EU prosecutors prove to be a welcome addition to Croatia’s anti-corruption efforts
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which investigates fraud and corruption related to EU funds, launched 23 investigations in Croatia in 2022 for cases with total estimated damages of over €313 million, according to their annual report released on Wednesday.
Since its launch in June 2021, EPPO opened offices in 22 EU countries, with the Croatian branch being led by Tamara Laptos, an experienced lawyer known for her work with the Croatian anti-corruption authority USKOK and her role as prosecutor in a number of high-profile cases, including those against former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.
“This has changed the [corruption] situation tremendously. People who perhaps could have exerted influence over local investigators thanks to the political power they wield are no longer that powerful – and are forced to stick to the rules… There is also no point in meddling in the work of local courts and investigators anymore, because even if you manage to stop them at the local level – you can’t stop EPPO,” the former head of Croatia’s branch of the Transparency International anti-corruption watchdog, Zorislav Antun Petrovic, told EURACTIV.hr.
Although Croatia accounts for only a fraction of EPPO’s total anti-fraud activities in Europe – they launched a total of 865 investigations across the entire EU in 2022, involving some €9.9 billion in funding, with Italy alone accounting for 30% of all cases – anti-corruption campaigners praise EPPO’s work in Croatia as a welcome addition.
“There are still many officials working for the public authorities who think they are free to do what they please with public funding. This is in part because they think they are untouchable, or because they can pull strings in these bodies, or because they expect membership in a political party will always help them get out of problems,” Petrovic, who today leads a small green-left party, told EURACTIV.hr.
The most prominent scandal investigated by EPPO over the past year and a half included a €1.3 million case which led to the indictment of the former government minister for EU funds and high-ranking officials of the ruling conservative HDZ party, Gabrijela Zalac, and three of her associates, in December 2021.
Another high-ranking official recently investigated by EPPO is former agriculture minister Tomislav Tolusic, who was detained in July 2022 in an investigation over suspected irregularities over around €600,000 in EU funding he spent to equip his privately owned winemaking business.
In 2022 alone, EPPO’s investigations in Croatia led to eight indictments and six court verdicts and to the freezing of some €400,000 in assets. They also received 51 reports and complaints, with more than half (29) coming from local authorities and another 17 filed by individuals. In terms of the type of funding involved, most cases were related to regional and urban development (7), followed by agriculture and rural development (6).
Croatia commonly scores high on the annual Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International. In their 2022 report, it ranked 57th out of 180 countries surveyed globally and 24th in the EU, ahead only of Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
However, the country’s score has improved from 2021 and is currently the best Croatia has held since 2015.
(David Spaic-Kovacic, Djurdjica Klancir | EURACTIV.hr)