority.
Visegrad in Sleep Mode
No one has officially buried the Visegrad group, but it remains calmly in sleep mode. There were still various ministerial meetings, but cooperation became more and more strained and less important. After awhile, the Czechs started sending their deputy ministers to such meetings. The highest level was completely forgotten. Country presidents met every year, butg in another, much wider circle, while prime ministers saw each other only at the regular conferences of SECI. For the Czech prime minister, a much more important group was CEFTA, the Central European Free Trade Association, founded in December 1992 in Krakow. This initiative was his own idea, while the Visegrad group was created by Vaclav Havel.
In regard to foreign and defense policy, regional cooperation was replaced by bilateral relations (especially when the ruling politicians in the Czech Republic understood that NATO would not expand without Poland). But for the fact that the Czech economic miracle deteriorated, that is where matters would have remained. The Czech economy came to a standstill, hit by recession, and together with corruption scandals and stories about secret bank accounts in Switzerland, caused the fall of Klaus' government. In new elections in June 1998, the Social Democrats, headed by Milos Zeman, emerged as victors. A few months later, at the end of September, Vladimir Meciar lost power in Slovakia. While his party won a plurality in parliamentary elections, the majority of seats were held by HSLS opponents and these former opposition parties formed a coalition government on October 30, headed by Mikulas Dzurinda. Already a few days earlier, on October 21, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary decided to revive Visegrad cooperation. Nothing prevented its revival except for Slovakia’s presidential elections. Meciar's run for head of state was so disturbing to Slovakia’s neighbors that they decided not to wait and Jerzy Buzek, Viktor Orban, and Milos Zeman — the prime ministers of Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic — came to Bratislava to proclaim together with Mikulas Dzurinda second birth of Visegrad group. “Visegrad was revived in Bratislava,” wrote the Slovakian correspondent of the Prague daily Mlada fronta Dnes. Such optimism followed numerous more pessimistic predictions appearing in the paper beforehand, including by its specialist for Central Europe, Lubos Palata.
“And yet it is not a hopeless move if we step the way indicated by Hungarian prime minister Orban,” wrote Palata, “so that we can feel Visegrad in our own lives. For example, for Czech students to be able to study in Warsaw or Bratislava instead of the West and vice versa. Or that the organization of Days of Polish Culture in Prague becomes more important than a similar manifestation in Paris. Or maybe that at least state-owned TV and radio stations have their permanent correspondents in countries of their Visegrad neighbours.”
The situation regarding media, however, is a complete contrast to what [Palata] finds desirable. The Polish state-owned media do not have any centers in their neighboring Visegrad countries, nor any official correspondent. They only occasionally hire provisional journalists. The situation is almost the same with the print media. The only exception is Rzeczpospolita, which has correspondents in Prague and Bratislava. Even Gazeta Wyborcza shut down its Central European correspondent center in Prague.
Polish viewers, listeners or readers rarely have the opportunity to find out what is happening south. They also cannot buy newspapers of their Visegrad neighbors. Only in Bratislava can one buy the Czech press. In Prague you would look for Slovakian newspapers in vain. There is no Polish press. There is a similar situation is in Warsaw, where one can buy various foreign press, but not Czech or Slovak newspapers, not to mention Hungarian. You can watch Polish TV programs in Egyptian hotels, but it is impossible in Prague or Bratislava. There is almost no exchange in cable TV.
Still, in spite of everything, the renewed Visegrad has come closer to the common people. In June 2000, in the town of Stirina near Prague, prime ministers decided to start an International Visegrad Fund and to invest one million euros each year in order to finance joint cultural projects. The need for the fund can be seen by visiting the website www.visegradfund.org, where there is a list of grants totaling 2 million euros for various festivals, exhibitions, schools, workshops, etc.
Or a Swan’s Song
But was it all just a swan's song? A predictable commotion among the people who already use various Visegrad funds or are planning to use them has emerged following word that the group was shattered once again.
So little was needed to break it - only a statement from the Hungarian
prime minister uttered at the Forum of the European Parliament. In his
speech, Viktor Orban expressed opposition to the decrees of post-war Czechoslovak
President Eduard Benes, which equated all Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia
during WWII with being traitors. Milos Zeman and Mikulas Dzurinda immediately
cancelled their participation at Visegrad meeting in Budapest. A little
later, a meeting of Visegrad culture ministers in Sopron was cancelled.
Is the Visegrad group at its end once again? The answer will be seen in the next few months, with the calming down of election passions in the Czech Republic, where elections were held in June, and in Slovakia where elections will be held in autumn. After elections, perhaps there will be an opportunity for normal conversation and cooperation.
It is also possible that the idea of the Central European Benelux will have to be rethought and only what has been built from the bottom-up should count, like the theatre festival “Na granicy” (On the border) held in Polish Cieszyn and Czech Tesin, or the Polish-Czech-Slovak Movie Summer in Terlicko near Ostrava, or the Visegrad Festival in Wroclaw, Olomouc, Presev, and Pesc.
• • •
Being a Latvian politician is not easy. By all rights, the parties making up the present government should be feeling fairly confident in the run-up to the parliamentary elections set for October 5. After all, the economy is booming: GDP grew 6.8 percent in 2000, 7.6 percent in 2001, and, despite the slow-down in the world economy, is set to grow at about a 5 percent rate this year. Latvia, along with the other Baltic States, has quite surprisingly become one of the front runners to join NATO at the Prague summit in November, laying to rest the fear, always at the back of Latvians’ minds, of being drawn once again into the Russian sphere of influence. The country's chances of being invited to join the European Union at the Copenhagen summit in December look equally good. And the present government has presented a model of stability. With a parliamentary system that almost guarantees unstable coalition governments, the present cabinet, led by Prime Minister Andris Berzins, has already set a record for longevity, remaining in office for over two years.
It is difficult to imagine what more a politician could offer to the voters, but the electorate is looking for a change. In what has become a pattern for Latvian elections, each new campaign is the signal for the appearance for some new political party promising sweeping change. In 1995, with Latvia mired in a recession and a banking crisis, a slew of right- and left-wing populists came within one vote in Parliament of forming a government. All of those parties have since disintegrated, and none managed to get re-elected in the next elections. But by 1998 a new “great white hope” had appeared in the shape of the Tautas Partija (People's Party), led by businessman turned politician Andris Skele, who promised to shake up the cozy political elite with a dose of plain-spoken, hard-nosed pragmatism. His People's Party got the largest number of votes, but not enough to take control of Parliament, and over the last four years Skele’s party has realigned itself with the powers-that-be.
The Latvian electorate is now ready for a new knight in shining armor. This time around the new party promising to change everything is led by Einars Repse, the former President of the Bank of Latvia. As father of the Latvian currency, the lats, a symbol of independence, stability and financial probity, as well as someone generally considered free from the taint of corruption, Repše has consistently been among the most popular figures in Latvian public life, and his party Jaunais laiks (The New Age) shot to the top of the public opinion polls even before it had been officially founded. In terms of economic policy Repse is very much a man of the right, promising a radical market-based overhaul of the education and health-care systems, policies which most of the population do not agree with. Surprisingly, that probably would not hurt him, because his appeal among the voters is based almost exclusively on his character and reputation. With a wide-spread sense that the Latvian political system is too responsive to the interests of a few influential businessmen and that the politicians, when they are not corrupt themselves, are doing too little to root out corruption in the judiciary, the police, and customs, Repse’s all-out rhetorical assault on the “ruling elite” and his promises of honest government have proven popular. He is sure to get the largest number of votes in the elections.
A second headache for the governing parties is the left-wing coalition of parties with the unwieldy moniker Par cilvektiesibam vienota Latvija (For Human Rights in a United Latvia). This heterogeneous amalgam of reformed and unreformed communists, joined by a smattering of former independence activists, is united by their desire to become the sole political representatives of the so-called “Russian-speaking population” in Latvia. Their close ties with Moscow make them unacceptable partners for most of the other Latvian parties, but thanks to a politically savvy coalition with the social democrats in the City Council of Latvia's capital city Riga, they have been slowly legitimizing themselves as an acceptable main-stream party and as a result have seen their popularity rise. They also seem to be trying to expand their support by reaching out to ethnic Latvians, which means that, in all likelihood, ethnic issues will not be a dominating issue in this year's elections. [. . .] As a result, FHRUL has a good chance of doing better than it did in the last elections, when it got 14 percent of the vote.
So where does that leave the ruling right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Berzins’ Latvijas cels (Latvia's Way), Skele's People's Party, and Tevzemei un Brivibai (For Fatherland and Freedom)? They certainly will not do as well as in the last elections, when these three parties got a combined 53 percent of the vote. This time they will do well to get half that, and FFF, the main Latvian nationalist party, is actually in danger of not getting the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation due to its mismanagement of the health care system and the waning importance of ethnic issues among the Latvian electorate. Nevertheless, in spite of the country's anti-establishment mood, all three parties are experienced political survivors and at least LW and PP are sure to be important players in the next Parliament.
As for the rest of the field, it would, perhaps, tax the patience of the reader overmuch to go into detail about the four or five parties that have about a fifty-fifty chance of getting over the 5 percent barrier. The Social Democrats have had a politically disastrous year running the Riga City Council, during which time they have been not only inept, but also politically outmaneuvered both by their partners from the FHRUL as well as by their opponents on the right. Nevertheless, because of their visibility and name-recognition, they probably have the best chance of any of the second-tier parties of getting in to parliament. As for the rest — the coalition of Christian parties calling itself Pirma partija (the First Party), the coalition of the Greens and the Farmers Union, and the splinter Socialdemocratic Union — they have a little more than three months to try to grab the attention of the voters and hope that some of the larger parties falter.
As we all know, a week, let alone three months, can be a long time in
politics. In the last elections Latvia's Way pulled itself out of a mid-summer's
hole, where it was flirting with the fatal 5 percent cut off point in the
polls, to come back and take second place in the elections with 18 percent
of the vote. But even allowing for potential shifts between the main players
and a possible surprise from one of the smaller parties, the one certainty
about the elections seems to be that, bucking the Easter European trend,
right wing parties will once again have a majority in the next parliament.
If nothing else, Mr. Repse will see to that.