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Cablegate: Branko Vukelic, New Defense Minister

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RR RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN
RUEHLZ RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHVB #0041 0221230
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 221230Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY ZAGREB
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8490
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC

UNCLAS ZAGREB 000041

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR EUR/SCE, EUR/RPM, INR/B
NSC FOR BRAUN, OSD FOR WINTERNITZ

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PINR MARR HR POLITICAL PARTIES
SUBJECT: BRANKO VUKELIC, NEW DEFENSE MINISTER

REF: ZAGREB 24 AND PREVIOUS

1. (SBU) Among the more controversial appointments made in
the forming of the new Croatian government on January 12 was
the naming of former Economy Minister Branko Vukelic as
Croatia's new Minister of Defense. Vukelic's tenure as
Economy Minister was not viewed as among the more successful
performances in the past government, and there are continuing
efforts by the opposition to raise questions about his past
(see below), but the former mayor of Karlovac continues to
enjoy the support of PM Sanader. Also critical, given the
President of Croatia's role in defense matters, is that
President Mesic has been publicly supportive of Vukelic as
Def Min. Mesic reportedly pushed to have Vukelic's
predecessor as DefMin, Berislav Roncevic, moved from the
Defense Ministry. Roncevic has ended up as Interior Minister.

2. (SBU) Vukelic began his professional career as a project
engineer with the Karlovac-based company "EAB." From 1991 to
1997, he was the manager of the Karlovac branch of INA,
Croatian Oil Industry. He became active in politics around
the time of Croatia's independence in 1991 and rose steadily
through the ranks of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ)
serving as President of the HDZ branch in Karlovac from 1993,
where he also served as member of the City Council until
1997. He was Mayor of Karlovac from 1997-2001. In June
2002, he was selected as Secretary General of the national
HDZ. Opposition politicians in Karlovac accuse Vukelic of
being a very partisan figure who both as mayor and since made
support for the HDZ a criteria for local government jobs and
contracts.

3. (SBU) After Croatia's November 2003 elections, Vukelic was
rumored to become the Minister of Interior. But in the weeks
preceding his appointment, questions arose about his possible
implication in a potential corruption case (in 2001 charges
were pressed against him and his deputy mayor for abuse of
authority in business and forging official documents), as
well as rumors that alcohol had been involved in a 1997 car
accident in which Vukelic seriously injured a pedestrian.
These rumors apparently sidelined him for the Interior job,
so his appointment as the Minister of Economy, Labor and
Entrepreneurship was seen as both a surprise and a
consolation prize.

4. (SBU) As Economy Minister, Vukelic was generally viewed as
a mediocre performer at best, and was largely overshadowed by
Deputy Prime Minister Polancec as the government's chief
economic policy maker. (With Vukelic's move to Defense,
Polancec will now take direct charge of the Ministry of
Economy while also remaining Deputy PM.) Vukelic's
appointment as Defense Minister has drawn widespread media
criticism and resurrection of not only the issues mentioned
above, but questions about whether he avoided military
service during the war and whether he had been sufficiently
patriotic both before and during the conflict. Sanader has
defended the choice by arguing that Vukelic's performance at
Economy was under-rated, and that Vukelic's greatest failing
is that he did a poor job of promoting himself with the
public.

5. (SBU) In our dealings with Vukelic, we have found him open
and seemingly well-disposed towards the U.S. However, the
positive statements he expressed about strengthening economic
relations with the U.S. were never translated into specific
actions or assistance in resolving some of the problems of
U.S. companies.

6. (U) Vukelic was born on March 9, 1958 in Karlovac. He
graduated from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in
Zagreb in 1981. He is married to Djurdjica Vukelic. They
have one son. Vukelic's hobbies are soccer, horticulture and
music. His official biography states that he has a passive
knowledge of English. Conversations with the Ambassador have
either been in Croatian or with each principal speaking in
his own language without translation.
BRADTKE

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