It’s rarely good when my country makes world news, except about sport. Last week a car exploded in downtown Zagreb. It happened a couple of hundred metres from the parliament building. In this typical mafia execution, two people were killed: the publisher/journalist Ivo Pukanic and one of his employees.
Why should the deaths of these two men be reported around the world? It is a symptom of something much bigger and more serious, of long-standing criminal activity going unpunished. The bomb was met by a frenzy of statements by Croatia’s politicians, the president declaring dramatically: “Now it is either them or us!”
The government acted as if it was totally surprised, as if something like this had never happened before. But only two weeks ago the daughter of a well-known and politically involved lawyer was executed at point-blank range. A top manager was badly beaten up, another journalist is still recovering from having almost been killed. What these recent cases have in common is that those who gave the orders were never found. Moreover, the investigation gives the impression that nobody is even looking for them.
In the last few years, killings of mafia bosses have occurred in the centre of the city, but perhaps not close enough to the circles of power. Ivo Pukanic’s murder, however, seems to be too close to it: he was known for being well-connected, with one leg firmly in the criminal world and the other in the political one. No wonder that his murder shook the government and was interpreted as a political message.
For the first time it became fearfully evident that the institutions of the state designated to protect citizens are not capable of doing their job. The explosion in the centre of Zagreb is a result of almost two decades of deliberate neglect of serious crimes. The problem – far from being unique to Croatia, of course – is the elaborate network of criminals, politicians, big business and the police. There is a picturesque word for it in Italy: octopus. Even the state public attorney recently lamented in the press the involvement of organised crime in the police and the judicial system. The president of the parliamentary national security council confirmed that criminals had infiltrated the very centre of power.
Apparently this is common knowledge, a banality so to speak. Therefore, the problem is not that nobody knew about such connections, just the opposite – that everybody profited from them. The paralysis of the state institutions was a deliberate one. If too many people too high up are corrupted, who is to throw the first stone? Until an event like the murder of Pukanic threatens to reveal these connections.
There is an atmosphere of fear in Zagreb, perhaps even a danger of destabilisation. In such a situation yesterday’s enemies from the opposition are now offering their support to prime minister Ivo Sanader who is promising a tough fight against crime. A few days after the killing of Pukanic a special anti-mafia squad was formed and 250 policemen from the provinces brought to the capital. Just before that, heads were already rolling, the ministers of interior and of justice were replaced overnight. But can all these measures really work? Besides political will and determination to fight crime and corruption, one needs an efficient apparatus. Perhaps the fear of social breakdown and events spinning out of control could be strong enough motivation for state institutions to take their job seriously this time. But in that case there remains one small question: how can the political establishment direct all these forces against – possibly – itself?
This article was originally published in English in the Guardian on 29 October 2008.