Transparency of the Regulatory System
Croatian legislation, which is harmonized with European Union legislation (acquis communautaire), affords transparent policies and fosters a climate in which all investors are treated equally. Nevertheless, bureaucracy and regulation can be complex and time-consuming, although the government is working to remove unnecessary regulations. The complete text of all legislation is published both on-line and in the National Gazette, available at: www.nn.hr . There are no informal regulatory processes, and investors should rely solely on government-issued legislation to conduct business.
The Croatian Parliament promulgates national legislation, which is implemented at every level of government, although local regulations vary from county to county. Members of Government and Members of Parliament, through working groups or caucuses, are responsible for presenting legislation. Responsible ministries draft and present new legislation to the government for approval. When the Government approves a draft text, it is sent to Parliament for approval. The approved act becomes official on the date defined by Parliament and when it is published in the National Gazette. Citizens maintain the right to initiate a law through their district Member of Parliament. New legislation and changes to existing legislation which have a significant impact on citizens are made available for public commentary at https://esavjetovanja.gov.hr/ECon/Dashboard . The Law on the Review of the Impact of Regulations defines the procedure for impact assessment, planning of legislative activities, and communication with the public, as well as the entities responsible for implementing the impact assessment procedure.
Croatia adheres to international accounting standards and abides by international practices through the Accounting Act, which is applied to all accounting businesses. Publicly listed companies must adhere to these accounting standards by law.
Croatian courts are responsible for ensuring that laws are enforced correctly. If an investor believes that the law or an administrative procedure is not implemented correctly, the investor may initiate a case against the government at the appropriate court. However, judicial remedies are frequently ineffective due to delays or political influence.
The Enforcement Act defines the procedure for enforcing claims and seizures carried out by the Financial Agency (FINA), the state-owned company responsible for offering various financial services to include securing payment to claimants following a court enforced order. FINA also has the authority to seize assets or directly settle the claim from the bank account of the person or legal entity that owes the claim. Enforcement proceedings are regulated by the Enforcement Act, last amended in 2017, and by laws regulating its execution, such as the Act on Implementation of the Enforcement over Monetary Assets, amended in 2020. The legislation incorporates European Parliament and European Commission provisions for easily enforcing cross-border financial claims in both business and private instances. Enforcement proceedings are conducted on the basis of enforcement title documents which specify the creditor and debtor, the subject, type, scope, and payment deadline.
More information can be found at www.fina.hr . Various types of regulation exist, which prescribe complicated or time-consuming procedures for businesses to implement. Reports on public finances and public debt obligations are available to the public on the Ministry of Finance website at: http://www.mfin.hr/en .
Public finances and debt obligations are transparent and available on the Ministry of Finance website, in Croatian only, at https://mfin.gov.hr/proracun-86/86 .
International Regulatory Considerations
Croatia, as an EU member, transposes all EU directives. Domestic legislation is applied nationally and – while local regulations vary from county to county — there is no locally-based legislation that overrides national legislation. Local governments determine zoning for construction and therefore have considerable power in commercial or residential building projects. International accounting, arbitration, financial, and labor norms are incorporated into Croatia’s regulatory system.
Croatia has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 2000. Croatia submits all draft technical regulations to the WTO, in coordination with the European Commission.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
The legal system in Croatia is civil and provides for ownership of property and enforcement of legal contracts. The Commercial Company Act defines the forms of legal organization for domestic and foreign investors. It covers general commercial partnerships, limited partnerships, joint stock companies, limited liability companies and economic interest groupings. The Obligatory Relations Act serves to enforce commercial contracts and includes the provision of goods and services in commercial agency contracts.
The Croatian constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The judicial system consists of courts of general and specialized jurisdictions. Core structures are the Supreme Court, County Courts, Municipal Courts, and Magistrate/Petty Crimes Courts. Specialized courts include the Administrative Court and High and Lower Commercial Courts. A Constitutional Court determines the constitutionality of laws and government actions and protects and enforces constitutional rights. Municipal courts are courts of first instance for civil and juvenile/criminal cases. The High Commercial Court is located in Zagreb and has appellate review of lower commercial court decisions. The Administrative Court has jurisdiction over the decisions of administrative bodies of all levels of government. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and, as such, enjoys jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases. It hears appeals from the County Courts, High Commercial Court, and Administrative Court. Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable and adjudicated in the national court system.
On January 1, 2021 the government established a High Criminal Court, headquartered in Zagreb, which will be responsible for adjudication of second instance appeals against decisions made by County Courts in cases that involve criminal acts.
The Ministry of Justice and Public Administration continues to pursue a court reorganization plan intended to increase efficiency and reduce the backlog of judicial cases. The World Bank approved a USD 110 million loan to Croatia for the Justice for Business Project in March 2020, specifically for the purpose of supporting ICT infrastructure upgrades, court process improvements, and other reforms that will improve justice sector services to improve the business climate. This effort will be led by the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration, in coordination with the Economy Ministry and the Construction Ministry, from 2020 to 2024.
Reforms are underway, but significant challenges remain in relation to land registration, training court officers, providing adequate resources to meet the court case load, and reducing the backlog and length of bankruptcy procedures. Investors often face problems with unusually protracted court procedures, lack of clarity in legal proceedings, contract enforcement, and judicial efficiency. Croatian courts have decreased the number of civil, criminal. and commercial cases and decreased the disposition time for resolution of those cases, however there is still a significant case backlog. The 2020 European Commission Country Report for Croatia assessed that the length of court proceedings continues to be a burden for business.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
There are no specific laws aimed at foreign investment; both foreign and domestic market participants in Croatia are protected under the same legislation. The Company Act defines the forms of legal organization for domestic and foreign investors. The following entity types are permitted for foreigners: general partnerships; limited partnerships; branch offices; limited liability companies; and joint stock companies. The Obligatory Relations Act regulates commercial contracts.
The Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development Internationalization Directorate ( https://investcroatia.gov.hr/en/ ) facilitates both foreign and domestic investment. The directorate’s website offers relevant information on business and investment legislation and includes an investment guide.
According to Croatian commercial law a number of significant or “strategic” business decisions must be approved by 75 percent of the company’s shareholders. Minority investors with at least 25 percent ownership plus one share have what is colloquially called a “golden share,” meaning they can block or veto “strategic” decisions requiring a 75 percent vote. The law calls for minimum 75 percent shareholder approval to remove a supervisory board member, authorize a supervisory board member to make a business decision, revoke preferential shares, change company agreements, authorize mergers or liquidations, and to purchase or invest in something on behalf of the company that is worth more than 20 percent of the company’s initial capital. (Note: This list is not exhaustive.)
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The Competition Act defines the rules and methods for promoting and protecting competition. In theory, competitive equality is the standard applied with respect to market access, credit, and other business operations, such as licenses and supplies. In practice, however, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and government-designated “strategic” firms may still receive preferential treatment. The Croatian Competition Agency is the country’s competition watchdog, determining whether anti-competitive practices exist and punishing infringements. It has determined in the past that some subsidies to SOEs constituted unlawful state aid, however state aid issues are now handled by the Ministry of Finance. Information on authorities of the Agency and past rulings can be found at www.aztn.hr . The website includes a “call to the public” inviting citizens to provide information on competition-related concerns.
Expropriation and Compensation
Croatian Law on Expropriation and Compensation gives the government broad authority to expropriate real property in economic and security-related circumstances, including eminent domain. The Law on Strategic Investments also provides for expropriation for projects that meet the criteria for “strategic” projects. However, it includes provisions that guarantee adequate compensation, in either the form of monetary compensation or real estate of equal value to the expropriated property, in the same town or city. The law includes an appeals mechanism to challenge expropriation decisions by means of a complaint to the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration within 15 days of the expropriation order. The law does not describe the Ministry’s adjudication process. Parties not pleased with the outcome of a Ministry decision can pursue administrative action against the decision, but no appeal to the decision is allowed.
Article III of the U.S.-Croatia Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) covers both direct and indirect expropriations. The BIT bars all expropriations or nationalizations except those that are for a public purpose, carried out in a non-discriminatory manner, in accordance with due process of law, and subject to prompt, adequate, and effective compensation.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
In 1998 Croatia ratified the Washington Convention that established the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). Croatia is a signatory to the following international conventions regulating the mutual acceptance and enforcement of foreign arbitration: the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses; the 1927 Geneva Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitration Decisions; the 1958 New York Convention on the Acceptance and Execution of Foreign Arbitration Decisions; and the 1961 European Convention on International Business Arbitration.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
The Croatian Law on Arbitration addresses both national and international proceedings in Croatia. Parties to arbitration cases are free to appoint arbitrators of any nationality or professional qualifications and Article 12 of the Law on Arbitration requires impartiality and independence of arbitrators. Croatia recognizes binding international arbitration, which may be defined in investment agreements as a means of dispute resolution.
The Arbitration Act covers domestic arbitration, recognition and enforcement of arbitration rulings, and jurisdictional matters. Once an arbitration decision has been reached, the judgment is executed by court order. If no payment is made by the established deadline, the party benefiting from the decision notifies the Commercial Court, which becomes responsible for enforcing compliance. Arbitration rulings have the force of a final judgment but can be appealed within three months.
In regard to implementation of foreign arbitral awards, Article 19 of the Act on Enforcement states that judgments of foreign courts may be executed only if they “fulfill the conditions for recognition and execution as prescribed by an international agreement or the law.” The Act on Enforcement serves to decrease the burden on the courts by passing responsibility for the collection of financial claims and seizures to the Financial Agency (FINA), which is responsible for paying claimants once the court has rendered a decision ordering enforcement. FINA also has the authority to seize assets or directly settle the claim from the bank account of the person or legal entity that owes the claim. More information can be found at www.fina.hr .
Article Ten of the U.S.-Croatia BIT sets forth mechanisms for the resolution of investment disputes, defined as any dispute arising out of or relating to an investment authorization, an investment agreement, or an alleged breach of rights conferred, created, or recognized by the BIT with respect to a covered investment.
Croatia has no history of extra-judicial action against foreign investors. There are currently two known cases, pending for years, regarding U.S. investor claims before Croatian courts. Both investors have also announced plans to file claims at international arbitration courts, citing the U.S.-Croatia BIT as the basis for the action.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Alternative dispute resolution is implemented at the High Commercial Court, at the Zagreb Commercial Court, and at the six municipal courts around the country. In order to reduce the backlog, non-disputed cases are passed to public notaries.
Both mediation and arbitration services are available through the Croatian Chamber of Economy. The Chamber’s permanent arbitration court has been in operation since 1965. Arbitration is voluntary and conforms to UNCITRAL model procedures. The Chamber of Economy’s Mediation Center has been operating since 2002 – see http://www.hok-cba.hr/hr/center-za-mirenje-hoka .
There are no major investment disputes currently underway involving state-owned enterprises, other than a dispute between the Croatian government and a Hungarian oil company over implementation of a purchase agreement with a Croatian oil and gas company. There is no evidence that domestic courts rule in favor of state-owned enterprises.
Croatia’s Bankruptcy Act corresponds to the EU regulation on insolvency proceedings and United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency. All stakeholders in the bankruptcy proceeding, foreign and domestic are treated equally in terms of the Bankruptcy Act. The last available World Bank Ease of Doing Business 2020 rating for Croatia in the category of resolving insolvency was 63 out of 190 countries. Bankruptcy is not considered a criminal act.
The Financial Operations and Pre-Bankruptcy Settlement Act helps expedite proceedings and establish timeframes for the initiation of bankruptcy proceedings. One of the most important provisions of pre-bankruptcy is that it allows a firm that has been unable to pay all its bills to remain open during the proceedings, thereby allowing it to continue operations and generate cash under financial supervision in hopes that it can recover financial health and avoid closure.
The Commercial Court of the county in which a bankrupt company is headquartered has exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters. A bankruptcy tribunal decides on initiating formal bankruptcy proceedings, appoints a trustee, reviews creditor complaints, approves the settlement for creditors, and decides on the closing of proceedings. A bankruptcy judge supervises the trustee (who represents the debtor) and the operations of the creditors’ committee, which is convened to protect the interests of all creditors, oversee the trustee’s work and report back to creditors. The Act establishes the priority of creditor claims, assigning higher priority to those related to taxes and revenues of state, local and administration budgets. It also allows for a debtor or the trustee to petition to reorganize the firm, an alternative aimed at maximizing asset recovery and providing fair and equitable distribution among all creditors.
In April 2017, the Croatian government passed the “Law on Extraordinary Appointment of Management Boards for Companies of Systematic Importance to the Republic of Croatia,” when it became clear that Croatia’s largest corporation, Agrokor, was in crisis and would likely go bankrupt. The Law allowed the Government, in this instance, to install an Emergency Commissioner to restructure the company, which resulted in the creation of the Fortenova Group that took on the core business of the former Agrokor food and retail company.