UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Twin Transitions: Exploring the Nexus Between Transitional Justice and Post-Communist Transition in Croatia

10 December 2015

Ivor Sokolić, UCL SSEES

During the 1990s, in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatian society experienced twin shocks: that of a violent conflict on its territory from 1991 to 1995 and that of a shift to the neoliberal economic model. Much like many “peripheral” states that have undergone a transition to neoliberalism, Croatia’s transition was marked by widespread corruption led by an elite class of businessmen and politicians, as well as by a growth in social and economic inequality in society. The effects of the war and of corruption continue to define Croatian politics, economics and society. This article examines how the neoliberal transition impacted the concurrent process of transitional justice in the country by focusing on two aspects of it: the public’s perception of access to justice and the public’s memory of the conflict.

A state’s human rights record and extent of corruption can often reinforce each other and be intimately linked since a corrupt government is often also unlikely to respect human rights. Human rights courts, however, do not see themselves as tasked with the tackling of corruption and other economic crimes, although there are theoretically no barriers to applying the basic concepts of transitional justice to socioeconomic crimes as well. In Croatia, however, systemic economic crimes did not target the same populations as the human rights violations. Transitional justice institutions in Croatia and in The Hague, therefore, did not deal with corruption or with the legacy left behind by the Tuđman regime.

The two examples discussed below are based on focus groups conducted in Croatia in 2014 and 2015 with history teachers, members of war veterans’ groups and pensioners across a number of locations. The aim of the groups was to discuss perceptions of the transitional justice process and the results came about indirectly in discussions. Moreover, groups were conducted in the background of the arrest of Milan Bandić, the Mayor of Zagreb, on corruption charges and the controversial closing down of the INA oil refinery in Sisak.

Access to Justice

Victims in Croatia on the whole seem to feel unrepresented by both the state and by private lawyers due to their socioeconomic or ethnic status. Participants (many of whom were direct victims of the war) frequently expressed a feeling that “justice” was only available to those victims who could pay quasi-celebrity-status lawyers, who could win large settlements or, most worryingly in terms of reconciliation, who were from the right minority ethnicity background (invariably Serb).

On the whole respondents seemed unaware of who war crimes trials, be they local or international, were meant to represent. Lack of appropriate engagement and explanation from such institutions means that victims do not have a clear understanding of the courts’ mandates and how they are meant to interact with them, leading to this idea that money or ethnicity enables it. Given most victims come from the poorer parts of Croatia and the large costs involved with trials (which in most cases are concerned with the “big fish”), there was a pervasive feeling in focus groups that “justice” presented in this way is not accessible to them.

Corrupting the Memory of the War

Recent surveys in Croatia have consistently ranked the tackling of corruption, together with the economy in general, as the most important political issues in the eyes of the Croatian public. This priority was expressed throughout all of the focus groups and it has even become an intrinsic part of the official and dominant war narrative in Croatia (one of defence against a larger Serbian aggressor). It is based on the belief that equality in employment opportunities was a major aim of the Homeland War, in other words, that people fought and died for jobs. Respondents described the period of conflict as one of hope, which they contrasted with the post-war period that was marked by corruption and unemployment. In industrial areas the loss of industry (such as the shutting down of the refinery in Sisak) was particularly lamented and veterans in that region felt sold out by the Croatian state. In other words, there is a view that the hope during and immediately following the war seems to have been lost to corruption. Much blame for this is attributed to the Croatian state, which makes it much harder for its institution to gain legitimacy and do their work effectively.

Furthermore, respondents saw issues of transitional justice as a means by successive governments to divert attention from the real problem in the country, namely the economy. This indicates a far deeper image problem of transitional justice, since the public may not think issues of transitional justice are important, but rather that they are hijacked (to use Jelena Subotić’s terminology) by the government in order to divert their attention. It is then not surprising when such efforts are not taken seriously or given much priority in the eyes of the public.


Given the poor image of the neoliberal economic transition in Croatia, it is possible that transitional justice efforts suffer from being seen as related to it. Victims feel that they cannot participate in the process and they feel unrepresented by the Croatian state, which is seen as cultivating a corrupt economy. Moreover, successive governments are seen as using transitional justice as a means to perpetuate this corruption. Arguably transitional justice institutions could have done more to make it clear who they were designed to deal with and how, leaving other plights for justice to different actors. Mechanisms of transitional justice could have also been used to unearth crimes of the Tuđman regime since criminalising the regime on one level may have helped the society more broadly come to terms with the regime’s other crimes. At the very least, more attention could be paid to how transitional justice can deal with economic crimes, if it can at all.