Agrokor, just another Parmalat scandal?
A lot is said and written about the Croatian state from media platforms of all kinds and with leanings to all sides of the political spectrum. It isn’t uncommon to read about what is so wrong with the healthcare system, with the treatment of the poor and elderly, with the idea (or not) of education reforms and with what many believe is an increasingly blurred line between the state and the church.
It is very easy to sit, mull, and pick apart the many shortcomings of the Croatian state, the Croatian political system, and the way in which Croatia functions (or doesn’t) in general. The justice system could be picked and unpicked like some poor stitching for an eternity, and the same story will always be come upon – the law is fast for a regular citizen with no money, but slow for those with power and enough cash, just look at the Tomo Horvatinčić case, for one.
To cut Croatia some deserved slack, the justice systems of many countries have their failings, often multiple ones, and corruption exists all over the globe. Those who are quick to use the classic ”only in Croatia” label are often those who haven’t experienced real life outside of the borders of this beautiful nation, and just how much of royal sh*tshow even the most well developed, economically and politically stable European countries are when the layers of heavy stage make up are peeled back. It’s something that having grown up in England, a country which I love regardless, I often try to relay to Croats here wanting to flee to the ”land of milk and honey” for a better life – but all too often, it falls on deaf ears. Anyway, back to the point. Healthcare, employment, the legal system and low wages aside, just what does Agrokor teach us mere mortals who have to suffer the economic consequences and the political instability that was born from the crisis in Croatia’s largest privately owned company?
To quickly recall, it has been almost a year since the crisis in Agrokor hit the front pages. At first glance, it was a likely story that appeared to have no real depth to it, the company’s management had taken advantage, they’d been fiddling the books, the tax man somehow ”didn’t know”, and Ivica Todorić, the company’s then owner and chairman who despite being well-known, lived quietly and was not really a subject of media attention, was immediately put on blast by all and sundry as the country’s most powerful economic player was threatening to sink the domestic economy in a proverbial earthquake of unprecedented proportions.
Suspicions of there being much, much more to this apparently ”sudden” crisis, which had in fact been a live volcano bubbling away just under the surface for years, began to circulate around society like rumours in a school playground. Andrej Plenković’s government started to be the subject of increasingly intense questioning, and the finance minister, Zdravko Marić, a softly spoken, intelligent man who was nothing to write home about, who had previously been an employee of Agrokor before taking up his ministerial position within Plenković’s government, ended up being the target of a barrage of accusations from all sides. Marić defended himself well, and has repeatedly stuck to the line that he was never involved in dealing with Agrokor’s financial books. He is, of course, still the finance minister.
The accusations saw the then HDZ-MOST ruling coalition collapse in a very messy, and very public divorce as Plenković shockingly and extremely coldly dismissed three of MOST’s ministers for having no confidence in Marić. Some supported the move, but many hailed it as a step backwards, anti-democratic, and above all, anti-European, a term which was sure to burn Plenković, a vocal pro-European with a distinguished, shiny diplomatic career in Brussels behind him, to quite a severe degree. The swift dismissal of MOST’s three ministers which saw MOST leave the country’s ruling body, putting HDZ in a more than awkward position with no coalition partner, caused people to wonder just why Plenković had acted so incredibly emotionlessly, and in a manner that appeared to be very, very far from in line with the European values he clings to so tightly – just what did those MOST ministers know?
While questions, accusations, headlines and more often than not, the products of very vivid imaginations ran wild, the political fallout had suddenly matched the extremely worrying potential of the economic threat still hanging over the country’s head like a rusty axe, and it seemed that as Plenković scratched his head in despair, Croatian society was once again about to dip its still damp feet into yet another murky, algae infested swamp.
Owing to the passing of Lex Agrokor, a law which Todorić claimed to have been forced to sign under ”blackmail and threats”, a law which would allow the state to become directly involved in the affairs and dealings of companies of strategic economic significance to the country, such as the Agrokor Group and the companies under its now leaking umbrella, the potential earthquake managed to pass as a sizeable, but more than uncomfortable enough rumble, with the aftershocks still ringing through society like the dull echo of a dental drill.
Of course, as with everything in society in general, the law didn’t pass without causing a considerable divide. Many saw it as necessary, and it would be wrong to say it didn’t prevent an incredibly bad situation from occuring, one which had the potential to bring the entire country to its knees, but, with that being said, many others believed it to have a darker underbelly to it, a law that would enable the plundering of money, the filling of private pockets, and problems of an even more dirty nature than the one in Agrokor the law was attempting to control.
Since then, Ivica Todorić, one of the richest men in Croatia, made the jump from the glossy, high resolution pages of Forbes magazine to Europol’s hardly glamorous most wanted list, getting arrested in London and then paying for his freedom, at least temporarily, turning his hand to blogging and even vlogging his cause. Plenković, who is not known for being the most sensitive of characters, but was believed to be an experienced and headstrong political figure who knew what he wanted, lost the confidence of a large part of Croatian society, including die hard HDZ voters. MOST went from being a big political player to quite the opposite, and Agrokor continued to suffer from the now stagnating, gangrene filled wounds caused by internal bickering, political fighting and economic instability. The most suffering trickling down to society’s Average Joe’s, many of which were employed by Agrokor in an either direct or indirect manner, through the Agrokor Group’s many companies, namely Konzum – their jobs, their pensions, their security, and their wellbeing, were now being played on the thin and frayed guitar strings by those who would never feel the damage regardless of the outcome.
Many statements have been made about this bizarre and incredibly damaging case, the one that sticks in most people’s minds is one made by a prominent politician who shall not be named here: ”Ivica Todorić was more powerful than the state”.
Let that sink in. It’s all very well and good to make such a remark, but how did Mr Todorić manage to get to such an untouchable position? If he was indeed more powerful than the state, then the state must have, somewhere along the line, and for some reason or another, allowed him to be.
This deeply saddening scandal poses more questions than it does answers, and time doesn’t appear to be healing anything, it is a still weeping wound. Political parties and political figures are still banging the Agrokor drum, even political enemies have united on the Agrokor bandwagon if nothing else, just to sling mud at Plenković and HDZ for what they believe to be his ”allowance of crime to take place under the extraordinary administration process”.
Along those lines, and to conclude this article, they say that for every evil, there is something good. A good friend of mine said that he praised Todorić in some twisted way, when I asked why that was, he responded that Todorić had succeeded in doing what nobody has yet – and that was to ”unite the Ustaše and the Partisans”, because it seemed not even the ghosts of the past were of any importance in comparison to the filth of this situation, and the societal phenomenon it has become.