Published in Nacional number 596, 2007-04-17

Autor: Robert Bajruši


Zoran Milanovic – The Rise of Racan's Successor

NACIONAL REVEALS that Racan\'s foreign policy expert has, in only eight years as a SDP member, become the leading candidate to take over as party leader

It was a cold January day in 1993 when a black-haired 26-year-old legal assistant entered the Visoka Street office of Ivo Sanader, then deputy head of the Croatian diplomacy. They shook hands and discussed the coming activities the foreign affairs ministry planned to undertake. There was a heavy workload facing the diplomats, a third of Croatia was occupied, the Croat-Bosniak conflict raged in Bosnia & Herzegovina and was threatening to bring sanctions down on Croatia, and the policies of Franjo Tudjman were leading the country into international isolation. The discussion was short, and Sanader informed the newcomer that he had successfully passed the tests and could start working at the ministry. When they greeted one another at their parting, it is likely the neither of them could even imagine that 14 years later they might become vehement political adversaries in the contest for electoral victory. Because standing opposite Sanader that day was Zoran Milanovic.

The coming two months will show whether Milanovic will take over as the new leader of the Social Democrat Party of Croatia. At the moment a growing number of SDP members back his candidature and, if he manages to achieve what he plans, he could in November, with Ljubo Jurcic, be the chief challenger to the present Government. In Croatian politics it is rare for a 41-year-old to get establishes in so short a period, especially in one of the two leading parties.

Milanovic was born in Zagreb in 1966. He father hails from inland of Sinj, but in private conversation always points out how he grew up on Zagreb's asphalt. He spent his childhood in Trnje, a dicey part of town known for juvenile scuffles. Although not a part of that milieu, he was himself involved in fights, which is probably was motivated him as a teenager to train boxing. He was a good pupil in school, active in various sports and appearing for the Marin Drzic school team. He learned English and Russian as early as in elementary school, and later French.

In the secondary school system of the time he went to the Centre for Administration & Judicature, in the mid-1980s one of Zagreb's elite schools. The school was located in Gundulic Street and in the current Mimara Museum building on Roosevelt Square, and in Milanovic's year it was also attended by Emil Tedeschi, the owner of the company Atlantic Trade, and dozens of today's lawyers, judges, bankers and successful business people. It was a school in which the children of the social elite of the time were enrolled, with most of then continuing their education at the Faculty of Law, a hundred metres up the road. Milanovic too, in 1986, enrolled in Law and went on to be one of the best students. He won the Rector's Award and was one of a four-member student team that took part in Telders, an international competition of leading European law faculties, held at the International Tribunal at The Hague. As the selection process for the competition is very strict, all of the members, including Milanovic, were exempted of the obligation to pass the diploma examination at the Faculty of Law. One of the competitors then was Sinisa Petrovic, now a professor at the Zagreb Faculty of Law; while for Milanovic there was no interest in a university career. He opted rather for the judiciary and became a trainee at the Commercial Court. He would later say that he was already then attracted to the diplomacy and, as soon as there was an opening, he got a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ivan Simonovic, then an assistant at the Faculty of Law, convinced Minister Zdenko Skrabalo to employ a greater number of young legal clerks. The foreign affairs ministry was still located on Visoka Street at the time and in those months several dozen young cadres were taken on who went on to become Croatia's leading diplomats in the following years. The telephone rang on morning in the Milanovic flat, a call from a staff member responsible for personnel affairs at the ministry. She told him that Skrabalo was inviting him to take the tests and Milanovic came for a series of tests and interviews. It is a curiosity that he was accepted into the diplomacy by - Ivo Sanader.

Milanovic was later strongly supported by both Ivan Simonovic and Zoran Piculjan, and he earned the respect of the new minister, Mate Granic. Both were in the top echelons of the ministry for years, Simonovic as Granic's assistant minister and as the Ambassador to the UN, and Piculjan as the Ambassador in Prague.

Milanovic's career in the diplomacy was launched in the International Legal Affairs Department, and he was later transferred to the Political Multilateral. His boss was Jaksa Muljacic, an experienced diplomat who has in recent years been assigned to cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. Former associates describe Milanovic as a very good cadre, who had a speedy professional advancement, especially considering that he was not a member of the ruling party. His decision to stay out of party politics somewhat slowed his professional career, but he was soon to get an unexpected opportunity.

After only a year in the diplomacy, he was in 1994 selected as the first Croatian citizen to serve in international forces. Thanks to his proficiency in Russian, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe sent him on a peace mission to Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in Azerbaijan that had been occupied by Armenian troops in fierce fighting. It was a relatively brief, 45-day mandate, but no doubt a turbulent on. Milanovic was known to say at times that it was a quite dangerous mission, but is hesitant to discuss it in public appearances. He recently explained to a close circle of acquaintances why he avoided discussing Nagorno-Karabakh. He says that at the time many people of his age were still fighting in Croatia's defence, and that any talk of tough life between the Azeri and Armenians would come off as unwarranted bragging. Of his experience there he is known to say only that he found himself in an area teaming with unmarked minefields, and as the greatest danger he points out flying in dilapidated airplanes left over from the USSR.

That year he married Sanja Music-Milanovic, a Zagreb physician. She specialised in epidemiology and works at the Croatian Institute for Public Health. The Milanovic family lives on Sveti Duh Street and have two sons: Ante Jakov (9) and Marko (2 and a half).

Upon his return to Zagreb he continued his career at the foreign ministry and was in 1996 promoted to the post of advisor at the Croatian Mission to the EU and NATO in Brussels. The ambassador there was Janko Vranyczany-Dobrinovic, a friend of Franjo Tudjman's who was only intermittently involved in diplomatic issues, and Milanovic took on most of the work with the relations to NATO. He took part in negotiations, went to briefings held by Brussels officials and wrote reports on the relations of the EU and NATO towards the regime of Franjo Tudjman. Three years ago he told Nacional how it all looked: "While I worked in the 1990s at the mission in Brussels, the politicians there treated us like representatives of a second-rate country."

During his three-year mandate in Brussels he embarked on a postgraduate course in European Law at the University of Flanders. This is a top-notch course of study financed by the Government, and some of the members of the European Commission are its lecturers. Before the end of his work at the Croatian mission to the EU and NATO Milanovic received his diploma from the University of Flanders.

A return to the seat of the foreign ministry followed. It was 1999, Tudjman's regime was in its closing phases and the President lay dying in Dubrava Hospital. Milanovic decided to get involved politically and one day cross Zrinjevac Square, came up to Praska Street and took the elevator to the fifth storey offices of the Zagreb SDP. He did not know anyone and asked for a party membership application. He filled it out on the spot and submitted it to Tajana Vukicevic-Pavicic, then Milan Bandic's secretary. Zoran Milanovic's political career started on that day in December of 1999.

When the HDZ Government was brought down on 3 January 2000 by a coalition of parties, and Racan became prime minister, Milanovic was not long after appointed to the post of the first national NATO coordinator. It was an important job as numerous documents had to be drafted to allow Croatia's accession to NATO, and the former advisor in Brussels, now a member of the SDP, had the professional and political references for the job. Over the following three years he participated in numerous meetings with representatives of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the word on him was that he was one of the top men on Tonino Picula's team. He took part in key meetings, like the accession to the Partnership for Peace program in Florence in May of 2000, or in late 2003 when then NATO Secretary General Bill Robertson received a national decoration from Tonino Picula. He was with Picula in New York when they were approached by Javier Solana who asked them if they needed help in the elections of November 2003. That same 2003 he was appointed to the post of assistant foreign affairs minister responsible for multilateral affairs and was at the post when his party lost the elections and Ivo Sanader took office.

He was known to say from time to time that he had received signals from the HDZ that he could stay on in the diplomacy, but that he turned down the offer. On Christmas of 2003 he held a farewell speech at the foreign affairs ministry on behalf of the defeated SDP team.

In early 2004 Milanovic was considering moving into the legal practice and had several interviews with leading Croatian firms. But Racan then offered him the position of a member of the Executive Committee responsible for international relations and cooperation with other parties. During those days Racan had decided to remain at the helm of the SDP and began to distance himself from his old associates such as Mate Arlovic, Sime Lucin and Mato Crkvenac. Although he already had a superficial knowledge of Milanovic, it was only in January that they held their first concrete talks from which it became clear that the SDP boss was putting together a new team of associates. "I was 35 years old and very interested in politics. Although there were financially more lucrative offers, I knew that this kind of opportunity appears only once in a lifetime. I have a profound appreciation for Racan's political work and I knew I would learn a great deal working with him", he said recently.

At a part congress in the spring of 2004 he was elected to the SDP Central Committee so confirming his intra-party rating. Within a few months it became clear that Racan had great trust in Milanovic. But the first criticism was also level then on his account, and the word in SDP headquarters was that he had been a member of the HDZ in the past, something he has vehemently denied and claims is a lie. In the summer of 2004 consultation were initiated between the SDP and the Peasants' Party HSS on drafting joint electoral slates for the local elections and Milanovic was put on the negotiating team at Racan's proposal. Also representing the SDP were Zeljka Antunovic, Milanka Opacic, Ingrid Anticevic-Marinovic and Zlatko Komadina. Within a few meetings the lack of tolerance among the older cadres towards him became evident and Racan concluded that he needed to stop the conflicts. He called Milanovic and suggested that he withdraw from the team, which Milanovic accepted.

There has been speculation for some time now on the relationship between Milanovic and Racan. It has not been unambiguous, but there are a few facts. First, Racan is the "political father" of Zoran Milanovic and without his support the former diplomat would have advanced much more slowly. Second, Milanovic was absolutely loyal to Racan. In numerous private conversations he would elucidate how the SDP leader had the difficult task of directing the party team, which is on many issues exceedingly divided. The relationship to his superior is well portrayed in a statement of a few months ago, when he answered a criticism to the effect that the SDP was poorly led, and that Racan was to blame for the situation, by saying that that was not so and that he would do everything he could to see the SDP president take the post of Prime Minister in November of 2007. Third, up to the end of Racan's political career their relationship was very good. This was confirmed by the decision to have Milanovic lead the SDP in the IV electoral riding, and he received guarantees that he would be part of a new government if the SDP gets the mandate to form one.

Milanovic claims that the press has conjured up a cooling of relations with Racan when he was in late 2006 dismissed from the post of party spokesman. He had been posted to the duty temporarily, and Racan had explained to him that he would be responsible for media relations only a few months as the return of Gordana Grbic was expected. As Gordana Grbic only returned near the end of the year, he stayed on a few months longer. Milanovic was not exactly in his depth in the role of spokesman, but that is not unusual. He spent years in the diplomacy, then was engaged in political issues, and was suddenly put in a situation to respond to allegations that some SDP councillor in Pozega had taken part in financial malversation. When Chris Cviic, a former editor at The Economist, heard that Racan had appointed his most perspective young politician to the post of spokesman his comment was that "If you want to destroy someone, just put than in that position."

Consternation gripped the SDP when Racan announced near the end of January that he was suffering from a tumour. For the first month there was still belief in a recovery, but by the start of March it was clear to all that the longtime SDP leader would not be able to lead the party at the elections. Although his post was filled by Zeljka Antunovic, there were those who said that it was time to start thinking about new people. One of these was Milanovic who has spent the past few months making regular trips in eastern Slavonia and trying to boost the SDP's rating there. In his meetings with journalists he always insisted that Racan would be back and that there was no sense in discussing an early party congress. He felt that that would cost a lot of time that the SDP could instead dedicate to the campaign and the effort to knock the HDZ out of power. Just thirty days ago he was still ready to back Zeljka Antunovic, under the condition that Racan continue to lead the party.

Milanovic is discrete. He rarely discusses what goes on at private meetings. He has not changed his behaviour even after Racan fell ill. Unlike other SDP members who related their hospital meetings and invited photographers to film them going to Rebro Hospital, Milanovic would say that he was in frequent contact with "the boss", but never related the content of their discussions. He is behaving the same way these days and told no one when he recently visited Racan in hospital. Although it was an important meeting, to questions on what they discussed Milanovic adopts the attitude of a Carthusian monk under a vow or eternal silence: "Do not expect of me to tell you and so gain political points. That is simply not done and what Ivica and I discussed will forever remain between the two of us."

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