The state of democracy in Croatia is in its worst shape in a decade due to deficits in democratic governance, the American democracy and human rights watchdog Freedom House said in its 2017 report.
The Freedom House's report, titled Nations in Transit, is an annual analysis of the state of democracy, political freedoms and human rights in 29 post-communist countries in central and eastern Europe and Asia.
The study assigns scores in several categories, including the electoral process, civil society, national and local governance, corruption, media freedom, and the independence of judiciary. For each category it awards scores between 1 and 7, with the lower mark representing a better state of affairs, and then according to the average score puts countries in one of five groups designed to reflect the overall state of their democracy.
In its 2017 report, Croatia's score has dropped to 3.75, its worst ranking since 2009, defining the country as a semi-consolidated democracy.
According to the report, last year saw the democracy score drop in 19 out of 29 countries in central and eastern Europe, with Hungary and Poland experiencing the greatest decline, fuelled by the political environments in those two countries. Hungary's score has been falling for ten consecutive years, while Poland recorded the largest decline in a single year in the history of the project.
In its analysis of Croatia, Freedom House said the biggest single decline was in the democratic governance on the national level category, from 3.50 to 3.75, which they attributed to the way Croatian authorities had handled the case of the indebted food and retail group Agrokor, which they said "revealed deep dysfunction in the relations between political elites and business interests, and increased the systemic risk to the economy of the region". Another reason for the drop was the continued strengthening of illiberal groups, which the report said are tolerated and even supported by the head of state and the government.
In the remaining six categories, the country's ratings remained unchanged.
The best ranked was the civil society category, at 2.75, as Freedom House said that civil society groups recorded no deterioration in their status, but also no progress.
Education reform triggered vibrant protests in 2017, and the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), allegedly caving to pressure from Croatia’s powerful Catholic Church and right-wing lobby groups, has been reluctant to implement a school reform that had been formulated under the previous left-wing government.
The watchdog also mentioned the fascist slogan which appeared near the site of the WWII Jasenovac concentration camp in central Croatia. The plaque, bearing the Ustasha-era slogan "Za Dom Spremni" ("For the Homeland Ready"), was installed by Croatian war veterans and right-wing politicians in November 2016, the report said.
In a positive development, Freedom House reported that the usually highly politically-charged August 5 celebrations in the town of Knin for the anniversary of Operation Storm - a decisive military victory for the Croatian army against the Serb rebels during the Croatian War of Independence in 1995 - were subdued in comparison to previous years.
In terms of Croatia's media landscape, there were no major changes in 2017, and the report kept the country's ratings in this category at 4.25. According to Freedom House, political and economic forces continued their attempts to exert influence and control over the three most significant broadcasters and the four most popular daily newspapers, and singled out the public broadcaster HRT as the first and foremost target of such attempts.
The state of Croatia’s electoral process remained unchanged in 2017, with only minor irregularities taking place in the local elections of May 2017. Local governance rating remained at 3.75, and the level of corruption was rated 4.25. However, the independence of the judiciary had deteriorated in 2017, getting a 4.5 score.