Croatia may be on the verge of a seismic political earthquake. A new patriotic-populist movement is being born. If it comes to power, it will transform the country - reverberating across the region and impacting the European Union.
The leader of this revolution is Natasha Srdoc, founder and chairman of the Adriatic Institute for Public Policy (AI), Croatia's only Western-style independent think tank. She is willing to do something no other Croatian leader is doing: stand up to Brussels.
For years, Mrs. Srdoc has championed the free market, private property rights and the rule of law - the framework necessary for real prosperity and growth. She is a staunch critic of government corruption. Hence, she is fiercely opposed by the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, known by its acronym HDZ. The regime has labeled her "an enemy of the state." She and her family have been threatened. She has become a dissident in her own land. For Zagreb's politicians, Mrs. Srdoc is Public Enemy No. 1.
Instead of retreating, she is throwing her hat into the electoral ring. She has formed her own political party, Croatia 21st Century. It is a principled center-right alternative to the HDZ. It champions tax reform, market-driven growth, spending restraint and Catholic social values - especially by strengthening families and health care. The party's agenda is simple: to kick-start the moribund economy. Mrs. Srdoc's goal is to make Croatia the Switzerland of the region. She is a serious reformer, backed by some of the world's top experts - from America to New Zealand to Europe.
Even key members on Capitol Hill are taking notice. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, recently participated at an AI conference in Croatia at the institute's invitation. He strongly endorsed Mrs. Srdoc's anti-corruption, pro-growth message.
Her key pledge - the one that has Croatia's governing class trembling - is to send every corrupt politician to prison and to confiscate their illicit enrichment. Credible estimates show that Zagreb's rulers have misappropriated public funds, stunting the small country's development. There is only one place for them: the dock. If elected, she vows to pass a law requiring financial transparency among all politicians - past and current. Those who have accumulated unexplained wealth will be prosecuted and all their illicit funds forfeited. The vast sums of money - untold billions - will be used to pay down the debt, balance the budget and slash taxes. The legislation would serve as a model for the Balkans, where systemic corruption is eroding living standards and fostering social apathy.
For the ruling HDZ, this is a nightmare. The party has staked everything on fast-track EU membership. Zagreb is poised to enter the coveted European club. Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor believes that EU membership will make voters forget her party's corruption scandals and result in re-election early next year.
Yet opinion polls show that HDZ support has collapsed. For years, the HDZ privileged class has enriched itself at the expense of the Croatian people. There is no area of life - the media, the judiciary, business, even sports - that the party does not control or manipulate. The results have been disastrous. Unemployment is at a staggering 20 percent. For the youth, it stands at 30 percent. Reckless spending and soaring deficits have pushed Croatia to the brink of national bankruptcy.
Zagreb's Europhiles recently received a boost from Pope Benedict XVI. During his visit to this deeply Catholic country, the pope strongly endorsed Croatia's bid to join the EU. The Vatican's strategy is clear: to balance Europe's powerful secularism with the Continent's remaining Christian nations - Poland, Ireland and now Croatia.
The question, however, is not whether Zagreb should enter the EU but how and on what terms. Mrs. Srdoc is the only Croatian leader calling for a cost-benefit analysis of the EU accession agreement. Her conclusion: The current deal is bad and must be completely renegotiated or rejected. She rightly opposes a federalist Europe based on state socialism and centralized regimentation. Instead, like most conservative patriots, she champions a decentralized EU characterized by free trade, devolution and competition - one that respects each member state's national sovereignty and distinct cultural identity. In short, Mrs. Srdoc wants a good deal, not any deal at any price.
Polls show the majority of Croatians agree with her. They understand that HDZ negotiators have sold Croatia's national interests down the river. The country's fishing rights, agricultural and winegrowing regions, other land-use options and future economic growth will be threatened by heavily protected foreign competition. If ratified, the EU agreement could make Croatia another Romania, Bulgaria or Greece: a vassal of Brussels. In fact, future deals in joining the eurozone may lead to Croatia's already impoverished citizens bailing out the Greeks and Portuguese.
Mrs. Srdoc may be the last hope. Leftist opposition parties - led by the Social Democrats - are no better than the HDZ. Most of their politicians are former communists who embrace socialist policies and Croatia's mad dash into the EU.
Croatia's conundrum is that it is a Central European nation governed by a Balkan political class - dishonest, venal and incompetent. This may change. If it does, it will dramatically alter the country's destiny. The HDZ is part of the past; Mrs. Srdoc represents the future. Will Croatians seize it?
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.
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