Gong warned GRECO: The Grlić Radman case is the final proof of the euthanasation of the Commission for the Prevention of Conflict of Interests
Gong warned GRECO on the continued deterioration of the work of the Commission for the Resolution of Conflict of Interest (henceforth - the Commission), which is now becoming incapable even in performing their administrative duties. This came into focus after Index.hr journalists discovered in September this year that Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Gordan Grlić Radman failed to report profits in the amount of 2,11 million euros from his stake in the company Agroproteinka, owned by his family that did business with the Republic of Croatia.
Minister Grlić Radman transferred the management rights related to the operation of Agroproteinka to a law firm as soon as he was appointed minister in July 2019., but never included dividends in his asset declaration. The Commission, however, until recently was not aware of that omission.
In an interview with Jutarnji list journalist Slavica Lukić, the Commission admitted that they had never run the regular verification of the Minister’s asset declaration, as established in the Article 27 of the Prevention of Conflict of Interest Act. The regular verification consists of collecting and sharing data and comparing data from the submitted declarations with that acquired from the tax administration and other bodies.
The Commission's spokesperson, Mia Jurinić, pointed out that the Commission "did not have sufficient human or technical capacity for regular checks of asset declarations" and reminded that the Act, which has been in effect since the end of 2021, increased the number of officials from 1600 to around 3000. She also noted that the Commission had been warning the Parliament in its annual reports that due to a lack of personnel and capacity, there were issues with the regular verification of asset declarations. Furthermore, she emphasised that since 2020, when a separate department was established for reviewing asset declarations and maintaining registers, initially, two persons were in charge for that task, and by 2023, four persons have been conducting regular verification tasks, with the same individuals handling administrative verification of all asset declarations and maintaining all the Commission's registers.
The new Act broadened the circle of the officials who have the obligation to submit asset declarations to board members of companies owned by local governments and heads of public health institutions, among others. Due to this high number of officials, the Commission has become a mere body for administering asset declarations with less time for processing cases of conflicts of interest.
The highest state officials, especially members of the Government, must be subject to regular verifications of their asset declarations due to the significance of their role for the country. The case of Minister Grlić Radman revealed that the Commision failed to fulfil this task.
While corruption thrives in Croatia, the ruling party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is diligently working on undermining independent institutions. Nataša Novaković, former President of the Commission, who had initiated several cases against Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, failed to secure a new mandate earlier this year.
The final phase of HDZ's takeover of the independent body unfolded in the Parliament, where Nataša Novaković did not receive the support of the majority. Consequently, this crucial institution for the health of Croatian democracy has been further weakened after being significantly marginalised through the alignment of judicial and executive powers and the parliamentary majority. The Commission exists only in name, but it has been greatly disempowered, and the individual who posed a challenge to the Prime Minister has been removed. Gong warned GRECO about the attempts of the euthanasiation of the Commission back in 2021.
Before the new act on conflicts of interest was adopted, Gong had advocated for operationalizing the principles of action in the exercise of public office and for imposing penalties for the violation of ethical principles, in line with the Council of Europe’s recommendations to Croatia. However, this situation did not improve as the government determined that the Commission had not been established to act as an ethical body.
The Prevention of Conflict of Interest Act and the establishment of the Commission was one of the main requirements for the Republic of Croatia’s entry into the European Union. Gong hopes that GRECO will recognise the severity of the downfall of the country's most important institution for combating corruption. Without a strong, functional independent body, the future of the rule of law and good governance in Croatia is at serious risk.