Croatia's Data Transparency Revolutionary Marko Rakar
BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, May 8 2010
Last night I had dinner in Vienna with Marko Rakar, the founder of Pollitika.com and Croatia's leading political blogger. Less than a month ago, he was arrested and briefly detained by the police on suspicion of posting a secret list of 501,666 veterans from the 1991-1995 Balkan war. The site provoked an immediate uproar in the country, as millions of people went looking for the records of people they now as well as prominent national figures. The site exposed the fact that some public figures who had never served in the military were ostensibly receiving lucrative veterans benefits like premium health care and duty-free car imports, and that about 20,000 people had been registered as veterans despite serving 15 days or less in the military. As there were only 326,000 vets on the list a year after the war ended, many Croatians suspect that thousands have illegally obtained veterans benefits through corruption and bribery. The site, based in the United States, has received more than 12 million visits, an astounding number for a country of just 4.5 million people, and crashed several times from the load.
Rakar denies that he posted the leaked database. But he certainly knows a lot about it, and it's understandable why the police suspected him. He's a data transparency revolutionary. In April 2009, two months before local elections, he posted a searchable database of Croatian voters that exposed widespread fraud. His purpose was to shine light on the fact that there are more people registered to vote in Croatia than are citizens. In many cases, this is because people in neighboring Bosnia or Serbia are taking advantage of loose procedures in border towns in order to gain valuable social benefits, but Rakar points out that local authorities encourage the practice because it gives them an ample pool of extra votes to keep themselves in power.
Rakar says that Croatia is the only country in the world "where the number of voters exceeds the number of inhabitants." In one town, he found the suspicious address of "Dusina 0" (who lives at "zero"?) with 404 registered voters--76% of the town's total voter roll. By posting the whole list online in searchable form, he invited his fellow Croatians to investigate their own neighborhoods and towns, and to report the results back to his site, Pollitika.com. The resulting uproar was front-page news in Croatia for days, and has provoked a serious debate about amending the country's constitution to prevent the practice.
In a country of about 2 million internet users, Pollitika has a huge footprint. Rakar started it in 2006 after a tax audit and his refusal to pay bribes to government auditors drove his successful printing business into bankruptcy. The site is similar to DailyKos, in that anyone can create an account and start blogging on it, but it is open to the whole political spectrum, with Rakar working to encourage civil debate. It now has 4,000 registered users and garners about 150,000 monthly unique visitors.
"The whole point of Pollitika, Rakar says, "is to create a place where ordinary citizens can discuss politics and there is a number of concerned citizens who wish to do so. Unlike Dailykos it is open for both left and right side and if we start talking together, we will sooner or later find common ground and we can then build upon that."
Rakar earns very little from running Politikka, he tells me, though "to make government unhappy has its own rewards." Since he became a political blogger, he has also backed a few maverick candidates for office. In 2007, he ran the Social Democrats online campaign; he backed Ivo Josipovic in his campaign for Croatia's (largely ceremonial) presidency; and more recently he helped an unknown candidate for mayor of Zagreb come from nowhere to grab 40% of the vote against the incumbent. He is now looking to start a "serious citizen journalism site" that would offer analytical, behind-the-news reporting, blending citizen contributions with professional moderation.
I asked him why he does what he does. "It's hard to express," he says. "I just want to see a better country." But he is muckraking for a harder reason too: "Croatian history is full of 'unfinished' stories, and unless we start talking and resolving them we will be forever burdened by our past."