Clean sound from Croatia

By Harry van Versendaal

Having just won Croatia’s presidential election on Sunday, Ivo Josipovic went on to compare his performance to “a victorious symphony.” The triumph of the 52-year-old classical music composer and legal expert was music to the ears of Croatia’s European friends as well.

Spain, the country currently at the helm of the European Union’s rotating presidency, hailed the nomination of a “pro-European personality” and returned the gesture by pledging to do everything it can “to advance the negotiations” with the Balkan nation. EU heavyweight France followed suit on Tuesday.

Only the third president since Zagreb’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Josipovic claims to be up for and up to the task. “I want a European Croatia, a Croatia that will be one of the shining stars in the European sky,” the soft-spoken, bespectacled politician says. “[This will be] not only through EU membership but by values that we stand for – democracy, freedom, human rights, rule of law, minority rights, religious freedom.” He will have to do some serious polishing work.

It was a surprisingly comfortable victory for Josipovic, who garnered a convincing 60.3 percent of the vote against Milan Bandic’s 39.7 percent. Bandic, 54, a three-time mayor of Zagreb, left the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to run as an independent, a decision he should have regretted by now.

“The election shows that it is still very hard to win office without the support of an organized party,” says Marko Prelec, a Balkans expert from the International Crisis Group. “Bandic ran against his own party’s candidate, Josipovic, and didn’t have his own organizational base.”

It wasn’t Bandic’s only mistake. His conservative populism (an ex communist and ex SDP member, Bandic went as far as to invoke the communist boogeyman against his rival), his coziness with the religious far-right (his only idols, he once proclaimed, are god and his mother) and sleazy reputation (a BBC report dubbed him the “Al Capone” of Croatian politics) all worked in favor of the unassuming Josipovic.

“Josipovic managed to present himself as Mr Clean, gentleman-composer, dull but representative, good for all,” says Ivo Banac, a prominent Croatian historian and commentator. While Bandic looked to god – and his mother – the cool Josipovic played the transparency and Europe cards.

It just proved to be the move a new generation of more mature, moderate voters, waited for. “Josipovic plainly ran as the EU candidate and his victory is a strong sign that the electorate is psychologically moving out of the Balkans and into Europe,” Prelec says.

Many analysts say he is the right man for the job. “Josipovic, a distinguished legal scholar with impeccable international credentials – he favored cooperation with the ICTY [the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] early on, when it was deeply unpopular – should be able to steer Croatia through the final twists and turns of its road to the EU,” says Prelec.

Skeptics, however, point out that the squeaky-clean image is not enough to guarantee success. For Banac, “much depends on his proclivities.” Banac, a professor at Yale University, says Josipovic is in fact deeply connected –personally and through family – with Croatia’s communist past. In the first official press conference, the president-elect said that “anti-fascism” is one of the pillars on which Croatia stands (the other being the Homeland War, an official reference to Croatia’s war of independence in the early 1990s). “Josipovic is perceived as moderate but one is permitted to be skeptical,” Banac insists.

Croatia aims to become the EU’s 28th member by January 2012. But a number of issues remain. Unlike with other countries in the region, Europeans are generally warm to the idea of taking Croatia on board. But they have stressed Zagreb must do more in reforming its judiciary, cooperating with The Hague tribunal and fighting graft. In one of the most notorious corruption cases, a senior government official was found siphoning tourism funds spent on a bogus jam factory into the pockets of family friends.

Croatia, also suffering from the effects of the global economic downturn, has finally started to deliver. Jadranka Kosor, the conservative prime minister who took over after Ivo Sanader quit unexpectedly last year, is viewed as being outside the mob structure. A prospective Josipovic ally, Kosor has stepped up the fight against graft, backing a series of corruption probes into public companies that has seen dozens of officials being sacked or arrested.

And, of course, there is Slovenia. The first former Yugoslav nation to join the bloc, Slovenia has been blocking talks with Croatia over a dispute concerning a small bay in the Adriatic. Last year saw some progress as the two countries agreed to put the issue to international arbitration. The two premiers said this week they are ready to clear the way for Zagreb’s EU talks next month.

Josipovic has said that he intends to use what spare time he has to write an opera on John Lennon. He may find the inspiration; but he will hardly find any time for it.

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