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.