Lobbying in Croatia: Business or Corruption? RBA Case Opens Can of Worms

Lauren Simmonds

”Our problem is that no government has gathered enough courage to define the profession of lobbying,” the owner of one of the largest lobbying companies in Croatia tells Viktor Vresnik from Novac (Jutarnji) when touching on the effects of the recent RBA case and lobbying in Croatia.

That is quite clearly why we don’t have the legal framework to pull lobbying out of the grey zone into which it has fallen today, here in Croatia and elsewhere, and because that is the case, the owner of one of the largest lobbying companies in the country agreed to speak about the complex topic informally only.

”Lobbying in Croatia is only registered when some type of scandal breaks out, and that automatically casts a shadow over the whole profession,” he says. There’s no doubt that the advertisement by which Raiffeisenbank (RBA) sought a person to ”put pressure on the Constitutional Court and other courts in Croatia” falls into a scandalous category. RBA will probably resolve this by dismissing the “author” of the tender, but the tremendous damage to the profession has already been done and will continue to happen until this grey area is properly regulated by law.

Today, Croatia has the Law on the Prevention of Conflict of Interest, but this law, which is certainly necessary, is, at least in the opinion of the majority of the interlocutors contacted, used far too little, and it is too broad to properly regulate lobbying in Croatia as an actual profession.

Why, for example, asks Novac’s interlocutor, was a list of lobbyists not published anywhere in January, when Croatia took over the presidency of the EU Council, as these people had requested meetings with ministers, who reportedly occupied a significant part of the capacities of the higher quality Zagreb hotels?

Why aren’t the topics they want to discuss or the companies they represent published? That is why, he says, Croatia has already been called out by the European Parliament, and the objections have also come from the European Commission itself.

The EU is not like the US, which treats lobbyists extremely strictly. Brussels is much softer and more loose, leaving most of this type of regulation to every single member state of the European Union. However, Croatia has a lack of definition here, too.

Although lobbyists’ business exists in the domestic register of activities and although the Croatian lobbyists working in Brussels are duly registered in the register of “advocates” and have ID cards that allow them to enter Parliament and engage in discussions with MPs, the register, which is publicly available via the Croatian Lobbyists Association, is still considered an unofficial document, and just an internal list of members of the association.

Zeljko Ivancevic, one of the Croatian lobbyists who registered in Brussels shortly after Croatia gained independence and one of the few who didn’t ask Novac not to quote him, is rather dissatisfied with the way in which the interests of Croatian lobbyists are represented by their professional association. He claims that they should have defined the profession of lobbying in Croatia properly when the time for that was right.

The current approach to lobbying in Croatia, Ivancevic believes, inevitably casts a shadow on the profession whose foundations lie in the serious preparation of expert analysis and in the collection of sound arguments that can be presented directly or indirectly to decision makers. This is by no means persuading someone to do something, or indeed not do something, purely and solely on the basis of some sort of long-standing private friendship.

Ivancevic considers the RBA case to have been a gross mistake. In the practice of the European Union and its institutions, there is no possibility of lobbying or direct communication with the court system, except for litigants.

The Society of Croatian Lobbyists attributes responsibility for the poor perception of the profession among the general public primarily to politics. Several governments have come and gone, they say, and all of them have failed to address the issues surrounding lobbying in Croatia. The draft Law on the Advocacy of Interest was submitted, but that came to nothing. Back in December 2016, however, the Ministry of Justice published its “Analysis for the regulation of the legal lobbying framework”, which was intended to serve as a template for parliamentary debate, but there was no debate on it at all in the end.

The immediate reason for this analysis was the fall of Tihomir Oreskovic’s government and the forced departure of Tomislav Karamarko from HDZ’s leadership. As the scandal subsided, and as Drimia, a company owned by Karamarko’s now ex wife, was found to have broken off its partnership with Peritus Counseling on January the 31st, 2015, just months before Anna and Tomislav Karamarko’s marriage ended. The story then sank into the background. The Croatian Society of Lobbyists then stated that Josip Petrovic and his company Peritus, then called as advocates for MOL’s interests in Croatia, were not on the list of registered members. Today – they are.

The proposal of the Law on Public Advocacy, which was submitted by the Croatian Lobbyists Association for discussion way back in 2013, clearly defined to Zoran Milanovic’s government just who in Croatia can engage in the advocacy (lobbying) business, and how they can do so. It also defines who can’t.

The advocate, under this proposal, cannot be under the age of 18, they cannot be a government official, a civil servant in a decision-maker’s office or a judicial official, a former state or judicial official if less than two years have elapsed since their term expired, they must not be a former civil servant if less than one year has elapsed since the date of termination of their activities in civil service, it also can’t be a person who has been convicted of a criminal offense under the jurisdiction of USKOK until their rehabilitation period is over, not can it be any person associated with someone who has the power to make political decisions.

What does it mean when it says it can’t be a person associated with someone who has the power to make political decisions?

The bill on lobbying in Croatia is clear and very detailed here: ”a related person is the spouse of an official, a managerial officer or another holder of a public authority, his or her blood relatives in a direct line, an adopter or an adoptee, relatives to the second degree, a relative of to the first instance, and other persons who may reasonably be regarded as having an interest in an official, a managerial officer or another holder of a public authority by other grounds and circumstances,”

In a broader sense, lobbying is an unofficial act for someone’s benefit, that is, an attempt to influence decisions by coaxing or covert pressure. It may also refer to public activities (such as demonstrations) or public business activities of various institutions (non-governmental organisations, consulting entities, various associations). In a narrow sense, lobbying can be defined as an activity that tries to persuade someone in a governing structure, usually an elected member of government, to uphold laws or rules that give a community, organisation or industry some advantage over others – it was explained.

In European regulation, the Council of Europe (not the Council of the European Union now presided over by Croatia) means lobbying means “a coordinated effort to influence policy formulations and the decision-making process with a view to obtaining a specific outcome from the government, those in power, or elected representatives.”

The definition of lobbying in both the voluntary Register of lobbyists of the European Commission (Transparency Register) and of the European Parliament are also very similar.

America approaches lobbying virtually like any other business, their law states: a lobbyist is someone who wants to influence the structures of government on behalf of a third party. In doing so, lobbyists must not bribe senators and congressmen with money or gifts, offer them privileged access to their client’s services, and they may not threaten them.

By joining the European Union, Croatia joined a bloc of eighteen other countries that didn’t regulate lobbying in any way, but left it to “self-regulation” within their own respective associations. The oldest European law governing, among other things, lobbying, are the German Rules of Business in the Bundestag (1951).

In addition to the statutory register of lobbyists, Slovenia has included the regulation in the Anti-Corruption Act. Montenegro and Serbia’s lobbying laws, though both of these European countries are outside the EU, are also strong, and resistance to their introduction was strong because the regulation didn’t suit particular interest groups accustomed to working in the shadows.

With such a poor level of definition, work in the shadows has again become a very regular way of influencing politics, as can be seen in the recent, scandalous RBA case.

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