Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović saw all but one game at her own expense while sporting a national team shirt
Una Hajdari in Zagreb
She wore the team shirt and cheered as Croatia faced France in a thrilling World Cup final on Sunday. Later, soaked by the rain, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović smiled in defeat and hugged every player from both teams as the winners were given their medals.
By the end of the day, it was the Croatian president who had emerged as her country’s star of the tournament. Mediatoolkit, a Zagreb-based analytics company, found 25% more focus on her in news stories about the final than any of the players on the pitch, including the Golden Ball award winner, Luka Modrić, as well as Ivan Perišić and Mario Mandžukić.
More than 80% of the stories were positive, Mediatoolkit said, for a woman who travelled to Russia at her own expense in economy class and often watched from the non-VIP stands – missing only the semi-final against England because it clashed with the Nato summit.
Boris Dežulović, a journalist and political commentator, said: “Her presence at the World Cup could definitely be described as an extended pre-election video.
“She has used this to reinforce her PR strategy of being the people’s president. This is something she has been doing in Croatia for a while now.
“Instead of being limited to the Croatian public, this campaign video of sorts was seen by billions of people all over the world.”
Grabar-Kitarović was elected president in 2015, presented as the new “polished” face of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
The party faced a slew of corruption charges over the years, the most noteworthy being those involving the former prime minister Ivo Sanader, who is involved in five overlapping corruption trials.
Grabar-Kitarović, largely a HDZ bureaucrat until the 2015 election campaign, embraced the party’s legacy as the representative of the conservative and patriotic right, joining the lengthy protests and sit-ins of Croatian war veterans that coincided with the pre-electoral campaign.
However, with her foreign education, excellent command of English and previous high-ranking position in Nato, Grabar-Kitarović stood in stark contrast to the former generals and brutish local mayors usually associated with the HDZ.
Her performance in the World Cup is perhaps the clearest indicator of her role in the HDZ and Croatia’s political sphere, where the president is head of state and the country’s chief representative at home and abroad.
While the prime minister, Andrej Plenković, is tasked with negotiating with the head of Russia’s Sberbank, the largest single creditor of Croatia’s biggest and most troubled conglomerate, Grabar-Kitarović exchanged jerseys with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Executive and operational powers reside in Plenković’s government. Grabar-Kitarović is focused on promoting the values that a large part of the Croatian electorate holds dear – love of country and church – and for the president, another term.