Croatia's former PM behind bars suspected of corruption

ZAGREB - Croatia's former prime minister Ivo Sanader was behind bars in a Zagreb prison on Tuesday under investigation for alleged abuse of power and corruption after being extradited from Austria late Monday.

His return comes at a sensitive time for the ruling HDZ party already lagging in the polls just months ahead of general elections.

"Eye to Eye, finally" read the influential Jutarnji List daily frontpage headline showing pictures of Sanader and state attorney general Mladen Bajic.

"Ivo has finally returned home," the Vecernji List daily said, as it offered a detailed description of his transport from a Salzburg prison, via Slovenia to the Croatian capital in a heavily guarded police car.

The 58-year-old Sanader, who led the government from 2003 until 2009, was detained in Austria in early December on a Croatian warrant.

The former PM is suspected of involvement in a string of multi-million-euro (dollar) corruption affairs, but has not been charged yet.

He will remain in custody a month and is to be questioned by anti-graft prosecutors this week, according to media reports.

Sanader is notably alleged to have instructed state-run firms to make million-euro business deals with a local promotion agency.

The money paid for the fictitious services ended up in the pockets of private individuals, including Sanader's own, and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party coffers, according to prosecutors.

The national anti-graft bureau is also probing him for allegedly taking bribes from Hungarian energy giant MOL.

Media speculate that the latter affair is likely to be the first for which Sanader would be charged some time in autumn.

Sanader's return comes as Croatia prepares for general elections, announced for December 4 by Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor.

The Sanader affair could prove embarrassing for Kosor, his onetime close ally, as the party is trying to shift the blame for the corruption entirely on Sanader while party officials claim they were unaware of his schemes.

If the former PM decides to hit back and expose who knew what it could harm the HDZ's chances in the elections. The conservatives are already low in the ratings with the latest polls predicting a social democrat SDP win.

Sanader suddenly stepped down in July 2009, in a move that shocked Croatia and heralded his transformation from a powerful leader to the 'Public Enemy Number One.'

"Certainly for the next five months the Sanader case will become one of the most important judicial but also pre-electoral issues that will hang over HDZ's head like a sword," commented a Novi List columnist.

"But for Croatia's future it is even more important ... to determine if the model of ruling that enabled such corruption is irreversibly behind us or this is just a big show, offering up a scapegoat (Sanader) so that tomorrow ... it will be business as usual?"

The fight against corruption is among key criteria Zagreb has to meet to join the European Union. Croatia, set to join the bloc in mid-2013, has stepped up its anti-graft fight since Kosor took over.