Croats are the richest people in the western Balkans, and their country may join the European Union soon, while others wait interminably. Yet they seem miserable. A recent poll by Gallup and the European Fund for the Balkans found that only 8% of respondents thought Croatia was going in the right direction. A huge 92% considered corruption to be widespread in business, and 77% thought it widespread in government. The economy is in a serious mess, and not only because of the global economic crisis. In 2009 GDP shrank by some 5.7%; it may grow by a mere 0.3% this year. Unemployment, already 16.5%, is rising. Over the past year 37% of Croats have had problems paying their utility bills. No wonder that on January 10th the voters elected a president who has never held high office before.
On the face of it Ivo Josipovic, a law professor and composer, is a dull choice. He will be the third president of independent Croatia. The first, Franjo Tudjman, was a hardline nationalist who forged his country in war in the 1990s. The second, Stipe Mesic, wrote a book, “How We Destroyed Yugoslavia”, about his time as the country’s last president just as the war broke out. His final provocative act as Croatia’s president was to visit and offer strong support to Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
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Mr Josipovic crushed Milan Bandic, the mayor of Zagreb, in the presidential race. The professorial new president, a Social Democrat, will have to work closely with Jadranka Kosor, Croatia’s prime minister. She is from the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union and came to office only in July 2009 when Ivo Sanader suddenly resigned as prime minister, declaring that he was quitting politics. Mr Sanader may have thought he could run the country from behind the scenes. But Mrs Kosor soon began to pursue her own agenda. She succeeded in resolving, at least for now, a serious spat with neighbouring Slovenia, which then lifted its ten-month block on Croatia’s EU accession talks. And she also started to tackle corruption. Mr Sanader was so rattled by Mrs Kosor’s success that, after their party’s candidate came third in the first round of the presidential election on December 27th, he held a press conference to declare that his resignation had been a mistake and he was coming back. But his attempted coup failed dismally.
Such bizarre antics will only have helped Mr Josipovic. Both his election and the rising popularity of Mrs Kosor point to a positive change of atmosphere in Croatia. Emil Tedeschi, boss of Atlantic Grupa, a consumer health-care group, speaks for many when he says that what Croatia needs most is stability. For him the election of Mr Josipovic is a sign of political maturity, because he should be able to create a bridge to the opposition Social Democrats. Cross-party consensus would make it easier to push through tough reforms to public services, pensions and local administration. Mrs Kosor, he notes approvingly, has also broken the taboo of dealing with crime and corruption in high places in government and business. She ought to be able to work well with Mr Josipovic.
His election has been welcomed across the region. Mr Josipovic was an author of Croatia’s 1999 genocide case against Serbia at the International Court of Justice. On January 4th Serbia launched a countersuit alleging that Croatia was itself responsible for genocide. But Mr Josipovic believes the bilateral relationship to be strategically important, so a deal might be struck to withdraw both cases. Almost two decades after the demise of Yugoslavia, the leaders of its successor states increasingly see that working together is better than squabbling.