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Croatian report
by Euro Reporter
2013-12-18 10:55:23
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Soccer-Croatian Simunic to miss World Cup after 10-match ban

Croatia defender Josip Simunic will miss the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after being suspended for 10 matches by FIFA for making pro-Nazi chants at the end of last month's playoff victory over Iceland. The Croatian FA was shocked by the severity of the ban and said it was likely to appeal. World soccer's ruling body FIFA announced the punishment in a statement on Monday. "The disciplinary committee took note that the player, together with the crowd, shouted a Croatian salute that was used during World War II by the fascist 'Ustase' movement," it said.

"As a consequence the committee agreed that this salute was discriminatory and offended the dignity of a group of persons concerning, inter alia, race, religion or origin. "After taking into account all of the circumstances of the case, and particularly given the gravity of the incident, the committee decided to suspend the player for 10 official matches," FIFA continued. "The first matches ... have to be served during the final competition of the 2014 FIFA World Cup." At the end of Croatia's 2-0 win on Nov. 19, Australia-born Simunic took the microphone at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, turned to the stands and shouted 'Za dom' (for the Homeland), to which the audience replied 'Spremni' (Ready).

The call-and-response salute is widely associated with Croatia's Nazi-allied Ustasha regime which ruled in 1941-45 and brutally persecuted Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats. Simunic, who plays his club football for Dinamo Zagreb, said in a statement last month that he meant nothing wrong. "As a Croatian who was born and grew up outside my homeland, I associate home with love, warmth and positive struggle - everything we showed on the pitch to win our place in the World Cup," said the 35-year-old.


Same-sex marriage ban divides Croatia

Despite a relatively tolerant climate toward homosexuals, same-sex marriage is not recognized in Croatia. A referendum is being held on December 1 that would define marriage as being between a man and woman. Croatians are deeply divided. For several weeks, one topic has dominated public debate - whether the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman should be adopted in the Croatian constitution. Croatian family law has already defined marriage this way, but the constitution contains no clear definition of marriage. In parliament, the media and on the streets, it seems everything boils down to being "for" or "against." Same-sex marriage has suddenly become an article of faith. Such polarization had not been seen since the war of independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

On Sunday (01.12.2013), voters will go to the polls on the issue in a referendum initiated by the citizens' group "In the Name of the Family. We want to show clearly that the majority of people in Croatia is convinced that marriage is only a union between a man and a woman," the group's head Zelja Markic told DW. "And that all the rights pertaining to marriage can only be part of a union between a woman and a man."

The group collected 750,000 signatures in only two weeks in May - about 20 percent of voters in Croatia, twice as many as the minimum needed to bring about a referendum. For Markic, this was an important step in the development of Croatia's democracy: "This is the first referendum in Croatia to be called for and organized by voters since independence 23 years ago." In this sense, the referendum can be seen as a form of grassroots democracy, because there had previously been only national referenda organized by the state. Now, for the first time, "the citizens will decide what's important to them," Markic said. And that's despite the strong opposition to the constitutional referendum from the Social Democratic-led government.

But it wasn't the grassroots alone who brought about the vote. The main opposition party, the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, and the Catholic Church helped organize and fund the citizens' initiative. The church in Croatia is highly influential - almost 90 percent of the population is nominally Catholic.


What killed Croatia’s EU accession party?

Croatian stocks rallied in the build-up to its addition to the European Union in July this year. But markets have cooled on the former Yugoslav country since then, with membership of Europe's economic and political union failing to counter concerns about low competitiveness and high levels of government debt. Croatia, which borders Hungary, Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia, saw its benchmark stock index peak at 2,025 on March 13 this year, after its accession to the EU was announced. Investors viewed membership as integral to making Croatia a safer investment destination, and enabling its access to EU development funds and the free trade market. However, stocks have subsequently fallen around 12.5 percent, with the index closing at 1,771.80 on Thursday.

Henning Esskuchen of Erste Bank, one of the largest banks in emerging Europe, said Croatia had gained from a "kind of marketing effect" prior to joining the EU in July. However, the immediate benefits of membership did not stop the fact that it lagged behind its eastern European peers in recovering from the global economic crisis. "It (the Croatian stock market) had a strong run-up prior to EU accession that has probably given some momentum, which is fair enough. But actually the date itself is a non event, what is important is the process," said Esskuchen, who heads central and eastern European equity research at Erste.

Croatia fell victim to the impact of the financial crisis later than many of its peers and still remains mired in recession. Its economy is seen contracting for a fifth consecutive year in 2013, and has shrunk by 12 percent over the past five years, according to ratings agency Standard and Poor's. The country has seen a 12 percent decline in real consumption and a 35 percent fall in real investment over the same period.  "Croatia so far has not really been part of the overall recovery in most other markets in the region… Croatia started rather slow and late in reacting to the crisis – now this is kind of firing back and they are one of the last getting out," Esskuchen told CNBC.  The country has also trailed its peers in cutting its budget deficit, even though EU member countries are required to have deficits of less than 3 percent of national GDP (gross domestic product), as well as government debt of less than 60 percent. Instead, its protracted recession has given rise to successive fiscal deficits of 4-5 percent per year and the government does not think it will achieve the sub-3 percent level until 2016.

"In contrast to Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania, Croatia lacks the fiscal policy anchor that the EU's excessive deficit procedure has superimposed on these sovereigns. Budget projections have consistently been based on over optimistic macro-economic forecasts," said Fitch Ratings in a research note last month.  Fitch downgraded Croatia's sovereign debt rating this year along with rival ratings agency Moody's Investors Service. They view the country's prospects of defaulting on its government debt as higher than before.  The government has attempted fiscal consolidation since coming to power in 2011, but its strategy has focused on boosting revenue through higher taxes and tackling Croatia's sizeable grey economy, rather than cutting expenditure. However, the government has admitted that Croatia's high tax economy means there is little scope for further hikes or the introduction of new levies.


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