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Croatia mounts largest anti-corruption action to date

Interview

In a carefully planned and executed sting, police infiltrated the Croatian Privatization Fund in order to uncover corruption there. Seven officials have now been arrested, including three vice-presidents.

Croatian police and anti-corruption institutions have carried out their largest operation ever in the fight against corruption and organized crime. Seven officials of the Croatian Privatization Fund (HFP) were arrested, including three vice-presidents -- Ivan Gotovac, Josip Matanovic and Robert Pesa. One other person remains at large. They are being charged with accepting bribes and selling state owned companies without legal bids. The inductees are now being questioned by the state prosecution’s investigative officers. More than 40 witnesses will give their testimony, although this part of the investigation is closed to the public. The identity of the witnesses is also secret. Operation Maestro was planned carefully and thoroughly. The undercover agents infiltrated HFP and located the officials who could bribed.

At a press conference announcing the sting, State Prosecutor Mladen Bakic revealed that the agents paid more than €800,000 ($1,1 million) to HFP’s vice-presidents and their associates. The three vice-presidents did not know of each other’s illegal activities and were not working together. However, each had a network of associates. The undercover agents testified that they had to pay €50,000 just to have coffee with one of the vice-presidents - that is, to gain the opportunity to discuss illegal activities.

The state prosecutor’s office has its work cut out for it. The investigation will likely reach back to the early 1990s, when HFP was established, as some of the persons charged have been working there for almost two decades. Now Croatians are wondering just how many state-owned firms were sold under suspicious circumstances over the years, and how the situation can be redressed. The government has already raised the issue of compensation for firms damaged in the process, but it is too early to say how this will be done. It is also not yet clear if HFP will keep on with its work, or cease to exist as an independent institution. “Every privatization carried out by the Fund should be investigated for a second time, just to make sure everything is properly managed,” says President Stipe Mesic. Polls show that the public welcomes the arrests, and that more than 70% favor a decisive anti-corruption strategy. The EU has responded favorably. The bloc’s ambassador to Croatia, Vincent Degert, praised the police and judiciary for doing their job well. He said Brussels will keep on encouraging its partners in Croatia to continue with the good work and eradicate corruption on all levels - local and national.

 
Fighting corruption remains the Croatian government’s biggest challenge as the country moves towards EU accession. While under pressure from Brussels to show concrete results, the authorities also have to contend with domestic politics, including distrust of influence from abroad. The Croatian People’s Party (HNS), meanwhile, has called on the government to resign because four cabinet members are on HFP’s advisory board. They are government Vice-President Damir Polancec, Agriculture Minister Petar Cobankovic, Finance Minister Ivan Suker and Transport, Development, Infrastructure and Tourism Minister Bozidar Kalmeta. The police probe found that the ministers were not aware of the corruption within HFP, and they are not under investigation.

HNS continues to voice doubts, but its efforts to unseat the cabinet have not gained traction. However, Kalmeta’s ministry is facing its own corruption scandal. Danijel Miocic, Kalmeta’s personal driver, has been jailed on charges of bribe-taking and arranging suspicious deals. His business associates have testified against him, saying he received money from entrepreneurs who wanted to take part in infrastructure and road-building projects near Cetingrad, in the municipality of Karlovac, in central Croatia. Those who offered bribes won the contracts. The driver was allegedly responsible for arranging the deal.
Kalmeta says he had no knowledge of the criminal activities and that he strongly supports the ongoing investigation. “I was not aware of any of his criminal activities,” he says. “As a human being, I feel offended and disappointed because we are talking about a person that worked as my personal driver for years, since 1993. We traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometers together,” Kalmeta said at a press conference. The anti-corruption office, USKOK, has taken over the case and expanded the probe, seizing documents from the ministry with the goal of uncovering the full extent of wrongdoing. So far, though, USKOK's leadership has not made any comments about what, if anything, the office has found. (setimes.com)

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