Former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader [JURIST news archive] pleaded not guilty on Thursday to taking bribes worth €10 million from Hungarian energy group MOL in exchange for allowing MOL a dominant position in Croatia's oil and gas group INA [corporate websites]. Hernadi and MOL have also denied the allegations [AP report] that Sanader capitalized on the country's difficult position for personal gain. Sanader stands accused [Reuters report] of corruption, abuse of power and fraud for taking nearly €4 million [JURIST report] from public firms and state institutions in the 1990s, charges which he has denied. Croatia's Bureau for Combating Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) alleged Sanader received a pay-off [JURIST report] of more than 3.6 million kuna (nearly USD $695,000) from Austria's Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank in exchange for the country entering into a loan agreement to receive 140 million Austrian Schillings (USD $14.7 million) in order to place the bank in the Croatian market. Sanader also pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] last week to charges that he accepted a bribe in 1995, claiming he was only an agent for the foreign ministry during talks with Hypo Bank.
Sanader's trial is the first criminal proceeding prompted by EU pressure for Croatia to crack down on corruption. Sanader's trial was postponed [JURIST report] last month for health reasons. Elected to parliament after he stepped down from the prime minister position in 2009, Sanader was indicted in September as part of an anti-corruption campaign launched his hand-picked successor Jadranka Kosor [official profile]. Croatia is close to achieving membership in the European Union (EU), and Kosor hopes Sanader's trial will help ease pressure from Brussels for Croatia to sort out corruption and speed investigations. Sanader was extradited [JURIST report] to Croatia in July in order to face these charges after he was arrested in Austria last December. Sanader had argued that it would be impossible to receive a fair trial in Croatia, but he dropped his stance after media speculation [JURIST report] suggested the appeal could harm EU Croatia's accession. The Kosor government completed accession talks with the EU in June, and is hoping to join in July 2013.