Institutionalised sources of corruption in Croatia: an experts’ insight

15. March 2021.

Gong presented the research ‘Institutional sources of corruption in Croatia: an experts’ insight', and its author doc. dr. sc. Dario Čepo from the Department of Sociology at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb and a member of the Gong Council pointed out that corruption is linked to political institutions.

The research Institutionalised sources of corruption in Croatia: an experts’ insight shows that the corruption is necessarily connected to political institutions. The institutions are not just an area or a field within which corrupt practices are present. They are, in their structure, way of creation, rules and norms by which they are governed, the motors that drive the corrupt practices on all the levels of political, economic, and wider social activities.

The legal framework that defines the functioning of public institutions, institutional supervisory functions that take care of the regulatory functioning of the institutions, and rules of employment, promotion and appointment of governing people function all together to create that environment within the institutionalised structure of the Republic of Croatia. That environment enables, sometimes even encourages the patterns of behaviour that lead to corruption, at the same diminishing the citizens’ faith in the political system.

By performing semi-structured, in-depth interviews with the experts that deal with (or have, in the past, been closely dealing with) questions of fighting the corruption, we gained a deeper insight into this important topic. This qualitative research done by doc. dr. sc. Dario Čepo from the Chair of Sociology of Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb and a member of the GONG Council, showed the weaknesses of the institutions on which the functioning of the political system in Croatia is based. The research also showed that focusing on the individuals that work within the system and are involved in the corrupt practices does not help to remove the structural reasons that enable the corruption to flourish.

The basic reasons can be found in the political elite that has designed, established and (re)formed the political institutions and then captured, marginalised, weakened or abolished them in different periods, all with the goal of dominating the entire political system. In the absence of any control, supervision, examples of good practice and rules of acceptable behaviour, the corruption becomes a tool for further conservation and strengthening of one’s own position.

Recognising the role of the institutions in the spread of corruption is vital for many of our interlocutors. They point out that the problem is the whole institutional structure, which is set up in the wrong way, or they point out the specific institutions that lead to the proliferation of corrupt practices. Many of the interlocutors have pointed out the key role of political parties. Most of them focused on political parties in general, but some of them pointed out the role of HDZ, which is logical, seeing that this party has a dominant role in the political system of Croatia, as well as SDP, as the main alternative. Some mentioned other, smaller parties, mainly in the context of local government and opportunities for corrupt practices that stem from that.

It is important to mention the role of legal norms, i.e., legal framework, that have been tailored to enable enough discretionary actions and “dancing” on the edge, without breaking any norms. That prevents the sounding of significant (international and national) alarms that would lead to stricter supervision on abiding by democratic practices and preserving the rule of law. Membership in the European Union has, paradoxically, further weakened the control mechanisms that have, until 2013, at least declaratory, used the carrot and stick approach to prevent a drastic democratic decline.

It is therefore not surprising that the citizens are distrustful towards political and social institutions, that they are Eurosceptics, or at least indifferent towards further European integration and are becoming more apathetic, lowering the levels of political participation, and with that the ultimate supervision over the political elite’s actions and guarantors of the preservation of the political system. That apathy, which suits the political elite, produces a vicious circle in which the political actors start to ignore their political responsibility, they lose the fear of penalty via elections, petitions, and protests, which in turn strengthens their willingness to manipulate the legal framework with the goal of using the political institutions and public funds for private (whether it be individual or party) benefit even more. That, in turn, opens additional opportunities for corrupt practices, which results in the increase of apathy and political cynicism. Ultimately, that vicious circle (or, better said, vicious spiral), inevitably leads to strengthening of the authoritarian tendencies in the society and within the elite, it leads to the emergence of new, non-institutional and anti-system actors whose political actions are based on demagogy and populism and it leads to more brain drain of the Croatian people who are trying to find better places to live, to educate themselves and to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.

To prevent that, this research offers some recommendations to improve the situation. They can be put into two categories – political-normative and social-advocative. The first one pertains to changing the normative framework that would allow a revision of the “most affected” institutions, such as the State Judicial Council, some independent agencies, and nominally independent institutions. Those legislative changes are geared towards the overall strengthening, but especially towards the strengthening of their independence. The second one pertains to raising the citizens’ awareness on the importance of fighting against specific dysfunctions of the political system, and corruption is the ultimate form of that type of dysfunction.

But, except for that, it is necessary to educate the public that, for the preservation and strengthening of the democracy, it is important to realise that the politicians are not an isolated caste that sits at the top and has a right to rule, just because they work professionally in politics. Furthermore, it is important that the citizens understand that the politics is everyday activities of all of us and that we are all political actors in every moment of our lives.

That takes a lot more time and effort than changing the normative framework and does not include drastic changes such as introducing citizenship education, strengthening the civil society, and improving the position of the independent media. But without that drastic turnaround, new legislative reforms and legislative norms introduced with good intentions will stay just a fantasy. Without active citizens there is no strong democracy.

Institutionalised sources of corruption in Croatia: an experts’ insight 1