The new Croatian president Zoran Milanovic celebrates his victory in Zagreb on January 5, 2020 | Photo: Reuters
The new Croatian president Zoran Milanovic celebrates his victory in Zagreb on January 5, 2020 | Photo: Reuters

In recent presidential elections in Croatia, the powerful right-wing lost to the social democrats, led by Zoran Milanovic. However, the political turnaround will have little impact on migration policy in the short term. Here’s why.

Zoran Milanovic, the social democrat who to everyone's surprise was elected president of Croatia on Sunday, January 5, advocates a return to a "normal Croatia" as opposed to the "genuine" and nationalist Croatia championed by outgoing conservative president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

According to the Croatian electoral commission, the 53-year-old former diplomat won 52.7% of the vote, versus 47.3% for his rival Grabar-Kitarovic in the run-off elections.

Milanovic, who served as prime minister from December 2011 to January 2016 for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), is portrayed as an ambitious, tolerant and forward-looking figure who promises to make Croatia a "Republic for all." 

"Let us be united in our differences," he said in his victory speech following the elections. "Four million of us ... are looking for our place in Europe, which is, despite all the problems, the nicest place to live, the most peaceful project in which Croatia must find its place and interest."

A president with protocol functions, but no executive power

In Croatia, a president's functions are mainly protocolary. That's why Milanovic's idealistic rhetoric might not translate into actual politics. The role of chief executive falls to the incumbent Prime Minister Andrej Plenković -- an emblematic figure of the European branch of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party. Outgoing President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was from the right wing of the same party.

Although he has no executive power or even the ability to block laws, the president can still intervene "on foreign policy, defense and security issues," Simon Rico, co-editor of the French-language publication Courrier des Balkans, told InfoMigrants. Milanovic is therefore expected to weigh in on the thorny issue of Croatian migration policy, particularly on the infamous "push-backs", those migrants rejected at the borders without being allowed to exercise their right of asylum.

Since 2016, several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, have regularly raised the alarm about cases of police violence at the Croatian border, the gateway to the European Union. Every year, thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Central Asia try to enter Croatia via Bosnia; the Croatian police allegedly intercept and send back many of them without allowing them to even apply for asylum in Europe.

'The latest entry into the EU, Croatia is playing the good student'

Despite the urgency of the situation, which has been the subject of many damning reports and testimonies, there is every reason to believe that "migration policy will remain the same and that Croatia will continue to turn migrants back at the border" despite the election of a social-democratic president, Rico said. "Croatia, the latest to join the EU in 2013, is playing the good student, it is moving heaven and earth to join the Schengen Area of free movement. That is crucial for the development of its economy, which is at half-mast. Croatia must therefore show that it controls its borders by continuing to send back migrants.”

Zagreb has even been encouraged in its policy, with the European Commission congratulating Croatia on the management of its border and formally recommending its accession to the Schengen Area. "Croatia has done what is necessary to deliver on its commitment to protect human rights," the Commission declared in October, saying that the recent creation of a border police surveillance system and the Croatian government's promises to investigate allegations of police violence were sufficient.

Taking over the reins of the rotating EU presidency on January 1 for six months, the new Croatian President is expected to put his internal migration policy on the back burner and prioritize post-Brexit EU-London relations, the accession aspirations of western Balkan countries, climate change and the EU's next multi-annual budget. A committed Europhile, he is likely to also "advocate the relaunch of the EU enlargement process, pushing for Croatia's neighbors to become members in turn" at the EU-Balkans summit in Zagreb next May, Rico said.

Concrete changes in migration policy may, however, may come about in nine months' time, following the legislative election to appoint a new Prime Minister. "The election of President Zoran Milanovic and the defeat of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic have weakened the conservatives of the HDZ and reshuffled the cards within the Croatian political scene. Nothing will change for migrants before the elections, but everything could shift if the Social Democrats create another surprise in a few months' time," Rico concluded.


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