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What's Eating Ivo Sanader?

Published on , , Zagreb

Almost half of the Croatian citizens who were in front of the TV in the early afternoon of Sunday, September 30th, watched the first interview of former PM Ivo Sanader he gave for the state-owned Croatian TV (HTV) under controversial circumstances - it is questionable whether he had right, while a defendant on several cases for corruption and embezzlement, to speak to media. The one-hour long interview Sanader gave for the programme "Sunday at Two" of Alexander Stankovic, a journalist and editor, although causing wide public interest and still is the most discussed issue in the beginning of the week in Croatia, did not manage to reach the most watched interviews in this programme - of Croatia's President Stipe Mesic in 2003, watched by 26% of the audience, and of Serbia's turbo folk singer Lepa Brena in 2009, watched by a little less than 25 per cent. Ivo Sanader managed to draw the attention of only 18 per cent and in general reaffirmed the results from public opinion polls that he is the most hated person in the country.

Many questions, little answers

The presenter, Alexander Stankovic, started the conversation with the question "Who is afraid of Ivo Sanader?", after announcing that those who agreed with the appearance of the former Croatian premier on TV could be counted on a single hand. Sanader did not respond to this question but most of the time he tried to create an impression that he was a victim of a large scale campaign, aimed at disgracing him. He blamed media, the prosecutor's office and even the people in his closest circle during his premiership that they did everything in their power to ruin him. And precisely these efforts of literally the entire country were the reason why he regretted doing one of the most unusual in the region of the Balkans things three years ago - to resign.

In his words, no one, who is innocent, would give up the position of the most powerful man in the state by resigning. He resigned surprisingly in July 2009 but then he did not quote any motives why he was leaving the post. In 2012, however, Sanader explained that he did it under pressure from Slovenia and other European countries to make territorial concessions, which were later agreed to by Jadranka Kosor. He probably has in mind the agreement reached between Croatia and Slovenia for Slovenia's outlet in the bay of Piran which was threatening Croatia's path to the EU.

Everything started in the end of 2010 when the general prosecutor's office asked the immunity of Ivo Sanader as a member of Parliament to be lifted so that an investigation to begin against him for corruption and embezzlement. The actions of the prosecution obviously caught the former prime minster and leader of the then ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) by surprise as he fled the country and was spectacularly arrested in Austria and brought back to Croatia several months later. This is what cleared the country's path toward European membership. In "Sunday at Two", Ivo Sanader recalled something else - that in fact everything started when his right hand, Jadranka Kosor, who later succeeded him in office and as leader of the party, and who completed the accession negotiations, gave him up during a meeting with the general prosecutor, Mladen Bajic, in January 2010.

Sanader was unable to explain what were Kosor's motives, but Bajic's as well, to turn against him, especially after the former premier restrained from directly attacking Kosor and even announced that he would not speak badly about her - a promise he broke during the interview. But for Bajic he "suspected" that a probable motive could be that the general prosecutor gave Sanader two pictures as a gift, thus totally clouding the possible personal motives the prosecutor might have had at the time. By the way, Sanader's claims about Bajic are the most discussed part of the interview on Sunday in the media. The state prosecution came up with a broad declaration, denying all the allegations Ivo Sanader made, among which was also that at orders of the Ministry of Justice and the state prosecution Ivo Sanader was held in tough conditions in prison with the only aim his will to be broken.

Moreover, Sanader said, quoting allegations of his lawyers, that in the USKOK building (the specialised bureau for fighting corruption, created in the process of accession of Croatia to the EU) there was a special room, called "a room for breaking Sanader". He said this in response to the question how was he financing his daughter's stay in New York, where she did not work but was paying a rent. He refused to answer that question, saying that this issue was a subject of the trials against him, after which he suddenly said that there was a secret room, called by USKOK "a room for breaking Sanader". In his words, media were ordered what to do and were under pressure from the judiciary and the prosecution to slander him, while the witnesses the prosecution selected were all dependent - with trials against them, frozen property or accounts, which forced them to say whatever was needed of them.

Where is your watch?

One of the issues for which Stankovic, the presenter, pushed Ivo Sanader hard but failed to receive an answer was why was he without a wrist watch. Sander was famous with the many expensive watches. His collection was estimated to be worth $200,000. But why does he not wear them he refused to say, stating "didn't we agree that we will not discuss that because it is part of the Fimi-Media trial" that is under way right now in the Zagreb regional court. Fimi-Media was (initially) a small PR company which, however, managed to win highly lucrative contracts with public institutions and is considered to be the mediator for the embezzlement. The former prime minister said, though, that he bought his house in the beginning of the 1990s, but "who knew then that I would become a prime minister". "I will only tell you that I came back to Croatia as a rich man", he said, underscoring that he had all the evidence, contracts and witnesses to prove the origin of his wealth.

Yet in the beginning of the interview, however, to the question how was he going by at the moment, there was no trace of the former rich man with businesses in Austria, Hungary and several other central European countries. At the moment, he said, I live by the monthly salary of my wife and my MP pension, which amounts to some 20,000 kunas or less than 3,000 euros. To the question how was he paying for his defence then, Sanader said that they worked for him pro bono. During the investigation against him a number of bank accounts were discovered under the names of relatives of his of millions of kunas. All attempts Sander to be made to provide any information about his wealth were turned aside with statements that everything will be proved and that he had evidence for everything.

The interview is in the headlines of Croatian media a third day in a row and will probably not disappear any time soon because it is essential for the Croatian society and country. Croatia is the only nation in the region which is putting on trial such a high-level official for corruption - the weak spot of the region of the Balkans, where two already experienced EU member states, like Bulgaria and Romania, are still failing to convince their EU partners that they work for tackling the problems in their judiciaries and the rule of law. Bulgaria can boast tens of charges against politicians and former ministers, including a prime minister (Sergey Stanishev), which however, ended ingloriously and seemed to be aimed at settling political accounts. The two countries are under a special mechanism in the area of justice and home affairs, via which the European Commission is monitoring their progress. Croatia avoided the imposition of such a mechanism, for which a great merit has precisely the Sanader's trial.

On radios, TV stations, online editions of newspapers and forums all over Croatia, the interview is being discussed vehemently, although the main conclusion of the people is well known in Bulgaria - "all of them are rascals". Many of the viewers expressed their dissatisfaction with the presenter, Alexander Stankovic, although every journalist will find it difficult to face such a man in the middle of such trials against him. There are not few opinions that Sanader's appearance on TV after two years of silence was a well targeted PR action, the purpose of which was softening the court's stance for him. In this regard, the polls that were conducted in some of the most circulating newspapers show unequivocally that for most viewers Ivo Sanader had full control over the interview. This opinion is shared by 88% of the respondents against 12% for Alexander Stankovic.

By the way, during the interview there was a question how was he viewing the public opinion polls, according to which he was the most hated person in the country. Sanader said that he was probably not the most hated person but politician. He added that he did not have data from the polls but from the elections. Without an answer remained the question "who is afraid of Ivo Sanader?". To this question a woman on the radio said that all politicians were the same and that they had no reason to be afraid of each other. This answer is worrying for Croatian politicians because even in the eyes of Bulgarians and Romanians, but also of Europeans, Croatia has achieved a lot and is much better prepared than Bulgaria and Romania for the EU membership, the opinion of the Croats about their politicians, media and justice, is the same as of the Bulgarians and Romanians about theirs. And if after the long and tough path Croatia will manage to enter the EU with good image, may be it is time that it focuses efforts on building a positive image at home.

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