Oct 31, 2008

World - Crime Wave clouds Croatia's Future


The damage from last Thursday's bomb-blast in downtown Zagreb that killed Ivo Pukanic, one of Croatia's top media moguls, and his advertising manager Niko Franic, will not be confined to the casualties. The attack has cast doubt over whether Croatia can curb rampant corruption and organized crime, and achieve its goal of joining the European Union next year.
Pukanic, 47, and his colleague were killed by an explosive device placed near Pukanic's Lexus just after 6 p.m. on Thursday. The police immediately blocked off the city center and called in helicopters, but by Monday, no arrests had been made. A police spokesman described the murder as a "professional hit."
More than 300 people, including several government figures, attended Pukanic's funeral on Monday, where he was buried to the tune of the Dire Straits song Brothers In Arms. The owner and the editor-in-chief of Nacional, a high-circulation weekly which often probed into Croatia's corruption-ridden political life, Pukanic was also a controversial figure, widely seen as closely involved with mobsters and politicians alike. Croatian President Stjepan Mesic had been his close friend, as had Hrvoje Petrac, a businessman currently on trial for extortion.
Pukanic's murder caused an outcry, not just because he was an important player, but because it revealed the extent of the connections between politics, crime and corruption in the former Yugoslav republic. Less than three weeks ago, Ivana Hodak, 22-year old daughter of a prominent lawyer was shot three times in the back of her head just several blocks away from the site of Pukanic's death. The police are investigating whether the two assassinations may have been linked: Ms. Hodak's father, Zvonimir, had publicly accused Petrac of ordering his daughter's murder. Petrac, who is in custody, denied the allegation through his lawyers. Zvonimir Hodak represents retired General Djuro Zagorec, the father of a boy whose kidnapping Petrac was found guilty of organizing and for which he was sentenced to six years prison. (Petrac continues to deny the kidnapping charge.) Zagorec himself is also facing trial, accused of embezzling millions of dollars worth of jewels from the Ministry of Defense in the early '90s. The jewels had been intended for purchase of weapons in Croatia's war with Serbia during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (The official story was that the jewelry had been donated by unnamed patriots to help Croatia's war effort, but some alleged it had originally been looted from Croatian Jews during World War II by the Nazi-aligned nationalist Ustasha militias.)
The Mesic government is now under fire from various quarters for allowing organized crime, which had flourished under the reign of autocratic President Franjo Tudjman who led Croatia's independence struggle, to grow even more rampant after the country's transition to democracy. "The authorities are obviously incompetent to stand up to organized crime" said opposition MP Vladimir Sisljagic at a press conference on Monday. "This situation is a result of eighteen years of turning a blind eye to war profiteering and gangsterism."
Even Croatia's top policeman joined the angry chorus: "At least half of the force is incompetent or corrupted," admitted police director Vladimir Faber in a television interview on Sunday. "So many people only got jobs in police because they had political connections, completely regardless of their qualifications." But critics of Mr Faber point out that he, too, gained his position by virtue of his allegiance to Croatia's Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader.
Sanader has vowed that the government would do "whatever it takes" to uproot organized crime, and on Tuesday, Ivan Simonovic, Croatia's newly appointed Justice Minister, announced a series of measures aimed at curbing organized crime. This includes new legislation, which would allow criminals' property to be confiscated, as well as the establishment of a new police agency, modeled on America's Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the new measures yet need to be approved by the parliament, and would take months before they take effect.
Meanwhile, Croatian authorities are worried that the crime wave is spoiling Croatia's international image of a tourist paradise. Over the past several years, the country has invested heavily in its Adriatic resorts such as Dubrovnik, and collects much of its foreign exchange from tourism. "The worst thing that we can now do is to [have to] start going around trying to persuade people that Croatia is a safe country", said Nadan Vidosevic, chief of Croatia's Chamber of Commerce. "We mustn't allow insecurity to spill over."
Even more devastating is the possibility that the uptick in high-profile crime could jeopardize Croatia's effort to become a full member of the E.U., for which it is currently a candidate. "This is a clear step back for Croatia's quest towards membership," said Hanes Svoboda, the European Parliament's Croatia monitor. "Either the government would impose some stability and order, or Croatia will not be able to join the E.U. anytime soon," Svoboda said in a radio interview.
But worst of all is the fear that a spiral of criminal violence may be just beginning. "We have reached a point when separating state officials from corrupted journalists and gangsters has almost become impossible" Sasa Lekovic, a prominent Croatian investigative journalist told TIME. "I'm afraid that this is not the end."

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