Croatia MPs vote in new cabinet amid economic, migrant crises

Zagreb (AFP) - Croatia's parliament late Friday approved a new centre-right government led by a political novice, who warned "difficult decisions" lie ahead as the EU's newest member struggles with meagre economic growth and an influx of refugees.

More than two months after a general election failed to produce an outright winner, Tihomir Oreskovic, a non-partisan pharmaceutical executive, was voted in as prime minister after laying out his plans to deputies.

Immediately after the vote, Oreskovic and 22 members of his cabinet were sworn in inside the parliament.

Oreskovic's primary tasks include curbing public debt, which has reached 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and attracting investors to Croatia as it emerges from six years of recession.

He will also have to grapple with the continued influx of refugees travelling through the Balkans from Greece in bitterly cold winter weather on their way to Western Europe, in the region's worst migration crisis since World War II.

"I am ready to take over the challenges... We should be ready to make difficult decisions," Oreskovic told the parliament in Zagreb ahead of the vote.

Since mid-September more than 600,000 migrants have passed through Croatia, and Zagreb has repeatedly said they would be allowed to enter as long as neighbouring Slovenia and other Western countries keep accepting them.

Oreskovic said they would continue to consult with regional partners and the European Union on the issue, but he stressed: "The main message is that we will protect Croatia's interest."

His programme includes a pledge to reach average annual growth of three percent, reduce public debt to under 80 percent of GDP within four years, and cut unemployment to under 14 percent, from the current 18 percent.

- 'Austerity policy' -

The 49-year-old was nominated as premier by the main conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the small pro-reformist party Most ("Bridge"), who formed a coalition after weeks of post-election horse-trading.

Raised in Canada, Oreskovic has spent just a few years in Croatia. While some are sceptical of his knowledge of the country, he appears to have been chosen for his business knowledge and lack of political allegiances.

The best-known figures in his government include experienced diplomat Miro Kovac, from the HDZ, as foreign minister and Zdravko Maric, a former top executive with food retailer Agrokor, Croatia's biggest private firm, as finance minister.

Approved by a majority of 83 deputies in the 151-seat parliament, Oreskovic becomes Croatia's first premier not to hail from one of its two main political power bases -- the HDZ and the centre-left Social Democrats.

The two have alternated in power since the former Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in 1991, with the Social Democrats at the helm for the past four years.

They were criticised for failing to implement much-needed reforms, particularly of Croatia's huge and inefficient public sector.

Analysts warned that although the new government's goals were clearly set, ministers had not explained fully how they would be achieved.

"The government's programme is completely clear, it is an austerity policy required by EU. But what is missing are measures that it would undertake," political analyst Tihomir Cipek said.

The country of 4.2 million people joined the EU in 2013, and it remains one of the 28-nation bloc's poorest performing economies, with growth of 1.8 percent expected this year, according to the national bank.