Croatia and the Croatians – Reflections on the Eve of the 2003 Elections


Six years ago I wrote an article “Croatia Today – An Overview from a Distance.” (Published in American Croatian Review, Year IV, No. 3&4, October 1997 and it can also be found on the web: Besides assessing the political difficulties and pitfalls that the Croatian people were going through in the 1990s, the main point of the article was that Croatia (and other so-called transitional countries) will not make a necessary break with the past and move forward as it should, without a “second revolution.” Gaining political independence was only the first step. If Croatia and the Croatians are to set their sails for a better future, a self-imposed peaceful and painful transformation must take place at all levels (social, political, economic, ethical, educational, cultural).

I am revisiting the subject of Croatia on the eve of the up-coming parliamentary elections (November 23, 2003). It is a good occasion as any to take a look at the Croatian reality, not as a judge but as a concerned and well-wishing observer. I will take a critical view, but to point out negative trends and habits of the people I belong to, is simply a call to make changes and work harder in order to secure a better future for Croatian new generations.

Let the Good Guys Win. If they can!

The up-coming multi-party elections in Croatia are a living sign that the country is independent and free. The existing political processes do provide for individual and group freedoms. However, all elections are not equal.

Croatia needs deeper democratic changes than a rotation of a relatively small number of individuals at the top of political institutions. A mere change of faces is not a proof of genuine democracy. Present indications are that the turnout for the 2003 Sabor/Parliament election will be meager. The election menu is uninspiring and tasteless. People want real changes and not recycling of the same programs, ideas, and people.

From the very beginning of Croatian independence, the political processes are designed more to rotate politicians and political parties than to construct a system that would lead to higher levels of civic participation and of political responsibility of those in power in order to ensure higher steps of democracy. The existence of 91 political parties in Croatia today is a strong indicator that people are free to organize and express their views. But, as the Americans say, “Too many cooks spoil the broth” or the Croatians, Gdje je puno baba, kilava su djeca. The present political tapestry in Croatia has many and colorful nuances but the quality of the thread is poor.

Does Croatia have something better to offer? We hope so, but “the good guys” have little chance to come to the top. Not even close.

Although Croatia has been an independent country only for little more than a decade, people are tired of professional politicians. A large number of them are “converts” from the former communist regime and they practically have no other talent but to “lead the masses” and be handsomely rewarded for their self-imposed mission. But unfortunately even those who joined politics after independence have quickly separated themselves from the people. In order to legitimize their political “professionalism,” some of them have become “professional nationalists.” In case such “professional politicians” lose elections, they do not return to their real professions, if they have one, but form new political parties. Clearly, political “profession” is more beneficial than working for a livelihood. Hence, no wonder people have become disgusted with such political elite.

An outsider, a politician-citizen, a person who has proven him or herself to be a successful individual outside politics has a slim chance to be elected. The “professional politicians” do not like such intruders. They are perceived as a threat. But outsiders, politician-citizens, in a future Sabor/Parliament would be a breath of fresh air in Croatian politics.

Question of Responsibility

Today’s parliamentary representatives in Croatia are not responsible to the people but to party leaders. Parties have placed themselves as mediators between the people and the centers of power. Members of the political elite depend on the will and whims of the party chiefs and interest groups that support them, and not on the will of the people. Party discipline is more important than the wishes and interests of the citizens. Thus, Sabor is an arena where parties fight not over economic, social or cultural programs but over how to divide the “cake.” The same game is played on the local and national level. The main purpose of the elections is to see who will get state or county jobs, whose wife, brother, daughter, friend, “benefactor”… will be minister, ambassador, secretary or clerk in some local tourist office. Interestingly, the winners are not shy about such deals. For them, making such deals is an essential part of democracy.

Furthermore, just as in the “good old days,” state jobs are still preferred to the private sector. They provide a sense of security and power no matter how low positions and wages might be. It should not be forgotten, working for the state does not demand risks, hard work, or accountability. Quite often, one supports a party that will secure a state job for him or his family, and not a party that might create better conditions for economic development and entrepreneurship.

The existing election system in Croatia, regardless of arguments its defenders might offer, has proven itself to be detrimental for the country. It may work in some older and more mature democracies, but in the countries that just emerged from communism the old habits of one-party system are hard to overcome. People vote for parties not individuals. Faceless parties make and implement policies. Parties are responsible and not individuals. But we know from the recent past, what it means when everyone and no one is responsible.

The political system in Croatia today perpetuates the rule of a few who either inherited power from the Communist regime before 1991 or gained it during the turbulent war years. The leaders of those parties do not have interest in changing the system for the sake of the common good. Why should they? Political power guarantees them and their clans and cronies all the benefits of this world.

The up-coming elections, whoever wins, will not change Croatian politics. Even if some changes are made, they will be of cosmetic nature. The existing system can not be fixed but must be radically transformed. People must compel the present political elite to make radical changes if Croatia is to move forward.

Diaspora and the Up-Coming Elections

Croatians living in diaspora practically have no impact on events or decision making processes in Croatia. A few diaspora-Croats will vote, but that will be so insignificant that one might say that the elections will pass by us almost unnoticed.

There might be several reasons for that. There is “no one” to vote for. Or even if one votes, it is going to be a vote “against” and not “for.” Most of the people do not even know how the present election system works, especially when it comes to diaspora. It is puzzling that Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina are lumped as diaspora, in their own homeland, together with Croats in the USA, Australia, Patagonia, etc. The election rules dealing with the diaspora are rightly perceived as a “game” of Croatia’s internal party politics. If Croatia earnestly desires diaspora representation in the national Sabor, then the law makers should find an honest and rational process that would ensure a genuine diaspora representation, keeping in mind that it is not the diaspora who needs such a voice in Croatia but that Croatia would benefit from a well-meaning diaspora input in determining destiny of the country and people they love.

However, the much bigger issue concerning Croatia and her diaspora is the fact that the most basic relations between the two parts of the same people have not been defined even twelve years after Croatia’s independence. There are no firmly established mechanisms that link diaspora and the homeland. True, there is Hrvatska matica iseljenika/Croatian Homeland Foundation. However, that institution is not only an over-bureaucratized organization but has not been redefined since the fall of Communism.  It is not clear why not. Either it is the result of inefficiency, ignorance, or perhaps it is the fact that the diaspora (especially certain segments) is still perceived as dangerous, a wild card that might disrupt the existing political game in the country.

Recently, we had a chance to read an interview with the present leader of Matica in which he claims that the diaspora should not meddle into Croatian politics at all. Basically, we are told: play tamburitza, dance kolo, come to Croatia and spend your money, go home, and be proud of your Croatian heritage. According to him, only a small number of Croats left the homeland for political reasons. Hence, you left the country freely, stay where you are, and we will even help you to buy national costumes and musical instruments, for your own money, naturally.

Messages like the one above indicate a certain view that is troublesome to many of us and is political (and probably ideological) in nature. Interestingly, Hrvatska matica iseljenika has been a political and ideological instrument from its beginning until today, but the diaspora should keep away from politics.

Some would like to use diaspora for narrow party politics. Others prefer to keep it from Croatia’s political radar and at a distance. However, Croatia can benefit from its diaspora in many ways, including politics, if it so desires and if it is done properly. If Croatia’s political leadership were well-intentioned it would have already made sure that rational and functional mechanisms were in place so that the diaspora would become a living and contributing partner in rebuilding the homeland.

To Live Freedom

Living in Croatia during summer months has given me an opportunity to observe the conditions people live in. Without doubt, ordinary freedoms are there: speech, movement, association, etc. However, under closer scrutiny, the freedom they enjoy is not profound enough. There are still many constraints on daily life that, for the most part, people are not even aware of. They have lived under oppressive regimes for such a long time that dealing with daily nonsense has become a part of life. But to be truly free one must not live under a system that makes life such a hassle.

People are expected to placate everyone who has even a bit of power stemming from their position or profession. This might be a plumber, electrician, tile-layer, mechanic, store clerk, bank teller, professor, medical doctor or any other professional, or semi-professional. One has to not only be nice and correct with them, but also make them feel that they are doing you a favor. People who work in state offices have to be approached carefully. They are the “state”! Thus, we need a veza/connection, political protection, gifts, and if one is a young secretary, she even has to go to bed with her boss(es).

The logic is that if we are nice to them, humble ourselves, know someone who knows them, give them bribes or even go to bed with them, they will do us a favor, give us a job or protect us in the existing position, provide good medical care, fix our car well, issue needed papers, do their work well, come back to finish what they have started, etc. If you approach them in a business-like manner, you might end up regretting it.

The result is that one is actually afraid of those who are supposed to serve the public as office-holders or provide good professional service for an honest pay. But most of all, there is a deeply-rooted perception that power still comes from the top down and not from the bottom up.

Politicians and their bureaucratic dependents make people run from office to office, wait in long lines, come back the next day, and look for a veza in order to, for example, establish a legitimate business, get a building permit, get a property deed, form an association, or even get an official piece of paper of any kind. Such things should be simple and fast. But things have to be complicated in order that one has to feel the power of the state; to make you and I feel that we depend on the wishes and graces of those “above you” and not vice-versa. Thus, those in power are not eager to have clearly defined and efficiently implemented laws and rules that would make the system run more smoothly.

Living in Croatia one can sense that a huge bureaucratic iceberg is floating in Croatia’s political, economic, cultural, intellectual, educational, and social waters. The iceberg is a collection of various power-holders, mostly left over from the recent Communist era. Those are former party officials or appointees, their sons and daughters, or their cronies. (It would be an interesting case study to see who are really the holders of power in the country – how many of them inherited power from the old system and/or were allowed to grab it since 1990.)

Citizens are bumping into this big and powerful iceberg on daily basis but feel that they cannot do much about it. Its true size is invisible but its presence is felt everywhere. Its color has slightly changed but it still remains the same old and frigid monster of the past that refuses to melt.

Systems like the one in Croatia and other “transitional” countries, push people to do things illegally, to go around the law. But such behavior also helps those in power. From jumping to the front of a waiting line to building a house without a permit, sooner or later everyone has done something “illegal.” By making such violations, one becomes (as V. Havel would say) a victim and, willingly or unwillingly, supporter of the existing inefficient and corrupt system. Hence, political power holders are free to continue to do business as usual.

Furthermore, to remind people that everyone has done something “illegal,” some are “caught” and symbolically punished, a few illegally built houses are destroyed, and the message to everyone is: don’t dig too deep – you will be eating the mud we all roll in.

The most often and, one may say, servile excuse one hears is tako je to kod nas / that’s the way it is here, or mi smo takvi /we are that way. Once in a while one can even hear the nonsense that there is a curse on the Croats, dating back to the Middle Ages. But rational people who have a clear vision, who know what they want, and who are ready to work hard will not use such cheap pretexts for their misfortunes. On the contrary, they will wake up, see the problems, stand up for their rights, make necessary corrections, and work hard in order to secure a better present-day life and future of their children.

Croatians are free from Communism and the Belgrade regime, but to be truly free they must try much harder than they have done so far. First, they must desire genuine freedom, take it from those who are blocking it, and truly live it as free citizens, free people in a free country. Freedom can not be imported, bought or received as a gift. It must be home-grown.

Sovereign People in a Sovereign State

One gets a strong impression that Croatian political and other elite groups are constantly looking over their shoulders. They are afraid of Europe (whatever that means), of America, of the Hague, or even of some self-appointed watchdogs of human rights and intellectual inquisitors whose concerns, for the most part, are not genuine human rights or intellectual freedoms but their own image, power, and interests.

It is the role and duty of the Croatian national leadership to set the highest possible standards for themselves and for the country, and then implement them. Such standards are well-known and implemented in the world that Croatia is aspiring to be part of. It is a matter of will of the national leaders to set proper laws and implement them, to do the right thing, and not behave as if Croatia and the Croatians were constantly guilty of something.

Instead, there is a strong urge on part of the Croatian political leaders to seek international approval so that they might be accepted abroad and look good at home. Unfortunately, picture-taking opportunities with some important world leaders are not the result of partnership or the strength of Croatia, but a sign of weakness; a sign that Croatian politicians are not acting as leaders of a truly sovereign nation and representatives of a sovereign people. That is why even a number of “nobodies” in their own country can come to Croatia, be received in high places, preach to the Croatians what they must do or not do, and even the country’s news media makes headlines of such “celebrities.”

For doing things in Croatia, efficiency, precision, well-planning, timing, and similar categories are not a major concern. Instead, people, professionals, and semi-professionals are great in improvising. No problem! Everything can be somehow fixed and resolved.

It seems to me that domestic and foreign policies are quite often improvised. One gets the impression that even serious matters as the war of independence was for a good part improvised. Such quality might be good and even necessary once in a while, but in the long-run such practices are doomed to fail. More time and energy is spent fixing things then moving forward.

In order to do make a better future, Croatians must become genuinely free, free for doing great things, and at the same time be and behave as a truly sovereign nation. But this can be achieved only if people know who they are, have a sense of purpose and clearly defined goals, are ready to work hard to achieve those goals, and are happy that they are able to create a better future than their past. Only then will a nation not be afraid of its own shadow or anyone else.

Civic Responsibility – What is that?

Reflecting on civic responsibilities in Croatia, I am reminded of a story that might be applicable to Croatians, as well as to many other peoples and societies.

A medieval king ordered a great feast to be held for the people in his kingdom. Food, music, magicians, games, dancing… were to be in abundance. Peasants were ordered to bring only one item per family for the occasion. Each household was to contribute a jug of wine to be poured into a huge barrel placed on the main square of the town where the feast was being held.

One of the peasants thought for himself, what if I fill my jug with water and not wine. Who will notice? One jug of water on such a giant barrel won’t make any difference. And he did that. He came to the feast and emptied his jug into the common barrel.

The feast began, food was served, music began to play, and the king ordered his servants to start serving wine from the common barrel. They opened the tap but pure water gushed out.

Every peasant thought the same: who will notice if I bring water instead of wine to the common feast.

This type of thinking and acting might be part of human nature, but in the societies that just emerged from communism and other oppressions, civic responsibility is the last thing on the minds of people.

Croatian people have lived in so many countries and under so many regimes that civic responsibility never had a chance to take root. My grandparents, for example, lived in five different countries before they died after World War II, although they never ventured out more than thirty miles from their home. One was always told what to do and how to behave. Oppressive and foreign regimes do not cultivate civic responsibilities but obedience and fear. People’s main concern in such situation is to survive and that includes beating the system.

There are strong indicators that even after Croatia gained its independence, there are still segments in the country (besides those who still dream about Greater Serbia) that do not feel comfortable with Croatian nationhood. But regardless of such groups, there is still a lack of national cohesion, a national sense of purpose, and a sense of civic responsibility is still a concept that for many does not have much meaning. It is taken as a joke quite often and by too many. The game is still how to use and beat the system and not how to be a responsible citizen. At the same time, the same people are the most vocal in protesting that the country is not functioning as it should.

During the war of independence, Croatians were united in defense of the country but the post-war period has brought divisions, insecurity, doubts, and a lack of common purpose. It seems that there is a shortage of true patriotism on the part of most people, even among nationalists.

Nationalism was a useful ideology in the struggle for independence and freedom. Once that is achieved one has to move on and embrace patriotism, an energy that helps us to contribute, to give freely our share in fashioning a better tomorrow. Unfortunately, we are witnessing that some nationalists and anti-nationalists continue to live in the world of Don Quixote, fighting the invisible enemy. The struggle of today is different from the one in the recent and distant past, it is constructive in nature, takes more patience, and there is no end to it. It consists not of big battles and glorious victories, but of daily and often monotonous routines. It is a life of love, dedication, and work.

For those who do not identify with Croatia, do not consider it their homeland or had a temporary surge of nationalism during the war, patriotism is an alien concept or even a dirty word. For them, the sooner Croatia transforms itself into something else, the better. Then, they can be true world citizens, which in most cases means loving humanity but resenting those near them.

If Croatians are trying to imitate the West in everything, then they should be patriotic as people in the West are. Those of us who live in America are well aware of that and are even part of it. It is perceived as a virtue and civic duty to be an American patriot.

Patriotism, civic responsibility, caring for others, caring for the nation and its riches and beauties, and accepting others and their rights are a part of living comfortably with ourselves and with others in the world around us.

Ideologies as Smokescreen

My life experiences and observations have given me enough evidence to conclude that Croatians like to argue in ideological terms projected to imaginary cosmic proportions, usually without listening to the other side. (Ideologies never tolerate other views.)  Such debates are endless. A good example of such debates is the intellectual Left-Right “war zone” in Croatia in the 1930’s.

In the post-World War II period, Communism suppressed all opposing views but ideological debate has been revived in the post-independence era. For the most part, such noises have been a waste of time because they are not rational discussions concerning existential problems and needs of the day. Furthermore, those who are fanning ideological fires are most often creating smokescreens for their self-interests, material or otherwise.

The Left and the Right see themselves in messianic terms. But Croatia today does not need messiahs. It needs practical and professional citizens in addition to capable leaders who love their homeland and are ready to work hard for themselves and the interests of the nation.

In scanning various Croatian publications one can notice that much time and effort is given to various small issues, often sparked by or turned into ideological clashes. However, this is like curing toothaches when the problem at hand is leukemia or some other life-threatening disease. Instead of diagnosing and curing the entire body and moving on, the nation is kept busy with various minor crises.

We should be mindful also that there is much intellectual “terrorism” going on in the world today. Some of this goes on in Croatia too. It seems that such intellectuals who are policing others think that they are doing something great for humanity. But in actuality no one in the world cares! Perhaps, a new type of human-rights organization may be needed in order to protect people from various types of modern inquisitors.

People should not fall into traps of intellectual fear but live freely. Ideologies and empty debates over “hot issues” are not going to move the country forward, but well-thought plans and hard work. Miracles will not happen either. God has already made miracles for Croatians. He gave them a rich and beautiful land, healthy minds, and, finally, freedom. God’s help is always needed, but He should not be asked to do their work.

Dream of a Better Future

The up-coming elections are near and whoever wins will have influence on the future of Croatia. I am afraid, however, that the elections are not going to bring about the necessary changes in the country. Such changes will not occur of their own accord and they surely cannot be imported. True changes must come from within, from people who still believe in themselves, from those who still dream about a better future, and, most of all, from people who are ready to use their God-given talents to work hard in creating a better tomorrow. It can be done. It is up to us.

Published in “Hrvatski Vjesnik” – Australia, November 21, 2003.

Croatia Today – An Overview From a Distance

Ante Cuvalo
American Croatian Review, Year IV, No. 3 and 4, October 1997, pp. 5-8.
In Slavic mythology Svevid is a god with three faces. He sees everything: past, present, and future. But we mortals tend to forget the past, have difficulty perceiving the present, and have proven to be less than accurate prognosticators of the future. We have so many objective and subjective limitations that even the brightest among us seem half-blind. Yet, for all that, we must make an effort to see “the big picture” in order to have some sense of direction in our lives and in history.
Looking back, we can say that this century has proven to be one of the most tragic and also most exhilarating periods of history. We have passed through two ghastly world wars, the rise and fall of two totalitarian ideologies, the transformation of a world dominated by a few imperial powers to a world of close to 200 independent countries, globalization of economy, information revolution, a shift from a multi-polar to a bi-polar world, and, finally, to Pax Americana. These are just a few of the common experiences of our times. At the same time, we are not only living at the end of the century but also on the eve of a new millennium, which prompts us to scan the present world situation in order to, in the light of the past, detect signs and portents of the new era that began with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and communist ideology.
Countries and societies that emerged from under the rubble of communist totalitarianism are in a unique predicament because they have the extraordinary challenge of transforming themselves if they wish to become part of the (hopefully better) world of tomorrow. For them, the end of the 20th century has been not only dramatic, exhilarating, and challenging, but for some (Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example) it has also been a bitter-sweet, nerve-wracking, and bloody. All of these changing societies find themselves at the crucial juncture from which they will have to climb a slippery slope in order to become an integral part of a democratic and free world.
Freedom is both the most important legacy and the most challenging aspect of western civilization. Other mass civilizations have passed through periods of great achievements and have contributed to the development of human progress but none has embraced the ideals of freedom as our civilization has. The core principle of our freedom is supremacy of the law over everyone, especially over those in power. To embrace and implement this essential ideal of freedom will be the most arduous to the peoples and societies that have emerged from under the colonial type of communism practiced in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Our focus here will be on Croatia, hoping that our observations from a distance will contribute to a better understanding of this old European nation that is now a newly independent country.
It Takes More Than Independence
Croatia has passed through a very challenging history largely for being located where old empires, three leading civilizations (Latin, Byzantine, and Islamic), and big powers have competed and still compete. By some remarkable resilience, however, Croatia and the Croatians have not only survived all the invasions, empires, oppressors, and ideologies, but have finally gained their freedom from the latest oppressor and have become active participants on the world stage. Their fate is now in their hands and they themselves are the most important factor in shaping their own future. Securing national independence, however, is only the beginning. There are many momentous difficulties they have to face and hopefully overcome if they wish to catch up with the present day Western norms of democracy and freedom. Here are a few of the predicaments they must resolve.
Temptations are too strong to slip into the practices of the recent past when the communist party was above the law. Most of the former nomenklatura is back in power. For a short period after the collapse of the old system, there was some hesitation and doubt on the part of many from the former state and party structures to embrace the new course. Some of them did sense the wind direction and have surfed the big wave; some were apprehensive about their own future; and others, especially from the media, even joined anti-Croatian propaganda sponsored by those who wanted to preserve Yugoslavia in whatever form possible. But, by now, practically the entire former elite is back in full force; and not only back on the new ship, but they are in control of the most important leverages of power in the state. Although they claim to be new-born democrats, it is very doubtful that they are eager to embrace the ideals of democracy.
During the entire Yugoslav period (1918-1990), the Croatian political elite (bourgeoisie and socialist-communist) always found itself outmaneuvered by their Serbian counterparts, commonly known as Belgrade Carsija. Now that the Croatian elite (former socialist or nationalist) finds itself fully in charge of national affairs and no longer in the unwilling or willing service of others, a strong temptation exists to grab too much “freedom” for itself and even assume a messianic role at the expense of the rest of the population. Getting hold of state control after a long period of suppression may easily lead to abuse of power. Therefore those who have assumed responsibility for the fate of the nation must exercise care to use power as an instrument for the common good and not for self-serving ends.
Unfortunately, many enter politics or the ever-expanding state bureaucracy not to serve the nation but to find the shortest and easiest road to material gains and self-aggrandizement. Yesterday’s paupers who entered through the right political door have become instant local barons. In all societies the rich tend to have close ties with the political power centers, but in Croatia and other post-communist democracies the tendency is to translate political power into quick economic gains and high social status. To serve the nation is not as important as willingness to play the game. One is reminded here of the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ (448?-380? B.C.) depiction of people who tend to enter politics. The following is the scene where the general, Demosthenes, is tempting a sausage seller to depose the democratic leader, Cleon:
Sausage seller: Tell me this, how can I, a sausage seller, be a big man like that?
Demosthenes: The easiest thing in the world. You’ve got all the qualifications: low birth, marketplace training, insolence.
Sausage seller: I don’t think I deserve it!
Demosthenes: Not deserve it? It looks to me as if you’ve got too good a conscience. Was your father a gentleman?
Sausage seller: By the gods, no! My folks were scoundrels.
Demosthenes: Lucky man! What a good start you’ve got for public life.
Sausage seller: But I can hardly read!
Demosthenes: The only trouble is that you know anything. To be a leader of the people isn’t for learned men, or honest men, but for the ignorant and vile. Don’t miss this golden opportunity.
If this is a stereotype of a politician not only in the ancient Athens but in all societies, then it is even more so for those who suddenly find themselves in transition from captivity and totalitarianism to democracy.
During the Habsburg period, in Croatia and other parts of the empire the system operated within a well developed sense of legality, although certain powerful officials often bent and abused the law. Nonetheless, there was a sense of order and justice (though unequal), and Croatians were part of that political framework and tradition for a long time. Difficulties compounded rapidly when Croatians found themselves in a newly formed South Slavic state (1918) in which the dominant Serbs implemented the Ottoman-cum-Russian tradition of governing. Corruption became the core of the state system and not an anomaly. Belonging to the right nationality, the right party, the right political circle, and having good family connections were all symbolized in the single word veza (connection) that permeated the entire state structure. There was, for example, even a “professional class” of people waiting daily in the corridors of government offices in Belgrade to sell their veza services.
During the socialist era, after an early revolutionary enthusiasm, such corrupt practices became an integral part of a consumer-driven socialist elite whose only goal was enrichment and protection of its power status that guaranteed all possible privileges. These experiences have left a strong mark on Croatian society as a whole, especially on the aspiring elite. Furthermore, living in a country they did not consider their own, ruled by a people more backward than themselves, and oppressed by an ideology that was alien to their tradition, the Croatians developed a strong cynicism toward government, state institutions, and even the state itself. The sense of civic duty faded away. Instead, the main challenge became how to beat the system and those who sustained it at their own game.
Most people find ways to adjust to the situations they live in, no matter how appalling that might be. They learn how to play the game no matter what the political order or ideological climate. But the effect of seventy more years under a corrupt system is that people begin to accept political deviations as normal, as part of life, and they tend to join the game either in order to survive or to move up on the social ladder. Besides, there is a primordial urge in our human nature to surrender freedom in return for the false sense of security provided by the famous three fundamental temptations: bread, authority, and spectacles. Fear of freedom and of its dreadful demands is often stronger than the desire to be free. It is often easier to live under an astrological-like fate than with the burdensome daily responsibilities and uncertainties of freedom and democracy.
People in Croatia are still exhilarated by their recent achievement of freedom, but it is also evident that there is a lack of understanding of what to do with that newly found liberty, what pitfalls to avoid in order not to give it up, and, ultimately, there is a lack of readiness to accept the responsibilities of genuine freedom. Those in power take full credit for Croatia’s independence and expect the people to reward them with unquestionable trust and complete authority. But legitimate and positive authority must have its roots deep in genuine freedom and not in the lack of it. Once freedom becomes dependent on authority, society is on the road to servitude. This is why everyone, especially those in evolving democracies must remove themselves from any state of idleness and cynicism if they are not to become passive crowds, faceless masses without purpose, worshipers of false gods and believers in half-truths, straw heads who cannot think but must be manipulated. People have to be skeptical of those in power, whatever that power might be. Truly free humans never surrender blindly to any party, any ideology, or any force that tries to control or manipulate them, including the news media, which quite often is just another modern abuser of power and a peddler of social tranquilizers. Critical thinking and sound and consistent scepticism are cornerstones upon which our individual and common freedoms stand. That is why the ideals of freedom and the responsibilities that come with it have to be cultivated, nurtured, and constantly guarded in every society, but especially among those who have just emerged from a totalitarian regime.
Croatia has a long tradition of parliamentary politics. Since the middle ages, the Sabor (parliament) among the Croatians has been a bastion of national rights and freedoms. However, not only the power but even the symbolism of the Sabor has diminished since 1918, and the ruling elite today is not eager to restore the role of the Sabor to its rightful place. In Croatia, as in other post-communist countries, there is a multi-party parliamentary system: party-hopping and shopping, and party-multiplying is a common practice. Political competition is more a clash of personalities and petty interests than of solid political programs. Those who feel important or are frustrated for not getting what they “deserve” want to have political followings in order to become “somebodies.” Such characters want to make sure that their presence in the country is felt in one way or another. Furthermore, leaders of all political parties and factions take themselves too seriously, their egos are instantly inflated, and they become strangers even to their own former friends. Such superegos hinder the formation of stable coalitions and partnerships in building a better future.
After living under a communist regime for five decades, it seems as if people have forgotten how to organize themselves into various types of civic groups that would sprout and grow from the bottom up. There is not only a subconscious fear of undertaking such activities but an obvious lack of experience on the part of those who are most needed to do so. On the other hand, the ruling party and state institutions have a tendency to co-opt anyone and every independent group in any way they can. Furthermore, the ruling bureaucracy rarely makes a distinction between potential enemies of the nation and the opponents to their own power, instead, in the good old socialist tradition, they try to have everyone and everything somehow connected to them, and, therefore, under their sway. In the same pre-independence tradition, an enemy is needed, whether real or imaginary, so that those in power can prove to the masses that they are worthy guardians of the nation. In their eyes all of this is a fair game, both legal and good for the country, because it serves their purpose.
Croatians as a people have a strong tradition of hard work, frugality, and self-improvement. Today there are significant hurdles to be removed or jumped over in this regard. Business ethics, employers’ relations with employees, and socialist work ethics combined with capitalist consumerism have been carried over from the communist era. The sons and daughters of the former or present elite have secured or are securing their economic, social, and political future without working or hardly working. Also, thousands of Croatians have been working in western Europe for decades. They have saved and improved their own lives and that of their children. In many cases, however, their children who remained at home and grew up (usually) with grandparents learned how to live an easy life. Thus, the money earned in the West ultimately became a destructive social factor.
There is also a tradition in that part of the world according to which anyone who received even a secondary education deserves something better than a manual job. Although such people might come from villages, it is below their social expectations to work on the family farm or in some other “dirty” employment. The practice of moving to the urban areas and the swelling of state bureaucracy by unnecessary and unprofessional workers continues. The above mentioned and other similar elements have high social and economic expectations, they are excellent consumers but lousy producers, and they easily become fertile ground for social, economic, and political anomalies.
The gap between rich and poor is growing and growing fast. Many of those who are getting richer are becoming so not because of their hard work but because of their political positions and/or good connections. The very important process of privatization of post-World War II nationalized property is taking place. The beneficiaries of nationalization, however, are mainly those who control political power. One should not be surprised that former communists quickly learned the harsh theory of trickle-down capitalism because they had long practiced trickle-down socialism. On the other hand, former nationalists are justifying their accumulation of national wealth by the logic, better “we” than “they.” In economic terms, the beneficiaries of privatization justify their “successes” by arguing that it is good for the entire nation if a few big capitalists emerge in the country because they will become the backbone of future economic growth and provide spin-off opportunities for others. But this type of thinking and action will lead to the disappearance of the present and potential middle class, and the number of the have-nots in the country will steadily grow.
Finally, besides the foregoing as well as other social and historical problems, one should not forget human nature. Both those who blame the past, society, and institutions for all our ills and utopians who think that we can eradicate evil and come to full realization of good are not helping us much in confronting reality. The bifurcation of good and evil, with all its consequences, is at the very core of our humanness. Selfishness, greed, quest for power, drive to kill and to be killed, to love and to be loved, to live and to let live is in all of us regardless of race, nationality, gender, ideology, profession or anything else. These basic human tendencies and issues are to be faced in every society especially where they had been suppressed for long periods of time and, in the Croatian case, where above all else the recent war devastations and traumas are still very fresh. It is precisely here, on the personal level, where the foundations for new and, hopefully, better beginning must by laid.
Need for A Second Revolution
In this century, we have witnessed the collapse of empires and the birth of many independent countries. In very few of them, however, has democracy taken hold. There are many reasons, internal and external, for such a situation, but the most important one is that those societies have failed to transform themselves by undergoing a second revolution. Once independence is secured, a self-imposed peaceful and painful change must take place at all levels of society. Democracy and all it implies cannot be imported, simply imitated, or bought. It has to be learned, nourished, watched over, practiced, and its implementation should not be postponed for “better times.” This type of social, mental, and even spiritual revolution is often harder than the struggle for independence.
Croatia and the Croatians are at the beginning of a new and important era. The country and the people have been tossed about and therefore out of natural “balance” for a long time, and now are in the process of finding their own political, social, economic, and cultural equilibrium. An important question is, however, who and what forces will spearhead this very arduous and long process? At the moment there isn’t a strong visible group(s) that can be identified as the engine(s) of positive change.
The old institutions, from the Academy of Arts and universities to the Catholic Church, need to adjust to the new situation and to rejuvenate themselves if they are to be effective in the future. The quicker these and other institutions face reality and reform themselves the sooner they can become a force for change on the national level. But it seems they are still in the stage of waiting and reassessing their own internal situations.
The ruling party has slipped into some of the old pre-independence political practices. Both its former socialist and nationalist factions are too much preoccupied with self-preservation and maintenance of their hold on power. The former have neither legitimacy nor moral strength to lead a genuine national and social rebirth. The latter have greatly compromised themselves because they have caved in too easily to the temptations of power. Many of them have cashed in their ideals of freedom and patriotism. The opposition, on the other hand, is weak and it is led by people who can not find their way out of the pits of their own making. This spring’s national elections, in which the opposition clearly lost and the ruling party did not really win, should be a lesson for both those in power and those in the opposition. If in a newly independent country, faced with reconstruction and even with securing of its national boundaries, more than 40 percent of eligible voters stay home on election day, it is a clear sign of apathy and protest. Furthermore, there is much mutual incrimination going on among various ideological camps and factions. They are mostly concerned with clarifying the past and not facing the future. Today’s political formations, therefore, are not in a position to lead the much needed silent revolution.
In the Croatian diaspora, after an initial euphoria and a common effort to help during the war, there is an obvious stagnation and a growing indifference toward events in the homeland. Furthermore, there are no genuine patrons among the Croats who are willing to jump-start new and positive activities that would accelerate processes leading to a higher level of freedom, democracy, and cultural achievement. International sponsors of such projects, even if they had good intentions (which is doubtful), had backed either destructive personalities or those who lack legitimacy among the people. The outside forces clearly do not have a real understanding of how to help (presuming that they really want to) an average Croatian to accept the responsibility for his or her freedom and contribute to further democratization and progress.
An old and well-known paradigm of education maintains that the main goal of teaching is to provide students with “roots” and “wings”: the roots so that their lives may be firmly grounded to get nourishment from the soil of our human and group past and thus they may become solid human beings and citizens; the wings is to equip them with intellectual and moral strength to take off on their own, to be free and explore new horizons, to expand their human potential to the fullest. One could say that every nation, social group, and humanity as a whole, just as individuals, need both roots and wings. We need those who will preserve our past, our common memories and traditions; those who can build without destroying the old foundations; those who can see the dangers and caution us not to fly too fast and too far from the firm ground we stand upon, and teach us to guard and appreciate what has been already achieved and passed on to us. At the same time, however, we need individuals and groups who have courage and determination, aspirations, and vision to explore the new domains, take chances, and help us to move forward to new experiences and new frontiers.
Croatia today is rediscovering its true roots that were half-buried for a long time and attempting to find the wings that will take her forward. The old cultural and educational institutions, the tradition of a strong family life, the ancient towns, villages, old churches, medieval castles, and past heroes provide the people with a sense of belonging, stability, and direction. Positive and forward looking Croatocentric forces, therefore, should be seen as necessary and constructive and not as a dead weight from the past to be discarded as soon as possible. These elements have preserved the Croatian heritage, the ideals of freedom, sacrificed the most for the preservation of the nation, and kept alive the hope of independence and statehood. Their work and role did not end with the achievement of national independence. These institutions and genuine patriots should now focus on national renewal and the revolution of the spirit so that a higher level of democracy can be nurtured and flourish.
In Croatian national heritage, on the other hand, there is a long stream of those who were ready to venture out and fly off. Some of them dreamed and worked for genuine Christian unity, Panslavism, Illyrism, Yugoslavism, and other idealistic goals. Unfortunately, most of those excursions proved to be unrealistic, too adventurous, and some even tragic. Today, there are also forces for which Croatia is too small, too confining. They want to fly further and faster. (A few would even fly back to the muck from which they just escaped.) Those who emphasize tradition and roots often see these forces as dangerous. But genuine dreamers are needed in every society. They are the ones who challenge the rest to move forward, to take a wider view, to dream big, to reach higher, and to work harder. The people as a whole will be the judge if the dreamers are flying too far, getting reckless, or becoming a danger not only to themselves or to the society as such. But it is the dynamics of the two, the constructive “right” and the imaginative “left” that can move the nation into higher orbits of freedom and prosperity. But first both sides have to realize the importance of each other and of such dynamics itself.
The new forces for change among the Croatians, it seems, might come from social elements that still have idealism, hope, self-discipline, willingness to work hard for a better future of their children and of the country, and most of all, readiness to be genuinely free individuals in a free nation. A new axis for a “second revolution” hopefully will emerge from the bottom up; from those individuals and groups who have remained faithful to their roots but still have the wings to fly higher; who are willing to embark on the road of personal freedom and higher standards of democracy; those who are able to make what existentialists call “the creative act;” those who are tired of manipulations and nonsense coming from the inside or outside the country; those who are willing to look straight in the eyes of the evil in themselves and around them and work on transcending it; those who are not running after power but have the willingness to stand up to its abuse, not preaching and lecturing but working daily to lower the floor and raise the ceiling of the crawl space the powerholders try to squeeze them into. There are such people and groups. I have met many of them while visiting Croatia. They are a silent majority to be admired for their patience and endurance. But they should start coming out to make their “lighted candles” visible and their voices heard. Once they do so, we may be surprised of how much brightness, inner strength, and willingness there is among the Croatians to make the second millennium better than the one they lived through.