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Interview 19 May 17

Croatian Liberal Leader Rules out Supporting HDZ

Ivan Vrdoljak, head of the opposition Croatian People’s Party, told BIRN that his party has no intention of joining a coalition government under the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
Ivan Vrdoljak giving an interview for BIRN. Photo: HNS

Amid continued speculation on whether Croatia’s main ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, can keep the government afloat after the collapse of its coalition with MOST, Ivan Vrdoljak, head of the Croatian People’s Party, the HNS, told BIRN that the HDZ must not count on his party’s support.

“There can be no talk of our support of the HDZ, either by joining the government or by supporting them in a minority government from parliament,” he said.

“That disturbance in the communications channel would not have appeared if local elections had not been at hand,” the 44-year-old told BIRN in an interview.

Croatia’s latest political crisis erupted after the coalition between the centre-right HDZ and the Bridge of the Independent Lists, MOST, fell apart.

The crisis was initiated on April 27 when Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister and HDZ president, sacked three MOST minister for not supporting the HDZ Finance Minister Zdravko Maric in a no-confidence motion.

As it became clear the HDZ no longer had a clear majority in parliament without MOST’s 15 MPs – in the chamber of 151 MPs – attention turned to the opposition liberal HNS and its nine MPs.

There were reports that the HNS would now leave the opposition and support the HDZ, either by directly joining the government or by indirectly supporting it in parliament.

Vrdoljak, who is also the vice-chair of parliament and was Economy Minister from 2012 to 2015, was also seen by some as more inclined to cooperate with the HDZ than his predecessor Vesna Pusic.

However, he dismisses this rumour as an attempt to undermine the HNS ahead of the local elections scheduled for May 20.

“The elections will clearly show attitudes ... However, there is no doubt about us, we have been clear since the first day and have said that we will vote against the HDZ ministers [when the government proposes them] … as we are a clear opposition.”

Agrokor crisis badly handled:

Regarding the recent Law on Procedures for Extraordinary Management in Companies of Systematic Significance – popularly called the “Lex Agrokor” – Vrdoljak claimed it was unnecessary and potentially even harmful, “because the state has assumed responsibility for potential lawsuits.

“If only the government had just reacted swiftly and looked at this issue more from the point of view of the producers and suppliers, and not from the position of the Agrokor system, it wouldn’t be a major problem,” he said.

Vrdoljak believes the priority was to save the company’s suppliers and ensure their financial liquidity. Had that been done, “Croatia would not have been hit at all” by the crisis.

The fact that Agrokor’s largest creditors are Russian state-owned banks – Sberbank and VTB Bank – is no cause for panic in Vrdoljak’s view.

"I have no problem with the colour of money, as Paul Newman would say. It's a business interest. Sberbank has entered a very risky financial transaction and I don’t know how it will end but there is no [Russian] political interest at all in the background,” he said.

 

He added that the HNS’s request for the government to step down was proof of this.

Vrdoljak said there was never a plan to support the HDZ, which is why his MPs had voted against Finance Minister Maric in the no-confidence motion in early May, initiated by the opposition Social Democratic Party, SDP.

Maric was accused of a conflict of interest concerning state aid to the troubled private company Agrokor where he had previously worked in management.

Vrdoljak explained that his party voted for the HDZ proposal to remove MOST leader Bozo Petrov as chair of parliament because MOST MPs “represent the populist, even extreme, right wing and can never be a partners with liberals”.

He said that his party was now focused on the local elections, aiming to bolster its position in areas where they won the best results so far, such as the northern region of Medjimurje, the northern town of Varazdin, the eastern city of Osijek and the coastal town of Dubrovnik.

An additional focus is Zagreb, where the HNS candidate for the post of mayor, Anka Mrak-Taritas, is tipped to do well against veteran incumbent Milan Bandic, according to the polls.

“Finally Zagreb has a candidate who is a real example of the change that needs to come to Zagreb, offering a responsible, transparent, clear leadership of the city – completely contrary to Bandic. We expect success there and just hope this is the moment when Bandic will have to leave,” Vrdoljak said.

Populism blamed for upsetting coalition:

Elaborating on Croatia’s political crisis, after two HDZ-MOST coalitions fell in less than a year,the HNS leader claimed that the real cause was not Maric’s connections with Agrokor or last year’s allegations that the wife of the former HDZ president Tomislav Karamarko was connected to the energy company INA.

Support for planned gas hub on Krk:

Given his strong interest in energy issues, as the former Economy Minister, Vrdoljak noted that in terms of Russia’s role in the supply of gas, Croatia “is in a good situation in relation to Hungary and Serbia” because it only imports about 40 per cent of its gas from Russia.

But in this context, he says it is important to build the planned liquefied natural gas, LNG, terminal on the island of Krk, in order to obtain another gas source for the country and the region.

“The LNG will serve its purpose … because when there is another source of gas, the state can better control the price and have a better negotiating position about the price,” he concluded.

 

He instead blamed “a populist agenda of people who don’t know how to take responsibility ... And when someone come to a position [in government] on the ‘wings’ of populism, they realise that they can’t introduce reforms, so it’s better to touch off a crisis, to ‘stay alive’, rather than help your country.

“I think that was the genesis [of the crisis] and I think both partners [the HDZ and MOST] are equally responsible,” he said.

Vrdoljak said he opposed early general elections, possibly in September, claiming they would undermine the stability of the country and delay reforms.

“No state should allow four elections [in two years],” he said, “as people will just become fed up with politics, becoming distanced, and be more prone to populists and extreme options”.

For this reason, Vrdoljak hopes Plenkovic can secure a majority in parliament, “not counting on the HNS’s support”.

If the early elections are inevitable, he added, the HNS hopes that “perhaps people have learned from these two attempts, not to trust the HDZ and MOST.

“Croatia is worse off today than it was in 2015 because it is destabilised - politically, economically and financially,” he said, adding: “Many projects are on stand-by, [EU] funds are not used; we’re talking about millions [of euros] in the game.”

If it comes to early elections, he said the HNS will talk to the SDP about unifying their programs into a clear coalition program. However, he does not exclude the party running alone in elections.

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