Croatian voters reject conservatives days before joining EU

DUBROVNIK, Croatia — Voters kicked out Croatia’s conservative government and elected a center-left coalition Sunday, days before the economically troubled Balkan country is to sign a treaty to join the economically troubled European Union.

Preliminary results in the parliamentary elections showed the center-left Kukuriku coalition, which is made up of several opposition groups, leading with 44.5 percent of the vote, and the incumbent center-right Croatian Democratic Union with 22 percent.

In the end, Croatia’s rampant corruption and high unemployment rate doomed the re-election bid of Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, despite her efforts in securing the country’s entry into the EU, which is headquartered in Brussels.

“Croatians were not impressed with this government, regardless of the EU treaty. We’re much more concerned with ending corruption and creating jobs,” said author Sinisa Pavic, 42, of Zagreb. “We want changes that will bring us a better life here, not smiling photo ops from Brussels.”

On Friday, one of Mrs. Kosor’s last acts in office will be to sign the treaty that sets the former Yugoslav republic on the path to become the 28th member of the EU in 2013.

In the 20 years since winning its independence, Croatia has rebuilt much of its infrastructure, instituted many democratic reforms and seen its tourism industry increase steadily.

But as EU leaders struggle to contain the financial crisis, some observers say joining the bloc appears futile.

“Everything we join falls apart,” Mr. Pavic said, with a laugh. “Just look at history: the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian regime, socialist Yugoslavia. Just don’t blame us if the EU collapses the day after we get in.”

Local skeptics of the EU say officials in Brussels and Berlin are too busy saving themselves to send Croatia anything other than a flood of paperwork.

The EU is notorious for issuing obscure regulations governing everything from sausages to cigarettes, and Croatians already feel burdened by their own bureaucracy.

Polls show Croatians are worried that new EU regulations will destroy traditional industries and are resentful of EU “outsiders” meddling in internal affairs.

Even though public skepticism of the EU runs deep in Croatia, it is unlikely to derail the accession process. Public support for membership has risen to 61 percent, and a referendum scheduled for January is expected to pass.

But analysts say that many Croatians support membership simply because it seems the only logical choice, not because they are truly enthusiastic about it. In fact, the closer membership gets, the less the Croatian public seems to care.

Instead, public attention is focused on dealing with deep-rooted problems at home: a shrinking economy, rising prices, high taxes, pervasive corruption and brain drain. Croatia is struggling to keep its credit rating above junk status, and forecasts for 2012 show an economy that is stagnant at best.

In addition, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party is the subject of a broad criminal investigation, launched by the nation’s anti-corruption agency, that has alleged a vast money-laundering scheme.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Kosor’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, is on trial in the biggest political corruption case in Croatia’s history.

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