In January of 2020, outgoing Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who had just lost a reelection campaign, was asked a question about Croatia’s corruption problem. The president pointed a finger at schools in Croatia saying, “Corruption is embedded in Croatian society at school where children who cheat on tests are celebrated as heroes.” In 2019, almost one-fifth of Croatian citizens were exposed to bribery either directly or indirectly. Of those bribery incidents, more than half were initiated by Croatian citizens. Corruption and bribery are not just blemishes on the Croatian system, they are a way of life and they could open the door to democratic backsliding.
An understanding of what corruption is can differ based on what factors we are looking at. Pure political corruption could mean using public office as a way to enrich yourself or bribing a fellow congressman for a vote on a bill. However, corruption in Croatia is not as simple as public officials abusing their power. Croatian corruption exists on a micro level, with ordinary citizens regularly engaging in bribery of healthcare and public sector employees. In a study done by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, of those people who reported paying bribes 56% of them gave them to doctors and 36% gave them to nurses. The form of these bribes also varies with most, 44%, being paid in cash and over another third, 38%, being paid in some form of food. Another interesting aspect of Croatian bribery is that, unlike most other countries with corruption issues, their bribes are not focused in urban areas. In fact, the distribution of corruption is relatively equal between urban and rural areas.
The prevalence of corruption is not endemic to Croatia. The Balkan peninsula is well known for its relatively high corruption rates compared to the rest of Europe. The most recent Global Perceptions Corruption Index published by Transparency International had most Balkan countries declining in their corruption index from the year prior. Balkan countries regularly place amongst the most corrupt in Europe. But why do people engage in corrupt activity? A study done in 2010 suggests that people tend to engage in corruption when they do not see corruption as wrong and when they perceive that corrupt behavior is widespread in their community. So, it seems that part of the corruption problem in Croatia stems from its own citizens perceptions of corruption as not being a terrible decision.
But how does this widespread corruption factor into the functioning of Croatian democracy? Well, any form of corruption can open the door to more serious cases of democratic backsliding. If we take a look at recent high profile cases of corruption within the Croatian government, we can see how they might affect public perception of democracy. Former prime minister, Ivo Sanader, who was affiliated with the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, was convicted of corruption for funneling 10.4 million Euros of public money to a media company. He was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Economy minister Martina Dalic resigned due to the suspect nature of the drafting process of law that would have allowed the government to takeover Agrokor, an agriculture company. Furthermore, the mayor of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, Milan Bandic, was both acquitted of corruption charges related to city financing and indicted on abuse of power, tax evasion, and customs fraud in the same month.
It is important to note how important all of these people are. All of them are high-ranking members of the Croatian government that seem to actively be engaging in undermining the interests of their own people. A large part of the psychology of corruption is tied to how your leaders are acting. If Croatians in leadership positions are showing the citizenry that corruption can help them get ahead, even if some of them get caught, the citizenry is going to start believing that it corruption can help them too.
In that vein, it is important to understand why everyday citizens engage in bribery. Over a third of the bribes given out in a single year were to speed up whatever procedure people were waiting on and almost another fifth bribed officials receive better treatment in some way. This is a worrying trend considering what we know from earlier, that the overwhelming majority of bribes, 92%, were given to doctors in nurses. This is intriguing given that Croatia has a universal health care system which seems to satisfy a large majority of its patients. So, it seems that, while many people do not actually need to perform these bribes, they do so in any case because they get some sort of benefit from it without any real risk of repercussions. The large majority of corruption cases that are prosecuted in Croatia are focused on more dangerous corruption than bringing your doctor some wine.
There is still the question of whether this rampant corruption opens the door to more serious democratic backsliding in Croatia. It seems that, despite all of this, Croatian democracy is still strong. Freedom House rates Croatia at an 86 out of 100, putting it in the “free” category of nations. There have not been any drastic constitutional changes from the new government in order to keep power. While extremist parties have won parliamentary seats, there power is by no means strong. Croatia is also still capable of a stable transition of power, with a new government, led by Prime Minster Andrej Plenkovic of HDZ being installed in January of 2020. However, it should be noted that changes in accountability of government and government officials are early signs of democratic backsliding. While there are a considerable coalition of citizens and media who oppose this corruption, there is a sizeable portion of the population that supports it. And while, there have been recent attempts to institute anti-corruption laws, it’s clear that individuals and politicians are still attempting it. In order for Croatia to move on from this problems, they need to begin to institute widespread changes to alter this lifestyle so that it does not bite them in the future.
It is always better to ere on the side of caution. While Croatia’s corruption issues are not always overt or immediately harmful, their tolerance of the practice could lead to more problems down the road. Hopefully, we will soon see a crackdown on corruption at all levels from one of the most successful countries coming from Yugoslav heritage.
 Lust, Ellen. 2015. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding”. Institute of International Education. 1-15.