Do Most Croatian Counties Need to be Scrapped Once and For All?

Lauren Simmonds

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As Index/Vedran Salvia writes, some believe that Croatian counties created by a legally convicted criminal organisation, are an important lever of the entire social and state system. These seemingly pointless Croatian counties are the ones in which careers are made, and where you can allegedly advance even more easily if you agree to the rules of the game set by HDZ, which are, according to many, mostly based on party loyalty.

Is Croatia a country where it is important to be obedient to both the state and the clergy?

The rules of the game set over the past 30 years aren’t difficult to detect. The late Branimir Luksic who was once the Prefect of Split-Dalmatia County was also one of President Franjo Tudjman’s close friends, and he uttered some words that affect today’s reality.

“In Croatia, thank God, there is a considerable number of honest, hard-working, patriotic, philanthropic and God-loving people, and that is the hope for a brighter future for this country,” said Luksic. That’s how a former prefect saw Croatia. The Croatia of these honest, hard-working, patriotic, philanthropic and God-loving people is the Croatia we live in today. In other words, it is a vision of a country where the ideal is to be obedient, above all to the state and the clergy.

HDZ draws strength from bloated Croatian counties

Croatian counties are the fundamental point here, and they’re something that Luksic himself and others like him obviously had a somewhat deeper insight into. HDZ and other parties draw their strength from the sheer amount of counties this country has. Through employment within them, they act as a political tool, and at the same time they’re an incubator for stamping (and monitoring) successful party members, some of whom will move on, and some of whom will stay right where they are.

In other words, with all the unified brains that function on the idea of ​​community, patriotism and an apparent love of God, Croatian counties are the core of the Croatian petty bourgeoisie and, above all, a symbol of clientelism, and therefore the decline of the state into a party society.

Sociologist Srdjan Dvornik: Local life is dominated by one party

Sociologist Srdjan Dvornik also talked about this. “In small local [self-government] units, there are often no conditions for interest, political, cultural and other pluralism. Local elites are often concentrated around a small number of powerful and/or rich individuals, and there are not enough strong (or any!) counter-elites that would leave the possibility of a real election.

Because of this, even more than Croatia itself as a whole, local authorities, but also the entire social arena, media and culture live under the domination of one single party. Pluralism is necessary for all the various checks and balances that enable the democratic control of government to work. Instead, there is one dominant party, one centre where it is informally but powerfully decided who will get which job, who will occupy which workplace.

When we look at the level at which real plurality begins in politics, economy, culture… It even goes above the existing Croatian counties, and would be located somewhere in those regions that have been going around for 10-20 years on various proposals to reform the territorial organisation of Croatia. That level is not systemically recognised. In fact, you will see the horror with which almost all nationalist politicians react to the regionalisation of Croatia. To most, that word itself seems like a swear word,” says Dvornik.

Indeed, it is enough to recall only the Prefect of Dubrovnik-Neretva County, Nikola Dobroslavic, otherwise known for saying that Croats will be divided into those who crossed the Peljesac bridge and those who didn’t, who once stated that the proposal for an organisation with five regions is harmful and that it “splits the Croatian national being and opens up room for possible conflicts that have marked our history”.

He said that even if there is a new division, Dubrovnik must be the regional centre. In other words, he sees an attack on the “Croatian national being”, i.e. on patriotism, in the mere idea of the country being divided up administratively in a different way, although perhaps this would bring economic prosperity and lower costs, which actually means far more meaningful and greater consideration for the homeland.

Dvornik also mentions employment and that Croatian counties serve as training grounds for exactly this. The high-profile case of HDZ member Goran Pauk, the former Sibenik-Knin Prefect who openly bragged to the media that he was a less than savoury character, is a great example of this. Let’s remember how Pauk bragged about cheating in an interview with Slobodna Dalmacija more than four years ago.

“I’ve met a lot of known and unknown people. If we were to look at classic employment, in terms of tenders, applications, references, then we could conclude that everyone got a job through a connection. There’s no one who applied for a job without having some recommendation, some kind of relationship,” said Pauk back then.

Employment isn’t the only problem in this sphere. Many prefects literally act like old school sheriffs. Let’s just take the case of Varazdin Prefect Andjelko Stricak, who took part in a fight in a cafe in the very centre of Varazdin on the night of September 23-24, and was of course drunk at the time.

He himself admitted that he drank a glass of wine, but from the findings we received it seems that he had a little more than that. Namely, Index is in possession of the findings that Stricak didn’t want to comment on, which regard his blood alcohol level being very high. To briefly look back, it was initially published that Stricak was hit in the head with a glass, and then a surveillance camera recording was published that shows that he was the one who physically attacked another young man. The recording was made from a distance, so it wasn’t really possible to determine in detail what exactly happened, and it is not known what those involved were saying.

The video shows several people and a ”lively” discussion. As it seems, the HDZ prefect put his hand around the neck of an unknown young man, and a fight then began.

There is also the example of Vukovar-Srijem Prefect Damir Dekanic, who once said that we ”got Croatia with God’s help”. In April, he was involved in a traffic accident on the road between Andrijasevac and Cerna.

“In the aforementioned accident, I participated as a passenger in an official car of Vukovar-Srijem County, which was driven by K.B. at my request,” he wrote on his Facebook after his blood alcohol levels came to light. K. B. is his cousin Kresimir Bicanic. Despite that statement, an RTL Potraga team published that they had spoken with three witnesses to the accident and that they all claim the same thing – Dekanic was alone in the car on the night of April the 17th.

Visibly drunk, they say, he crashed into a parked car at the entrance to Cerna and begged those present not to call the police. Although the witnesses do not know each other personally, their stories match in key details, as was reported by RTL’s Potraga.

One of the two witnesses who asked that their identity be withheld described what happened:

“When we arrived at the scene of the accident, he simply got out of the car from the driver’s seat. He was visibly drunk. He literally fell out of the car. Then he begged us not to call the police, that everything would be sorted out. Even the woman who owned the car he ran into said herself, however quietly: ”It’s the prefect, don’t call the police.”

However, at that moment I don’t think there is any law because if you are in the HDZ, you can simply do whatever you want on the road. I guess the law is the same for everyone,” witnesses told Potraga.

The most famous HDZ deviant prefect is Alojzije Tomasevic, the former prefect of Pozega-Slavonia County. In December 2020, he was sentenced by the County Court in Karlovac for domestic violence. He was sentenced to 10 months probation, with a two-year probationary period. This confirmed the conviction of the court in Slavonski Brod, which found him guilty of abusing his wife.

“‘You know what I’m like when I drink. I’m a drunkard, I don’t wish you harm. And the fact that sometimes you get slapped, so what? It’s not terrible, it’s normal!’ he said.

”I was afraid being in such a marriage, if he knew how to come home in such a state, I’d become afraid. Waiting for my husband with fear isn’t easy to deal with,” his wife said at the time.

Through the case of the former Prefect of Sisak-Moslavina, Ivo Zinic, we discovered how many prefects are difficult to get rid of. Let’s recall that journalists discovered that Zinic was using several properties owned by the state, which is why he resigned from the position of president of the HDZ County Organisation of Sisak-Moslavina County. However, he remained in the post of prefect until last year’s elections in May. His case then reminded us that it is more difficult to remove a Croatian prefect than an American president.

According to the law, the mandate of a Croatian prefect ends by force of law in only six situations: if they submits a written resignation, if they’re deprived of his business capacity by a final court decision, if they’re sentenced to an unconditional prison sentence of more than a month by a final court decision, if their residence in the territory of the county ceases, if their Croatian citizenship ceases, and if they die.

Two years ago, Index published a piece on how much useless Croatian counties and prefects actually cost the taxpayer. It was at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, just after the process of merging state administration offices and Croatian counties began under the guise of savings.

In the county budgets of the time, Index decided to investigate how much Croatian counties cost us when healthcare institutions, secondary and primary schools, care homes, and other facilities suffer. Index then talked about this topic with the scientific adviser of the Economic Institute, Dubravka Jurlina Alibegovic, a former minister herself.

Index immediately asked her why the number of Croatian counties was so large, to which she said that the question of the number of Croatian counties needs to be asked in a wider context.

“Primarily, we need to look at the context of what Croatian counties are, as defined by the Constitution and the Act on Local and Regional Self-Government Units, what jobs they should do and what they actually do, how they’re being financed, and how they should or could be financed in a different way.

Furthermore, do they follow the needs of residents and companies and do they adapt them to development planning, do they analyse and evaluate what results and concrete outcomes have been achieved by spending public funds and implementing their policies and development strategies, and do they sufficiently include all important stakeholders in the monitoring and evaluation of what has been achieved?

I’d like to remind you that Croatian counties are organised as units of regional self-government to carry out tasks of regional importance, and their area represents a natural, historical, transport, economic, social and self-governing entity.

I’m not the only one who is of the opinion that politicians didn’t take enough account of all these criteria when establishing Croatian counties, but that they were guided by some completely different wishes and interests that resulted in the existing unchanged number of counties and strong political resistance at all levels and from all political options to the counties will eventually survive within the existing borders.

The Croatian Constitution states that when determining the scope of local and regional self-government units, the breadth and nature of the tasks involved must be taken into account, as well as the requirements of efficiency and economy, which are often forgotten when talking about either local or regional self-government units,” she said.

Index then reminded her of her former words that the division into five regions is enough.

“I base my position on the need to consolidate Croatian counties into larger territorial entities on the results of research conducted at the Economic Institute in Zagreb, in which we presented the framework proposal for a new territorial organisation in order to achieve a more efficient and effective provision of public services. The goal of the conducted factor and cluster analysis was to group Croatian counties into larger spatial entities so that they’d be able to perform public tasks within their scope.

When classifying Croatian counties into larger spatial units, we applied the criteria of homogeneity, i.e. the establishment of regional units (regions) according to the criterion of relative equality or the greatest similarity of the elements that make up the space, then according to the criterion of functionality and classification of space for planning purposes.

Our proposals for the new territorial organisation of regional self-government units are primarily guided by the fact that the basic development task of the formed regional unit is the coordination of development in its area and the high-quality and efficient performance of public affairs,” she added.

Index then asked her a little more about employment in all of these Croatian counties…

“Employment in Croatian counties should be carried out in accordance with the Law on Officials and Employees in Local and Regional (Regional) Self-Government Units, which stipulates that each unit should prepare a recruitment plan, except for positions that are fixed-term or vacant after the adoption of the plan. It’s impossible to speculate about the methods of employment and which criteria, in addition to the prescribed ones, are given priority when selecting candidates for the positions of those who meet all the formal conditions of the tender.

In public, I expressed my opinion that the number of employees in Croatian counties is continuously increasing, especially after the local elections. That opinion is based on the average number of employees in the administrative bodies of these counties. This is publicly available data of the Ministry of Finance from the financial reports of the counties themselves. The data is presented for the period from 2002 to 2020. According to the methodology and coverage, all employees are included in that data, from those who are financed from the county budget and the budget of the European Union (EU) for work on various European projects to former employees within state administration offices that are attached to the counties themselves.

In a period of three decades, the number of employees in Croatian counties increased almost three and a half times. I emphasise that the scope of work in the counties has not changed significantly. There’s no recent research on the results of public work performed by the counties, and there is a particular lack of opinions from people and businesses when it comes to their level of satisfaction of the public services they expect in their county. I don’t know the reason why the Ministry of Justice and Administration doesn’t regularly publish data on the number of employees in local and regional self-government units in its Statistical Overview publication.

The latest information available is from the year 2018. There’s a lack of transparency and the possibility of public inspection of data on individual employees in Croatian counties. In particular, there is a lack of data on the number of employees from state administration offices in Croatian counties who, after taking over, became employed officials and state employees.

On top of that, the data of the Ministry of Finance is still not available for the year 2021, so we can’t really know how many people were employed in official and employee positions in county administrative bodies after the last local elections. It isn’t possible to conclude whether this increase in employment in Croatian counties has cotinued or not,” she said.

Index then asked her if she thinks that some jobs are invented or unnecessary.

“The answer to that question requires a complete analysis of the business processes in all administrative bodies in Croatian counties and the number of professional characteristics of the people who perform them. However, I’m convinced that there are a certain number of jobs that have no justification for their existence and that those positions are filled by people who receive a salary for doing those jobs. There are certainly those workplaces that aren’t described in the rulebook (pravilnik) on internal order and that prefects don’t want to think about it all, be it due to ignorance, lack of interest or for other unknown reasons.

Ordinances on internal order are adopted by the prefects, on the proposal of the heads of administrative bodies, separately for each administrative body or as a common rulebook for several administrative bodies, and it determines the names and job descriptions of the workplaces, professional and other conditions for assignment to workplaces and the number of executors involved.

Since the prefect makes a decision on admission to a service, assignment to a workplace, on other rights tions of officials, individuals must comply with the general conditions for admission to this service (adulthood, Croatian citizenship, health capacity for performing the duties of the workplace to which the person is admitted). There are also special conditions for admission to a service and assignment to a workplace (certain vocational education and profession, work experience in appropriate jobs, passing a state exam, knowledge of a certain foreign language, special knowledge, abilities and skills, special health capacity, etc) she explained.

She added that all jobs in local and regional self-government unit are classified according to standard criteria for all administrative bodies, from the necessary professional knowledge, complexity of work, independence in work, degree of cooperation with other bodies and communication with parties to the degree of responsibility and influence on decision-making.

“Croatian counties differ in the number of employees they have in their administrative bodies. The latest available data shows that 92 officers and employees are employed in the administrative departments of Pozega-Slavonia County, the least among all counties, while Split-Dalmatia County has the most employees, a total of 550.

It’s interesting to compare Croatian counties according to the indicator of the relationship between the number of inhabitants they have and the number of employed officers and employees in the administrative bodies of the county itself. We can notice big differences between them all. In the administrative bodies of Lika-Senj County, with the smallest number of inhabitants among all of the counties, there aren’t (as one may expect) the fewest employees, and one of their employees performs tasks for 346 inhabitants of the county.

On the other hand, in Varazdin and Zagreb counties, the ratio of residents to employees is almost identical (1054 and 1053). Split-Dalmatia County, the most populous, employs the largest number of officials and employees, and one employee performs tasks for 773 inhabitants. The best relationship between residents and employees is in Medjimurje County, where one employee is able to provide all the work required of them for 834 residents. Here, too, we cannot say anything in detail about the quality of the work performed,” she added.

Index continued to talk with the sociologist Srdjan Dvornik about the political and social aspects of the existence of so many Croatian counties.

“The place of counties in the territorial structure of government and administration in Croatia, if we compare them with local and state government, was to ensure, on the one hand, sensitivity to the needs of narrower parts of the country, and on the other, functionality. When a country of only four million inhabitants (and now not even that many) is divided into hundreds and hundreds of local units, it’s clear that a large part of these units don’t really have the capacity for quality governance. Where in a municipality of a few thousand people, often without the presence of any serious industry or other strong economic activities, will you find professional staff and adequate supply and demand, and in the end the income to even detect, let alone meet the needs of life that cannot be satisfied by commercial activities?” he asked.

He added that counties have the capacity for administrative functions and social activities, but often not for a sufficient level of pluralism, which has been almost non-existent throughout Croatian society throughout history.

“Even in these last few decades of formal democracy, which have still been dominated by the political sphere, it hasn’t really developed much,” he said.

“People who in a municipality or city support a political option that is not ruling at a higher level will find themselves having to deal with many problems if their local unit is not economically strong enough. Candidates often get local voting support based on how well they are (or are portrayed as being) able to attract support from the county under their party’s rule. This concentration is one of the explanations for ubiquitous corruption: one institution will not effectively control or limit other institutions if all are decisively influenced by the leadership of the same party.

Staff in the county – whatever their profession and wherever they work – have the opportunity to advance precisely along that party-political line, and so various forms of support are given from the centre, and control is provided to the centre from the local and county level. Such inconsistent decentralisation doesn’t ensure much-needed pluralism, because local and sub-regional authorities aren’t organised in such a way that they can function independently. They remain dependent on higher authorities, and create the appearance of decentralised adaptation to the specificities of various regions,” sociologist Srdjan Dvornik concluded for Index.

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