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First Political Challenge for Croatia's Government

Published on , , Zagreb
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Croatia's Prime Minister Zoran Milanović is facing a touch political test on the eve of the first year of his term after the parliamentary elections in December last year, when a liberal-socialist coalition was installed to govern the country with an interesting name - "Cock-a-doodle-doo". His most devoted and closest man in the cabinet, the leader of the Croatian People's Party (HNS - Liberal Democrats) and first Deputy Prime Minister Radimir Čačić, resigned on November 14th after he was convicted by a Hungarian court to 22 months in prison for the death of two people in a car accident in Hungary two years ago.

In January 2010, Mr Čačić, then a member of the Croatian Sabor (parliament), en route to the Hungarian capital, hits with his jeep a small Škoda Fabia from behind, driven by Katalin Liptak. A little after the accident, in a hospital die her 81-year old mother and her 60-year old husband. A lower court convicted Čačić in June this year to 22 months on parole. On a second instance, however, the court changes the sentence to effective for the same term, but with a possibility to serve only half.

The news caught Radimir Čačić in an air plane on his way back from a visit in Qatar, estimated to be very successful, where he was with a big business delegation and in the company of Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić in a search of investments. The surprise was huge as the change of sentence was not expected at all. Čačić's defence was also surprised. On Wednesday afternoon he went straight from the airport in Zagreb to Banski dvori (the government building). After an urgent meeting of the cabinet, exactly at 1700, before the media appeared Premier Zoran Milanović and Radimir Čačić. The news conference was broadcast live by all the big TV outlets in the country and some of them even re-broadcast it in their evening news programmes. The deputy premier resigned from all positions in the government, which are key posts for the country in a very difficult environment. He was a first deputy prime minister under the coalition government, a coordinator of the economic policies of the government and a minister of the economy.

He started the news conference expressing regret for the accident and for the family of Mrs Liptak, and also for what he brought to his family. Čačić did not comment on the sentence, but said he was ready to accept the consequences of "negligence". He thanked the prime minister for their joint work, which he described of quality "above average". For his part, Premier Milanović expressed huge regret that he had to say good-bye to his right hand, acknowledging: "I'm very very sorry". In his words, Čačić was a very valued man in the cabinet, a target for attacks from all sides, the results of whose work would be felt in the future.

In Parliament, most of the MPs showed sympathy with Radimir Čačić, saying that this was something that could happen to anyone. Only the leader of the opposition, Tomislav Karamarko, leader of the Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ), said that Milanović had made a mistake with the very choice Čačić to become a member of the cabinet with such an important post, given that it was known in advance what he had done and that yesterday's outcome was likely.

Zoran Milanović said that by the end of the week the reshuffle issue must be solved, pointing out that the position of first deputy prime minister will be removed. He also said that there would not be any new appointments, but a pure reshuffle. The problem is who will take the hot seat of the minister of the economy? Some MPs called all the political agreements and deals to be ignored for the sake of this post to be taken by a person who can help the country exit the recession. On Friday, he proposed to Parliament to approve Vesna Pusic as first deputy prime minister and the position of minister of the economy he proposed to Mr Ivan Vrdoljak, who is holding now the post of a minister of construction. Mr Vrdoljak to be replaced as construction minister by his deputy Anka Mrak Taritaš.

Čačić said on Wednesday that there will be an extraordinary congress of the HNS party, of which he is the founder, to elect a new leader. Local media report that his position will probably be taken by his deputy in the party Vesna Pusić. Zoran Milanović has already proposed Vesna Pusić to take Čačić's post of a first deputy prime minister. At the moment Croatia is in a severe economic situation, described by Finance Minister Linić as "critical" - a fifth year in a row recession, with an outlook for a positive growth next year, which however will be entirely dependent on the developments in the euro area. The government is continuing to fight the budget deficit and to control the fast pace of debt growth, which already is causing social discontent. What Croatia needs the most at the moment are foreign investments, confidence and stability especially against the backdrop of the tough last steps before the official EU membership.

According to some politicians, this should be the end of the political career of Radimir Čačić, which started in the distant 1990 when he was elected independent member of parliament and became a member of the committee to change the Constitution of Croatia after the divorce with former Yugoslavia. He was a governor of the Varazdin region and a minister of construction in the Ivica Račan's government. He has to appear in two months to serve his sentence, but it is till not clear whether he will serve it in his home country or in Hungary.

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