The government’s proposals regarding “new regions” in Croatia should undergo a democratic debate: Why regional competences should not be abolished.
By Prof. Damir Magaš, PhD University of Zadar (HR)
Since the contemporary regionalisation of Croatia in 1993, the 21 existing
administrative-territorial units or counties (also called “županija” in Croatian) –
including the City of Zagreb – form the basis of the current regional system.
There is actually no intermediary body between the central government and the
counties which have significant powers regarding self-government and even
possess an important part of state authority, especially in state administration
offices which are immediately under the national level. At the beginning of 2014,
seventeen of these units already were members of the AER. A dozen of them
also developed significant relations concerning regional cooperation with other
regions or EU bodies. The Croatian Bureau of Statistics considers these units
should be classified as EU NUTS 3 regions – even though only half of them have
between 150,000 and 800,000 inhabitants –, as well as significant main cities
(such as Zagreb, Split, Rijeka, Osijek, Zadar, Slavonski Brod, Pula, Varaždin
This situation clearly represents a contrast with the Socialist era (between
1962 and 1991) during which a centralised development with nine formal units
and with four strong urban centres divided up into four (macro) regions (Central,
South, West and East Croatia) was encouraged.
The new regionalisation process that has been implemented since 1993
has been conceived as a revival of the system of autochthonous units that
existed in ancient times like the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy or the Kingdom of
Yugoslavia and federal Yugoslavia. The basic purpose of this process is the
revival of peripheral, traffic isolated, economically disadvantaged units as well as
the resurgence of a decentralised, non-concentrated, dispersed, comprehensive
and networked development.
However, the initial intention of balanced development has only been
partially achieved. As a matter of fact, the concentration of the majority of
national goods (approximately 65%) in the metropolis, Zagreb, is contrary to the
original aspirations and indicates that the idea of a decentralised system has
been circumvented. This means that, in reality, central authorities have
exaggerated competences, contributing to the concentration of power, goods and
all values constituting the country’s capital.
So, despite the administrative-territorial regionalisation of the 21 counties
and the proclaimed power devolution, polarisation process went on in Croatia
without serious implementation of a balanced polycentric development option.
Instead of seriously considering the causes of a too strong centralisation,
the intention to reduce the number of counties and municipalities has been
promoted during the past few years. One of the main reasons why this has been
driven is the critical economic situation: It has indeed often been pointed out that
some of the existing territorial units are not effective and should be abolished.
However, there are also obvious political and (geo-)strategic elements
encouraging the decrease of the number of regions and of centres of influence.
In an accentuated extent, this reminds of the administrative and territorial
centralistic model implemented during the communist era.
The current Croatian government has been trying to change existing laws
in order to reorganise the competences regions (or counties) currently have for
the past two years with no public consensus and by using insufficient and
unfunded explanations. Various functions or powers are now planned to be
concentrated in the hands of 4 or 5 cities only. These cities would thus become
the centres of the new, larger spatial regions, according to the old socialist
territorial system. In this regard, 15 of the current regions, also AER members,
would lose their authority along with their regional status and become what could
be named “sub-regions”.
Some of the normative texts the government is trying to implement or
modify have been of great significance: Particularly important are the “Proposal
of Change and Modification of the Law on State Administration” (January 2014)
as well as the “Draft Proposal of the Law on Regional Development” (November
The first text aims at creating five regions (designated by numbers: I, II, III,
IV, V), just like the second one (1 NW Croatia, 2 Central Croatia, 3 Eastern
Croatia, 4 Northern Adriatic, 5 Central and Southern Adriatic). Other proposals
promote a similar regional scheme, such as the “National Development Plan of
clinical centres, university hospitals, clinics and general hospitals in Croatia
2014-2016”. This one provides the creation of four regions only: Central and
Northern Region, Western Region, Southern Region and Eastern Region.
If some of the existing regions were not sufficiently affirmed, “too small” or
economically too weak, the government should expound criteria that would be an
explanation to the need to reduce their number. Instead of radically (“from an
extreme to another”) take regional competences away from many of them, it
would be necessary to define new models (when truly needed) which would take
into account the existing, well-established, successful regions. This applies more
specifically to Zadar (North Dalmatia and Lika regions) and Slavonski Brod (West
Slavonia), as well as to Pula (Istria), which are the major regional centres after
Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Osijek (amongst others).
Instead of trying to find the best way to adjust to EU criteria that define
regions (such as NUTS 3 regions for instance) and thus keep a reasonable
number of regional complexes already existing in Croatia – probably somewhere
between 8 and 10 (or even 12), which would be diametrically opposed to the
“from an extreme to another” method –, the new scheme of five state offices –
and of five de facto new regions (new counties or macro-counties) – has already
been outlined. The “Proposal of Change and Modification of the Law on State
Administration” (January 2014) is, in this regard, contradictory: It “deconcentrates”
by concentration, i.e. by removing competences from at least 15
county governments. It therefore does not respect the EU principles regarding
(NUTS) regionalisation: It is unsystematic, unscientifically conceived and gives
no guarantee of improving the current situation in any way.
Finally, what must be stressed as a conclusion is the fact that the
extremely significant reduction of the number of regions in Croatia (from 21 to 4
or 5) would significantly worsen the conditions of development and potentials of
most of today’s regions (counties areas). Despite all, if it remained necessary to
reduce the number of regions, then it would be necessary to find a reasonable
solution which should result from a broad democratic debate, a scientific
approach respecting geographic, economic, transportation and other features in
favour of the development of the existing Croatian regions. This includes general
consensus and means that the current majority of the Parliament should stop
taking hasty, radical and unfunded decisions. Otherwise, the new regionalisation
and territorial reorganisation would once again favour the polarisation of
significant parts of the Croatian territory on the one hand, and the
“peripherisation” on the other hand. This deterioration would particularly affect
regional entities with prominent centres such as Zadar (fifth city in Croatia with an
urban agglomeration of 125,000 inhabitants), Slavonski Brod (100,000
inhabitants) etc. So, the government’s proposals regarding “new regions” in
Croatia should be the matter of a wide, democratic, as well as multidisciplinary
debate. The abolition of regional competences – at the exception of 4 or 5 cities
– should not happen!
Disclaimer: The view presented in this paper reflects the position of his writer and
does not engage AER as an organisation.