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Croatia holds snap vote with no clear winner in sight

September 11, 2016

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatian citizens were voting Sunday in an early parliamentary election that is unlikely to produce a clear winner and could pave the way for more political uncertainty in the European Union’s newest member state.

The second vote in less than a year was called when a previous, right-wing government collapsed in June after less than six months in power, paralyzed by bickering within the ruling coalition. Political deadlock has delayed reforms that are necessary for Croatia to catch up with the rest of the EU. It has also fueled nationalist rhetoric amid heightened tensions with Serbia — its former Balkan war foe.

Opinion polls suggest that neither the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, known as HDZ, nor the left-leaning Social Democrats and their People’s Coalition, will win enough votes to rule alone, though the leftist alliance has been projected taking a slight lead.

This means that that some of the smaller groups could play the role of kingmakers, as was the case with the Most group in the previous government. Some analysts have predicted that Croatia’s next government could take months to form and end up as weak as the previous one.

Croatia had tilted to the right under the HDZ-led government that took over following the inconclusive vote last November. However, in the past weeks it has sought to remake its image as a centrist party under new leader Andrej Plenkovic.

The more moderate leader, who took over from right-leaning Tomislav Karamarko earlier this summer, said Sunday he expects high turnout among Croatia’s nearly 3.8 million voters. “We are happy,” Plenkovic said upon casting his ballot. “It’s a beautiful day, so I expect the turnout to be bigger than if it was rainy.”

HDZ and the Social Democrats have been the two dominant parties in Croatia since the country split from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The Social Democrats, led by former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, were in power for four years until last November.

Although more advanced than other Balkan countries, Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the EU following years of crisis after the split from former Yugoslavia and the 1991-95 war. After a six-year recession, Croatia has shown signs of recovery with reported growth of more than 2 percent. However, unemployment hovers around 14 percent — among the highest in the EU — and much of the fiscal growth is attributed to tourism along Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

Kristijan Naher, a voter from Zagreb said he hopes Croatians “will be smarter now” and vote conclusively to “avoid the agony” that followed the last election. Zagreb resident Jelena Micic said she was hopeful things would improve.

“I think we are moving toward a better future for Croatia,” Micic said.

A look at Croatia’s snap election on Sunday

September 09, 2016

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — The European Union’s newest member state, Croatia, is holding a snap election this weekend that pits the dominant parties on the left and right against each other but is unlikely to produce a clear winner. The uncertainty is fueling fears of prolonged instability that could hamper reform.

Here is a brief look at Sunday’s vote.

WHY THE SNAP VOTE?

Croatia’s previous, right-wing government collapsed last spring after only six months in power, paralyzed by internal bickering among the coalition members. That government, led by a nonpartisan businessman from Canada, was formed after an inconclusive election last November.

THE MAIN CONTENDERS

The main parties in Croatia are the left-wing Social Democrats and the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, commonly known as HDZ. The parties have dominated Croatia’s political scene since it split from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but they will likely depend on smaller, kingmaker groups such as pro-reform Most.

The Croatian Democratic Union led Croatia during the 1991-95 war for independence and is viewed as nationalist.

The Social Democrats — running in a People’s Coalition with some smaller groups — are considered successors to Croatia’s Communists, who fought against Nazis during World War II and later ruled Croatia while it was part of the Yugoslav federation.

Most, a little-known group formed before last November’s elections, came out of the last vote as a kingmaker. It formed a government with HDZ, but it didn’t work well and the coalition government collapsed.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Although part of the campaign centered on past ideological divisions, whoever forms the next government will face some hard work on reforming Croatia’s economy so it can catch up with the rest of the EU nations. Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the EU partly because of the war and delayed transition.

ELECTION DAY

Croatia has 3.7 million voters. Polls open on Sunday at 0500GMT and close 12 hours later. Preliminary results and projections will start coming in an hour or two after the polls close. Official results are unlikely before Monday.

Croats commemorate WWII massacre amid far-right surge

May 14, 2016

BLEIBURG, Austria (AP) — Thousands of far-right supporters, many brandishing insignia and waving flags of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime, gathered Saturday in a field in southern Austria to commemorate the massacre of pro-Nazis by victorious communists at the end of the war.

The annual event this year came amid a surge of far-right sentiments in the European Union’s newest member. For Croatian nationalists, the Bleiburg site symbolizes their suffering under communism in Yugoslavia before they fought a war for independence in the 1990s.

Tens of thousands of Croatians, mostly Ustasha soldiers, fled to Bleiburg in May 1945 amid a Yugoslav communist offensive, only to be turned back from Austria by the British military and into the hands of revengeful antifascists. Thousands were killed and buried in mass graves in and around Bleiburg.

The Ustasha regime sent tens of thousands Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Croatian anti-fascists to death camps during the war. The gathering Saturday on a vast field surrounded by mountains was attended by top Croatian officials and Croatian Catholic Church clergy who held a mass for the killed Croats.

“All (WWII) victims deserve the same respect and reverence and the totalitarian regimes which committed the crimes deserve equal blame,” Croatia’s Deputy Prime Minister Bozo Petrov said after the ceremony. “We should stop divisions over the victims.”

Since taking power in January, Croatia’s center-right government has widely been blamed for turning a blind eye to the rising extremism and downplaying the crimes of the Ustasha regime. The policies have triggered protests from Croatia’s minority Jewish and Serb communities.

“We are faced with an effort to totally relativize the Ustasha crimes,” said the head of the Zagreb Jewish community, Ognjen Kraus. “It all started with such denials in Germany in 1933 and in Croatia in 1941.”

The Croatian government, which has cracked down on free media and non-government organizations, has denied backing policies that counter EU standards, saying it’s focused on major economic and social reforms and not the revival of the far-right sentiments.

On Saturday, the ultra-nationalists wore black T-shirts with the Ustashas’ “U” symbol and waved flags with inscriptions of their wartime chant “For the Homeland, Ready!” “I’m here because my grandfather perished in the Bleiburg massacre,” said Elvis Duspara, wearing a T-shirt with the chant. “We Croats were never aggressors, we only defended our homeland. That’s why we proudly say: For the homeland, ready!”

UN court acquits Serb nationalist Seselj; Croatia shocked

March 31, 2016

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — In a rare courtroom victory for a Serb defendant, a U.N. war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj of atrocities and pronounced him a free man. The decision inflamed simmering tensions in the Balkans, sparking joy in Serbia and horror and deep anger in Bosnia and Croatia.

Prosecutors had charged Seselj, 61, with crimes including persecution, murder and torture and had demanded a 28-year sentence for his support of Serb paramilitaries during the region’s bitter, bloody wars in the early 1990s.

But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking the politician himself to the crimes. A dissenting opinion shredded that logic, providing grist for possible future appeals.

“After so many proceedings in which innocent Serbs were given draconian punishments, this time two honest judges showed they valued honor more than political pressure,” Seselj declared at a press conference at his Serbian Radical Party headquarters in Belgrade.

Others heatedly disagreed. “This is a defeat of The Hague tribunal,” Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic said in Vukovar, an eastern Croatian town destroyed by Serbian troops, including Seselj’s paramilitaries, during the war for independence in the 1990s. “I am in Vukovar today, and we all know that this man has done evil to this town. He showed no remorse whatsoever.”

Most of the people indicted and convicted by the court have been Serbs as the international community blamed them for most of the war’s worst atrocities, including the deadly siege of Sarajevo and 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica.

Seselj, who repeatedly branded the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia an anti-Serb court, was not in The Hague for the ruling. He was allowed to return home in late 2014 on compassionate grounds due to ill health.

Once home, the firebrand ultranationalist, who once said he would like to gouge out the eyes of rival Croats with a rusty spoon, rekindled a political career that was put on hold when he surrendered to the tribunal in 2003.

Now he could become a key political powerbroker after Serbia’s April 24 general election. With a surge in pro-Russian and right-wing sentiments ahead of the vote, Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party has a good chance to return to parliament after missing out two years ago.

Seselj has campaigned on the platform that Serbia must never enter the 28-nation European Union or NATO and should forge closer ties with Moscow. He has burned EU, NATO and Croatian flags during pre-election rallies, and said he would join a coalition government with the incumbent populists, his former allies, only if they give up their goal of EU accession.

The ruling could also further deteriorate relations between the two main Balkan rivals, Serbia and Croatia. Oreskovic, the prime minister described the acquittal as “shameful” and demanded a Serbian government “reaction” as a proof that Belgrade adheres to EU values as it seeks membership in the bloc.

In Bosnia, which also saw mass killings by Serb forces, the acquittal sparked disbelief and anger. “An absolutely shocking decision,” said lawyer and publicist Senad Pecanin. “This is the lowest point of The Hague tribunal.”

Ismar Jamakovic, 23, a student of political science from Sarajevo, said judges ruled that “advocating the creation of Greater Serbia was a political and not a criminal act. Does this mean I can now advocate the creation of an Islamic State without facing any consequences? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Jamakovic was referring to one of the most controversial aspects of Thursday’s ruling. Prosecutors have long cast wartime plans by Serb leaders including Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic as a criminal plot to create a “Greater Serbia” by forcefully expelling non-Serbs from their homes and thus redrawing the Balkan borders. Reading out a summary of the judgment, Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti characterized the plan as a political goal, not a criminal act.

The ruling called operations in which non-Serbs were bussed out of territory as a “humanitarian mission.” Prosecutors had branded it a forcible displacement of the civilian population. “The reading of the conflict by the trial chamber is very, very different to what we are used to,” Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz told reporters, adding that Seselj’s trial was beset by allegations of interference with witnesses and evidence.

Brammertz almost certainly will appeal, but said Thursday he first has to study the ruling, which runs to some 100 pages, and its dissenting opinion. Antonetti also distanced Seselj from the crimes of the Serb paramilitaries he helped to establish, saying that although Seselj “may have had a certain amount of moral authority over his party’s volunteers, they were not his subordinates” when they went into combat.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Flavia Lattanzi sounded appalled at the findings of the other two judges, saying they had set aside “all the rules of international humanitarian law that existed before the creation of the Tribunal and all the applicable law established since the inception of the Tribunal in order to acquit Vojislav Seselj.”

Serbian political analyst Djordje Subotic said the ruling legitimizes the “Greater Serbia” project, which could have grave consequences for future stability in the Balkans. “This means that the idea of redrawing the borders in the Balkans is revived,” he said.

Seselj said he now expects to win 20-25 percent of the vote for his far-right radicals in April. “The most important is that we get more than the progressives,” he said, referring to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, his former allies-turned-foes.

Associated Press writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Slovenia accuses Croatia of lack of control on migrant surge

October 20, 2015

BREZICE, Slovenia (AP) — Slovenia accused Croatia on Tuesday of sending thousands of migrants toward its borders “without control,” ignoring requests to contain the surge.

While Slovenia has said it can handle only 2,500 migrants a day, Slovenia’s police said that some 8,300 migrants seeking to head toward Western Europe were currently in reception centers in the small country, with thousands more arriving.

Police in riot gear surrounded hundreds of migrants in a muddy field near the border village of Rigonce, from where they were to be escorted on foot to an already overcrowded reception center some 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.

“The pressure of immigrants arriving from Croatia is intensifying,” the Slovenian government said in a statement. “They send immigrants toward Slovenia without control, deliberately dispersed.” Croatia did not seem ready to slow the flow. On Tuesday morning, a train carrying more than 1,000 migrants from the town of Tovarnik and some 20 buses full of migrants from the Opatovac refugee camp were headed toward the Slovenian border.

Slovenia’s parliament is expected to decide later Tuesday on a government proposal to allow the army to assist police with border control. Slovenian authorities say 6,000 migrants arrived on Monday and at least 4,000 more, including many babies and young children, had entered the country early Tuesday.

Slovenia has been confronted by the surge since Hungary closed its border with Croatia to the free flow of migrants on Saturday, forcing migrants to find new routes to Austria, Germany and other favored destinations in the European Union.

Not a single migrant has entered Hungary from Croatia since the border was closed with a fence protected by razor wire, soldiers and police patrols.

Associated Press reporters Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, Jovana Gec in Berkasovo, Serbia, and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.

Serbia, Croatia agree to speed up migrant flow

October 23, 2015

BAJAKOVO, Croatia (AP) — Serbia and Croatia agreed Friday to ease the flow of migrants over the border between the countries after thousands of people, including children, were forced to spend the night out in the open in near-freezing temperatures along a muddy border passage.

The interior ministers of Serbia and Croatia said they will start shipping migrants by train directly from Serbia to Croatia so that they won’t have to cross on foot, often treading kilometers in rain and cold weather, as has been the case so far. Migrants will register when they enter Serbia and will be able to cross into Croatia without any delays, which should speed up the process significantly, the ministers said.

“We have agreed to stop this torture,” said Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic. “There will be no more rain and snow, they will go directly from camp to camp.” Further west, thousands of migrants aiming to reach northern Europe walked out of refugee camps on the border between Slovenia and Austria on their own, frustrated after waiting long hours in overcrowded facilities.

Eager to move on, thousands spread around along railway tracks, highways and mountain roads. Confused and unaware which roads to take to go west, some migrants later turned back and returned to the refugee camps to wait for bus transport to other locations.

Tensions have been building after the so-called Balkan route shifted. Migrants still cross first from Greece into Macedonia and then Serbia, but now go via Croatia and Slovenia instead of Hungary, which has erected fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia.

Overwhelmed after nearly 50,000 migrants crossed in just a few days, tiny Slovenia said it has not ruled out erecting a fence of its own along parts of its 670-kilometer (400-mile) border with Croatia. Prime Minister Miro Cerar was quoted Friday by the state news agency STA as saying Slovenia will consider all options if left to cope on its own with the influx of thousands of people.

“Our sights are foremost on finding a European solution,” said Cerar. “But should we lose hope for this … all options are open within what is acceptable.” The country of 2 million people already has deployed 650 army troops to help the police manage the flow and has asked the European Commission for an aid package, including 60 million euros ($68 million) in financial aid and police gear and personnel.

Several EU nations have promised to send police officers to help Slovenia’s force, which is so overloaded that a soccer derby Saturday had to be cancelled because there were no more officers available to guard the game.

Slovenia and Croatia have traded barbs since the start of the crisis, accusing one another of mishandling the crisis. Slovenia initially said it could take in only 2,500 people a day and accused Croatia of dropping migrants uncontrollably at its doorstep.

Croatian police could be seen Friday escorting another group of around 1,500 migrants close to an unmanned section of the country’s border with Slovenia before letting them cross the frontier on foot. The group arrived on a train and was led by police in an orderly fashion to a small bridge to cross into Slovenia where they will be taken to a collection center.

Long hours in lines and overcrowded camps have led to several incidents in the past days, including scuffles, a stabbing and a fire in one of the migrant camps in Slovenia. At the Serbian border, some 5,000 people gathered around fires, under tents and wrapped in blankets as they waited all night to cross into Croatia. Ministers said registration of refugees must speed up so that there are no delays in the transfer of migrants toward Western Europe.

Serbian minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said the two countries will ask the EU to recognize the Serbian registration process — which includes finger and palm-printing and biometric passes — so that migrants don’t have to undergo the same procedure over and over again.

“With the winter coming, it is important to agree on a speedy flow of these people,” Stefanovic said. EU officials have called a summit for Sunday of several EU and Balkan leaders to focus on the migrant crisis.

Ali Zerdin in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Sabina Niksic at the Croatia-Slovenia border, Ivana Bzganovic in Berkasovo, Serbia, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Petr David Josek and Balint Szlanko at the Slovenia-Austria border have contributed.

Thousands rush into Croatia as police reopen Serbia border

October 19, 2015

BERKASOVO, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of people trying to reach the heart of Europe surged across Serbia’s border into Croatia on Monday after authorities eased restrictions that had left them stranded for days in ankle-deep mud and rain.

The miserable wave of humanity left behind a field scattered with soaked blankets, mud-caked clothing and water-logged tents as they headed for Slovenia, the next obstacle to their quest to reach richer European Union nations via the Balkans.

Monday’s surprise move allowed an estimated 3,000 more migrants to enter Croatia bound for its small Alpine neighbor, which also has been struggling to slow the flow of humanity across its frontiers — and faced another wave of trekkers seeking to reach Austria and Germany to the north.

“Without any announcement, the borders opened. When the borders opened, everybody rushed,” said Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, who was stationed at the Serb-Croat border. Many had discarded their mud-soaked socks and walked only in sandals or slippers through the ankle-deep muck in a driving rain, frigid winds and fog. Some who had lost limbs during the civil war in Syria were aided by friends pushing their wheelchairs down a country lane that, since Saturday, had been blocked by Croat police.

Now the officers stood aside to permit asylum-seekers by the thousands to walk toward buses for transport north — where they would become Slovenia’s problem. Croatia’s prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, said his country had hoped to minimize the flow of people following Hungary’s decision to seal its border with Croatia, but conditions on the poorly sheltered Serb side of the border had quickly grown unbearable.

“It’s apparent that this is no solution, so we will let them through. We will send them toward Slovenia,” Milanovic said. Aid workers handed out blue rain ponchos and bags of food to travelers, many of them slipping in the mud as they walked across the border. Officials on the Croat side planned to bus the newcomers either to a Croat refugee camp or — far more likely, given asylum seekers’ reluctance to stop before reaching their desired destinations — to the Slovenian border.

Slovenia’s Interior Ministry said some 5,000 people had reached its borders Monday, and most were allowed to enter, with at least 900 reaching Austria by the evening. Slovenia had vowed to let in no more than 2,500 migrants per day.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor insisted his country would accept only as many travelers as could be funneled directly on to Austria. He said Slovenia was determined not to be left holding the bag should Austria or Germany suddenly stop accepting refugee applicants.

“As long as Austria will control the flow of refugees, we will have to do the same on the Slovenian-Croatian border,” Pahor said. An empty field near the Serbian border town of Berkasovo was littered with discarded belongings in an illustration of just how desperately those who had been stuck there wanted to cross into Croatia. Only hours before, its rows of tents had been packed with people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Now only a few hundred remained. Dozens could be seen in the distance walking into Croatia, many carrying children on their backs.

Left behind in the scramble were stuffed toys, a milk bottle, a child’s rubber boot, crayons scattered in the mud and soaked blankets. Cleaning crews could be seen collecting the scattered belongings with shovels in hopes of clearing the boggy field in time for the next migrant wave coming north from Macedonia.

One of the last to cross into Croatia on Monday was a 28-year-old Syrian who had lost a leg in that country’s civil war and was being pushed by friends in a mud-caked wheelchair. The group stared, eyes vacant with exhaustion, at nearby Croat cornfields as the man, who gave only his first name, Less, lit a cigarette with shaking hands.

“We have no more money, no jacket, no food,” he said, pleading to be permitted to reach Germany without further delays. Officials in Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia all accused each other of making a bad situation worse.

Slovenia accused the Croats of breaking an agreement to limit the number of migrants crossing into its territory to 2,500 per day. Croatian officials insisted no such deal could be enforced because they lacked legal powers to confine travelers to Croat emergency shelters, which remain less than half full.

When the day’s first train carrying an estimated 1,800 people stopped near Slovenia shortly after midnight, they found their path blocked in both directions by rival deployments of Croat and Slovene police, each arguing the trekkers must seek shelter in the other country.

This created a no-man’s land on the border, where many were forced to spend the night in the open in the bitter cold and pelting rain. Some piled up soggy tree branches for fires. “It’s completely unacceptable,” said Slovene Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar, who accused Croatia of seeking to dump “an unlimited number of immigrants” on Slovenia rather than make an effort to them into staying at Croatian shelters.

But Croatia retorted that it, too, was being unfairly burdened by unrelenting flows from Serbia, where U.N. officials estimate another 10,000 asylum seekers — more than double the summer’s typical flow — are currently traveling north to Croatia.

Before the Croat authorities lifted the border restrictions on Monday, parents desperate to get their children out of the cold and rain could be seen handing them over the security barriers to police. Many others fed up with waiting in the rain tried to outflank police positions, walking through muddy orchards and cornfields.

“We are in cold weather and the place is not good,” said Farouk al-Hatib, a Syrian who was waiting to cross from Serbia. “Our message for the governments is to take into consideration our suffering.” Croatian government leaders argue that it’s pointless, if not impossible, to stop people who overwhelmingly express determination to reach wealthier nations in Western Europe, chiefly Germany.

“The Republic of Croatia has asked these refugees to stay at our reception centers until their status is resolved, but they all refuse,” said Matija Posavec, governor of Medjimurje, Croatia’s northernmost county bordering Slovenia. “They could have stayed on board the train. They could have stayed at the reception centers, but none of them really want that. … They just want to pass.”

Associated Press reporters Amer Cohadzic in Obrezje, Slovenia; Ali Zerdin in Ljubljana, Slovenia; Balint Szlanko in Trnosev, Croatia; Ivana Bzganovic in Berkasovo, Serbia; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

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