Croatia has started to root out corruption, says Mesic

ZAGREB (Reuters) – Croatia has finally mustered the political will to uproot «the octopus» of endemic corruption, which sucked the country dry and still hampers its drive for European Union membership, President Stjepan Mesic has said. «Corruption has burdened Croatia for too long and it would be dangerous if we did not put an end to it. The nouveau riche who used their positions of political power to make fortunes in the 1990s are just smiling and expanding their business empires,» he said in an interview on Thursday. «But now, there is political will to stop it.» Croatia started EU membership talks a year ago, hoping to join by 2010. Brussels has singled out corruption, along with the reform of the judiciary and public administration, as areas where much more effort is needed from Zagreb. «Corruption is rooted in state institutions and public firms, where work is not transparent. They circumvent public bids and make public procurement through direct deals. If we could make the first cuts there, we could start dealing with this octopus,» said the veteran reformer. Public prosecutors and a special anti-graft squad have stepped up their work this year, arresting some doctors and local officials accused of soliciting bribes. A recent survey showed Croats believed the most corrupt people are the politicians. «The institutions dealing with graft are telling me they are prepared to go the whole way and I hope that will be the case, regardless of who is being investigated,» said Mesic. «The prime minister also agrees and he will not try to stop any judicial proceedings against anyone.» No date obsession Under the nationalist regime that ruled Croatia from independence in 1991 to 2000, the politically connected could get away with anything, he said. «They sucked the money from this country and its people for years,» the president said. «Now, the climate is such that we can expect people to be held to account for doing something illegal, regardless of their position. Otherwise, why should kids go to school? Why bother if they see they can only profit if they’re in the political loop?» Unlike Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who publicly insists Croatia should join the EU in 2009, Mesic said he was not obsessed with dates. «I don’t want to insist on dates. I insist on introducing European standards as fast as we can. That means passing laws and implementing them fully. If we do that, it will be recognized and the EU will want to take us in,» he said. «There are a lot of areas where we are not ready, like the public administration and the judiciary. But we’re on a good path and have done a lot in protection of ethnic minorities, freedom of the media, infrastructure.» He also said Croatia was not a hostage of the politically turbulent Balkan region. «It would not be good if we traveled toward EU membership as a convoy, whose slowest member would set the pace. If Croatia joined first, it would be a model and an impetus to the others,» he said.