Time Out chats with the Croatian President about smashing corruption, his vision for the future and why he’s got Papandopulo on the stereo.
My presidential duties occupy me full time’, says Ivo Josipović, ‘therefore, my campaign “promise” to compose an opera on John Lennon will not be fulfilled.’ Given the President’s work schedule, you can understand him reneging on his planned paean to the world’s favourite Beatle. Since taking office in February 2010, he has spent every waking hour attempting to fulfil his other, more central campaign promises – to combat organised crime and corruption and to tackle injustice.
So how has it been going? ‘I think that I have been successful during my first year in office’ says Josipović. ‘I have gone further in terms of reconciliation and stabilisation of this part of Europe. Two months after my inauguration I went to Sarajevo to express regrets over certain wrong moves of Croatian policy towards Bosnia in the 1990s. Together with Muslim and Catholic religious leaders I bowed down before the victims of crimes perpetrated in the last war. During several meetings with President Tadić I reinforced the friendly partnership relationship between Croatia and Serbia, which is of great significance for the future of our region. What is especially important to me is that opinion polls indicate quite positive responses of the general public to these foreign policy moves.’
And what about domestic policy?
‘On the home front, I feel that I have given a significant contribution to the atmosphere of dialogue and tolerance in this difficult economic period’ says the President. ‘Also, my firm and uncompromising position in the fight against corruption certainly had an impact on clearing corruption in Croatia.’
It certainly has. Josipović’s battle cry during the election was ‘New Justice’ (‘Nova Pravednost’) and he has thrown himself into the fight against graft with tremendous energy. ‘Croatia has so far been a highly corrupt state,’ he tells us, ‘but it is also clear that this year has been crucial in terms of putting an end to such practice. Not only because those who were corrupt are being prosecuted, but also because a large number of citizens have become aware that corruption is pernicious. I believe that citizens are no longer willing to tolerate the irrational waste of funds which they contribute to state coffers, let alone the transfer of public funds to private bank accounts.’
No-one has been exempt from Josipović’s cleaning out of the Augean stables: as well as lower-level targets his government, headed by Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, has overseen the arrest and sentencing of a pair of former ministers.
The anti-corruption drive’s highest-profile arrest to date, however, is former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, detained in Austria in December 2010 under suspicion of having abused his power in office. At time of press, he stands accused of creating slush funds using public money and of using them for party political and personal ends, and if he is convicted it will be major feather in the cap of the anti-corruption and organised crime agency as well as a flag in the sand for the President’s domestic agenda.
Part of the reason that President Josipović has been able to make such strides is that he is seen as standing apart from the rest of the political elite and outside the mire of corruption. Despite having become head of state, he was never a career politician: he was a member of the League of Communists of Croatia in the 1980s, but his day job was lecturing on composition at the Zagreb Music Academy and on criminal law at the University of Zagreb. He renounced politics in 1994 in order to concentrate on his legal and musical professions, and did not return until 2003 – and then only at the express request of Prime Minister Ivica Račan.
Josipović’s lack of experience in high office was part of his appeal to an electorate tired of seeing corruption go unpunished at the highest levels. He was also seen as the ideal person to see through Croatia’s progress to EU membership, which Brussels has tied closely to anti-corruption measures. The Eurocrats are hoping that Croatia will be used as a future template for other nations in the former Yugoslavia who aspire to membership but are still riddled with graft.
While some dissenting voices in the country have criticised the move towards EU accession, citing its potential negative impact on small-scale, high-quality agricultural products (a major cornerstone of the economy), the President has no such qualms. ‘Similar fears appeared in other countries too before their accession to the European Union,’ he says, ‘but nothing like this took place in any of them. Certainly, one has to make compromises in order to join a “club” having firm rules, but I believe that EU membership brings more good than bad. After all, as you know, not a single country has requested to get out of that community, which speaks for itself.’ He is bullish, too, about Croatia’s ability to compete: ‘On joining the Union a huge market will open up to Croatia’, he says. ‘We are, of course, aware that only premium-quality products can pass on this market, but Croatia has something to offer, ranging from its quality farm produce to sophisticated computer technology solutions.’
The President sees EU membership as key to his vision for the nation. ‘Human rights, especially minority rights, are becoming ever more important’ he tells me. ‘Orientation towards environmental and maritime protection, tourism and organic foods are the major elements of Croatian development. Croatia is part of the European scientific and cultural area and EU accession will strengthen its cooperation with European countries in these spheres.’
Josipović is acutely aware that his country – like many others in the region – has deep-seated problems. ‘Unfortunately, Croatia has to cope with its difficult past’, he says. ‘In the last century, Croats went through three wars, two World Wars and the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. All these wars produced many casualties, huge numbers of refugees and extensive devastation. Such tremendous losses – both human and financial – leave long-term consequences. Unfortunately, Croatia cannot boast of a long democratic tradition either. After obtaining our independence after a painful struggle and introducing parliamentary democracy, we [went through] the birth pangs of transition which countries with a longer democratic tradition overcame long ago.’
Despite his acknowledgement of the tough realities of Croatia’s past, the President remains highly upbeat about the years ahead. ‘For practically two decades Croatia has been strengthening its democracy and the rule of law’, he says. ‘I believe that Croatia is looking ahead to a brighter future… I see Croatia as an open, warm and hospitable country perceived as such worldwide and which people like to visit on account of its openness and hospitality. Not just once, but they keep returning in order to repeatedly enjoy its scenic spots, meet its cordial and tolerant people and enjoy good cuisine.’
Such positive sentiments about the people of Croatia have been reflected in their approval of the President. As well as his much-publicised smashing of the Facebook friends limit (on winning the election he hit his maximum of 5,000 friends and had 7,000 ‘pending’ on his account) Josipović’s Ipsos approval ratings have averaged out at 81% over the course of his first year in office, making him the most popular politician since independence.
It’s all the more impressive considering that his foray into politics is his third career, after law and music. Among a list of other impressive achievements, Josipović was the President of the Zagreb Music Biennale and is an internationally-respected composer with scores of scores to his name.
He lights up when I ask him about his musical tastes, reeling off an eclectic list of favourites, including ‘Bach, Mozart, Bartók, Lloyd Weber, Papandopulo, Verdi, Elgar and Penderecki’, and enthusing about Croatia’s musical scene. ‘My compositions continue to be performed,’ he enthuses. ‘I try to take part in the cultural life through initiatives for charity concerts where my friends – prominent musicians – perform. I go to concerts often, not just in Croatia, but also when I’m visiting a country.’
After rhapsodising further about Croatian culture and folk art, The President ends our interview and strides off to continue his day’s work. Sadly for the nation’s grafters, EU sceptics and Lennon fans, though, it won’t involve writing an aria about Mark Chapman. He’s got other things to do first…