Crime Wave Clouds Croatia's Future

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Two bodies lay covered on the sides of a car that detonated outside the office of a Croatian newspaper on Oct. 23

The damage from last Thursday's bomb blast in downtown Zagreb that killed Ivo Pukanic, one of Croatia's top media moguls, and his advertising manager, Niko Franic, will not be confined to the casualties. The attack has cast doubt over whether Croatia can curb rampant corruption and organized crime and achieve its goal of joining the European Union next year.

Pukanic, 47, and his colleague were killed just after 6 p.m. by an explosive device placed near Pukanic's Lexus. The police immediately blocked off the city center and called in helicopters, but by Monday, no arrests had yet been made. A police spokesman described the murder as a "professional hit."

More than 300 people, including several government figures, attended Pukanic's funeral on Monday, after which he was buried to the tune of the Dire Straits song "Brothers in Arms." The owner and editor in chief of Nacional, a high-circulation weekly that often probed into Croatia's corruption-ridden political life, Pukanic was a controversial figure, widely seen as closely involved with mobsters and politicians alike. Croatian President Stjepan Mesic had been his close friend, as had Hrvoje Petrac, a businessman currently on trial for extortion.

Pukanic's murder caused an outcry, not just because he was an important player but because it revealed the extent of the connection between politics, crime and corruption in the former Yugoslav republic. Less than three weeks ago, Ivana Hodak, the 22-year-old daughter of a prominent lawyer, was shot three times in the back of her head just several blocks from the site of Pukanic's death. Police are investigating whether the two assassinations may have been linked: Ms. Hodak's father, Zvonimir, had publicly accused Petrac of ordering his daughter's murder. Petrac, who is in custody, denied the allegation through his lawyers. Zvonimir Hodak represents retired General Djuro Zagorec, the father of a boy whose kidnapping Petrac was found guilty of organizing and for which he was sentenced to six years in prison. (Petrac continues to deny the kidnapping charge.) Zagorec is also facing trial, accused of embezzling millions of dollars worth of jewels from the Ministry of Defense in the early '90s. The jewels had been intended for the purchase of weapons in Croatia's war with Serbia during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (The official story was that the jewelry had been donated by unnamed patriots to help Croatia's war effort, but some alleged it had originally been looted from Croatian Jews during World War II by the Nazi-aligned nationalist Ustasha militias.)

The Mesic government is now under fire from various quarters for allowing organized crime — which flourished under the reign of autocratic President Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia's independence struggle — to grow even more rampantly after the country's transition to democracy. "The authorities are obviously incompetent to stand up to organized crime," said opposition MP Vladimir Sisljagic at a press conference on Monday. "This situation is a result of 18 years of turning a blind eye to war profiteering and gangsterism."

Even Croatia's top policeman joined the angry chorus. "At least half of the force is incompetent or corrupted," admitted police director Vladimir Faber in a television interview on Sunday. "So many people only got jobs in police because they had political connections, completely regardless of their qualifications." But critics of Faber point out that he, too, gained his position by virtue of his allegiance to Croatia's Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader.

Sanader has vowed that the government will do "whatever it takes" to uproot organized crime, and on Tuesday, Ivan Simonovic, Croatia's newly appointed Justice Minister, announced a series of measures aimed at curbing organized crime. These include new legislation to allow criminals' property to be confiscated, as well as the establishment of a new police agency, modeled on America's Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the new measures still need to be approved by the parliament, and it will be months before they take effect.

Meanwhile, Croatian authorities are worried that the crime wave is spoiling Croatia's international image as a tourist paradise. Over the past several years, the country has invested heavily in its Adriatic resorts like Dubrovnik and collects much of its foreign exchange from tourism. "The worst thing that we can now do is to [have to] start going around trying to persuade people that Croatia is a safe country," says Nadan Vidosevic, chief of Croatia's Chamber of Commerce. "We mustn't allow insecurity to spill over."

Even more devastating is the possibility that the uptick in high-profile crime will jeopardize Croatia's effort to become a full member of the E.U., for which it is currently a candidate. "This is a clear step back for Croatia's quest towards membership," said Hanes Svoboda, the European Parliament's Croatia monitor. "Either the government would impose some stability and order, or Croatia will not be able to join the E.U. anytime soon," Svoboda said in a radio interview.

But worst of all is the fear that the spate of criminal violence may be just the beginning. "We have reached a point when separating state officials from corrupted journalists and gangsters has almost become impossible," Sasa Lekovic, a prominent Croatian investigative journalist told TIME. "I'm afraid that this is not the end."

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