On Monday, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović marks three years in office.
On 19 February 2015, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović officially became the fourth Croatian President since the independence. Three years later, here is an overview of her achievements and failures.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was elected president in January 2015, when she defeated incumbent President Ivo Josipović, who was running for re-election. She won with 50.74% of votes, compared to 49.26% for her opponent. The inauguration was held on 15 February, several days ahead of the official handover of duties, and the ceremony itself became controversial, due to invitations which the incoming president sent to several persons deemed controversial, to put it mildly.
One of the most prominent of her promises before the election was her announcement that she would move the President’s Office from its current premises at the former Yugoslav Marshal Tito’s villa in the Pantovčak neighbourhood to a more humble and cheap location somewhere else in Zagreb. Still, the exact new location for the office was never specified, which foresaw how the whole story would end. It became evident that there never was any serious intention to move from the spacious building in the prestigious city neighbourhood, so after a while, there was no more mention of the initiative. The president did form a commission to study the issue, but as is a usual case with such commissions, not just in Croatia, its whole purpose was to provide cover for the president to break her central pre-election promise. Allegedly, there is not a single building in Zagreb which fulfils all the necessary conditions to become a presidential office.
Instead of moving her office permanently, the president decided to launch a series of temporary relocations of her office around Croatia. In the three years of her term, the office was moved 13 times to different parts of the country. The explanation was that the president wanted to be closer to citizens and to be able to talk with them and visit those parts of Croatia which rarely see high government officials. While critics like to call it a “travelling circus,” with a guard of honour raising and lowering presidential flags all over the country, the president says that the relocations have been effective. Still, due to the fact that the president does not have many executive powers, the visits usually boil down to the president listening to people complaining and later asking the government to try to solve local problems.
The relationship with the successive governments has been one of the major elements of the president’s term. For the first 11 months, the government was in the hands of SDP and its Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, who supported (not very determinedly) her opponent Ivo Josipović in the presidential elections. The president said she would “bang her fists on the table,” harshly criticising Milanović and his government, and even appearing unannounced at ministerial offices (always accompanied by media), demanding urgent action about this or that issue.
The president was undoubtedly delighted when in late 2015 Milanović’s SDP lost the elections. Although it was initially thought that SDP might stay in power thanks to a possible coalition with MOST, after MOST leader Božo Petrov went to see the president, his party suddenly changed its mind and instead entered an alliance with president’s HDZ. The whole episode has never been fully explained.
Milanović was succeeded by Tihomir Orešković, a non-party prime minister, entirely unknown to Croatian voters. Despite initial expectations that the president and the new prime minister would work well together, it soon became apparent that conflicts would continue. The most prominent disagreement included the dismissal of Dragan Lozančić, the director of the Security Intelligence Agency, whom the president dismissed without prior agreement with the prime minister, who had to co-sign the dismissal. The conflicts continued for months but, fortunately for the president, the second of her prime ministers also did not last long. The government soon collapsed and was replaced in October by the second HDZ-MOST coalition, this time led by HDZ president Andrej Plenković.
The expectation was that now finally the president and the government might work more in synch. But, it was not to be. Despite the initial warming of relations, as months have passed by, the tensions have intensified, culminating just last week with the visit of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to Croatia. The president sent him an invitation seemingly without an agreement with the government, which caused prime minister to criticise and some say even attempt to undermine the visit. In return, the president started to criticise the government’s economic and other policies more openly.
The meeting with Vučić also brought first serious criticism against the president coming from the hard-right circles, who have until now supported her faithfully. It remains to be seen whether the rift is permanent or, which seems much more likely, the relations will be mended, and mutual support provided again after a cooling off period.
Another instance of the president and the government being on the opposite sides of an issue were last year’s fires in Dalmatia, which spread uncontrollably and at one moment even threatened Split, the second largest Croatian city. The president criticised the slow reaction of the authorities, including the army, which prompted Defence Minister Damir Krstičević to offer a resignation (which he likes to do quite often). Of course, it was not accepted, but the gap between the president and the government kept growing.
All this has prompted speculation that HDZ might not support her as its candidate for next presidential elections scheduled for late 2019. Although such a move is unlikely, it would probably destroy all chances of her winning the second term, since without HDZ she would not be able to gather enough votes to enter the second round of voting.
One of the most infamous episodes of the president’s term so far took place in early 2017, when she participated in a controversial visit to the United States. There was no news for days about what the president was doing there. Questions about the purpose and the financial cost were getting louder and louder, and the president finally appeared in public after several days with several seemingly hastily organised meetings. She also gave an unusual interview to the Croatian Television while standing in the street in front of the White House, mingling with tourists.
The highpoint of the president’s term, at least in view of her supporters, came in mid-2017, when she met with US President Donald Trump in Warsaw, as part of the Three Seas Initiative summit held there. The initiative is the president’s chief foreign policy project, with a stated goal of trying to turn Croatia away from Western Balkans and more towards Central Europe. Still, her opponents say she is advocating for the initiative on behalf of the American government, which wants to create a barrier towards Russia, and is also allegedly contrary to pro-European policies being advocated by Brussels, Berlin, and Croatian Prime Minister Plenković. The president later also met with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, but the meeting did not produce any tangible results.
Despite everything, the president is still the most popular politician in Croatia, and the impression is that she is slowly turning towards launching campaign for the second term. The critical factors for her victory are whether HDZ will support her (it probably will), and who her primary opponent will be. If she receives the support and if the opposition nominates former SDP leader and Prime Minister Zoran Milanović as her opponent, her victory in two years’ time is almost guaranteed.