A former prime minister of Croatia, Ivo Sanader, was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison on corruption charges, including taking bribes from two foreign companies, becoming the most senior official in the former Yugoslavia to face jail time for graft.
Analysts said the ruling was a watershed for the Balkan country, which has pledged to stamp out corruption before joining the European Union in July 2013. Croatia has been struggling to overcome lawlessness and corruption, the legacy of the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s and decades of Communist rule.
Mr. Sanader, 59, who served as prime minister from the end of 2003 until 2009, was convicted of accepting a bribe of €5 million, or $6.4 million, from the Hungarian energy group MOL in return for making sure that it secured controlling rights in Croatia’s state oil company INA. Analysts said the Croatian government could potentially review the shareholding agreement with MOL, which has denied any wrongdoing.
The former prime minister was also accused of war profiteering for receiving €545,000 in kickbacks from Hypo Alpe Adria Bank of Austria in 1995 when he was deputy foreign minister and Croatia was under an international trade embargo during its war of independence from the former Yugoslavia.
Mr. Sanader, who betrayed little emotion as the verdict was read, has denied the charges throughout the one-year trial, saying they were politically motivated. He is expected to appeal.
He still faces a separate trial on charges of creating slush funds for his political party, the Croatian Democratic Union, by siphoning profits from state companies and influencing public tenders. The party, which governed for eight years until its defeat in December 2011 elections, is now in opposition.
Mr. Sanader was once one of the most powerful men in Croatia, a seemingly untouchable figure. He helped transform the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, the nationalist party of the wartime leader Franjo Tudjman, into a pro-European Union party and also shepherded the country toward NATO.
But Mr. Sanader resigned suddenly in July 2009 without offering any explanation, prompting shock and surprise in Croatia, before fleeing to Austria, from where he was eventually extradited after apparently trying to go to the United States.
Accusations of excess have long followed him. The Croatian news media have reported that he once used a government jet to fly to Vienna to try on custom-made tuxedos. His villa in an elegant neighborhood of Zagreb was filled with paintings by Croatian masters, some of which prosecutors said he had entrusted to a local butcher for safekeeping, along with suitcases of cash, before he fled to Austria.
“You have damaged Croatia’s reputation,” Judge Ivan Turudic said in court, according to Reuters. “Because you were a top state official, this verdict is a message to those engaged in politics that crime does not pay.” Those present at the trial said Judge Turudic emphasized that the verdict had not been shaped by outside influences.
The ruling coincides with growing fears that corruption is spreading among the newest E.U. members. This summer, Romania’s former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, was arrested on corruption charges and sentenced to two years in prison for his involvement in an illicit party funding scheme, while Bulgaria has come under fire for failing to put crime bosses behind bars.
In Croatia, analysts said that the sentence sent a powerful message, both at home and in Brussels, that Croatia was serious about fighting corruption.
Sasa Segrt, executive director of the Zagreb office of Transparency International, the anti-corruption group, said in an interview by telephone that the aspiration to join the E.U. had played a key role in Croatia’s drive to fight corruption, including the attempt to bring Mr. Sanader to justice. Yet she stressed that he had received a fair trial and defense.
“The Sanader case represents a new notch in the fight against corruption. He represented the epitome of political corruption in Croatia,” she said. “But without E.U. pressure, things would have moved far more slowly.”