Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Perkovic Saga - the Beginning or the End of Dismantling Totalitarian Legacy?

Adelina Marini, January 27, 2014

1:0 for the EU in its efforts to impose the European values onto the newest member state Croatia, but the match is yet in the beginning. The first clash between the European system of values and the remnants of Croatia's communist past ended quickly and with a happy end. Last year, precisely two days before the country's formal EU accession, the ruling parties cast a huge shadow of doubt over the until that moment irreproachable image of Croatia as the white swallow of European integration. Then, via a flash parliamentary procedure were approved amendments to the law on judicial cooperation with EU member states that introduced a time restriction on European arrest warrants. The amendments were called 'lex Perkovic' because the Croatian public suspected they were done with the aim to thwart the extradition by the former chief of the Yugoslav and Croatian secret services Josip Perkovic to Germany to face trial for the murder of Stjepan Djurekovic.

The adopted changes caused a blunt reaction by the European Commission and also by some member states, notably Germany. After a relatively brief, but heavy exchange, the Croatian government yielded and in the autumn it proposed counter-amendments repealing the controversial texts. The second Perkovic amendment entered into force on January 1st this year. In the very first minutes of the new year, Josip Perkovic was arrested in his home and was taken to custody pending a court decision whether the European arrest warrant was not in conflict of Croatian law. The European public waited tensely for the outcome after the bitter experience with Bulgaria, which is regularly told by the European Commission, in its reports under the Mechanism in the area of justice, that it is not normal defendants for serious crimes to be able to escape on the eve of expected convictions, nor is it usual to wait for the conviction on beaches somewhere in the world.

The Bulgarian scenario has not played in Croatia so far. The Zagreb district court decided to respect the European arrest warrant. Then the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of the defence and confirmed the extradition and in the end the Constitutional Court found that there was no conflict with the main law. So, seven months after the unfortunate 'Perkovic' amendment, a key chapter from the Croatian Yugoslav past was closed. Josip Perkovic was sent on a plane bound for Munich where he is in custody awaiting indictment.

The beginning of the end?

The Croatian media are unanimous, though, that Perkovic is only the tip of the iceberg called "Croatian totalitarian past" and that now is the most appropriate moment to hold a very honest debate on it. "Perkovic could have left on July 1st last year without that serious shaming of the country as a (post)totalitarian reserve, but, still, it is good that the power of this structure has been finally revealed", wrote in a commentary for one of the most circulated newspapers in Croatia, Vecernji list, Nino Raspudic. According to him, the Perkovic case showed that it is not too late for lustration, "because, unless we start quickly with this process, it would be late for the establishment of a genuine democratic society". Moreover, Nino Raspudic writes, lustration at the moment, in the long-term, is the most profound problem of the Croatian society.

The author warns of something that, alas, has been happening already in Bulgaria - the danger of a restoration of the totalitarian regime. In his words, already, can be seen attempts to defend the old regime by presenting it in a good light. It is being spoken that Josip Broz Tito built railways and factories, but it is not mentioned that he robbed and destroyed the old city class as well as the village. It is said, Mr Raspudic continues, that Tito had some national territories returned, but there is no word about how he lost others or that he ethnically cleansed entire peoples. Nino Raspudic calls on Croatia to take advantage of the condition the EU put forward on Serbia in the negotiations for EU accession Belgrade to open the archives of the former Yugoslav services. "It all depends on us. We need to hold a public debate of good quality about the model of lustration, to adopt a law, to affirm the procedures to prevent violations and, in a democratic atmosphere, to make checks under clear procedures and avoid witch hunting, of course by starting from dismantling Croatia's totalitarian past".

Milan Ivkosic, also in Vecernji list, writes that, to a large extent, it is a pity that Perkovic is extradited to Germany because him facing trial in Germany will not be same as putting to trial Croatia's communist past. This will be an individual process that will cast only a very dim light over the crimes committed immediately after World War II and throughout the entire period of communism. The accomplices and scale will not be revealed, none of the famous names will be touched, none of the hundreds of graves either. The trial against Perkovic in Germany could be, though, a symbolic beginning of the end of UDBA's omnipotence (the Yugoslav secret services) which "still exists in the democratic Croatia of today".

While the procedures on reviewing the European arrest warrant on Perkovic were taking place in the beginning of the year, there was an intensive debate in the Croatian public domain about what was behind the attempts of the governing parties to save Perkovic even at the price of disgracing Croatia in Europe. There was talk that there were many cases in the Union of rejected warrants. In Parliament, there were spats between opposition and ruling parties. The latter even initiated constitutional amendments to remove the prescription for serious crimes, including political murders. At this stage, however, there is no sufficient support in Parliament on the opening of the Constitution and some analysts believe this is even dangerous. Media, in general, are unanimous that Perkovic is only the beginning.

According to Visnja Staresina, political columnist of the business weekly Lider, the task of the Croatian justice in this case was to prove its European credibility and future. However, even if Perkovic is extradited, in Croatia remains (for now) his boss Zdravko Mustac and he is the man who knows a lot about how Stjepan Djurekovic's killing was organised and who perpetrated it. He knows how the model of state enemies was functioning, how the service adapted to the new multi-party environment. All this, Ms Staresina writes, will help understand the developments in the past 20 years and will serve to build healthy and democratic social relations in the next 20 years as well.

Drazen Ciglenecki shares the opinion that Mustac is more important. He writes in Novi list that the Perkovic case is only a smoke curtain aimed to save the old time boss Zdravko Mustac who, seems to had decided to get rid of Perkovic.

Croatia has a chance to start anew

Josip Perkovic is the equivalent of the mystic General Lyuben Gotsev, believed to be the founder of today's Bulgaria on the basis of politically protected organised crime, oligarchy and poverty. Apart from being the poorest member of the European Union seven years after accession, Bulgaria is ruled by a government considered to be a marionette of the oligarchy, enjoying very low public support and facing seven months of protests. Because of the country's failure to prepare adequately for EU membership, Bulgaria joined with a special mechanism. The latest report of the European Commission on the country's progress on the benchmarks of this mechanism speak sufficiently well about where lack of lustration and coming to terms with the dark past leads to.

Croatia has a chance to avoid repeating the Bulgarian scenario because media are still free to criticise the government. The country will only gain if it listened to the recommendations in media and to start though painful, but crucial debate about its past. So far the forces of change seem to be prevailing. The court seems to have handled successfully the situation by not succumbing to the temptation to satisfy the powerful of the day. Media are united. The political class, however, still seems incapable of explaining why does it protect Perkovic. The governing parties claimed Perkovic should be tried in Croatia because the truth must be revealed in the country. But the opposition, while criticising the government, fails to answer the question why has he not been tried so far. Croatia is a member of the EU. It is a matter of a domestic decision whom it wants to be compared with - the resistance of the bad guys or the example of the good guys. And the good guys, some columnists say, are Poland and the Baltic states.

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