Croatia at the Crossroads

Dr. Ante Čuvalo

The following is a translation of an article written in June of 1990, after the first free elections in Croatia.  It was published in the then émigré publication, Hrvatska revija, [Croatian Review], No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 601-605.

It is a political rarity that totalitarian ideologies and absolute wielders of power willingly agree to the division of power with their former political opponents whom they regarded as “enemies of the people and of the state.”  Nonetheless, that is precisely what is happening before our very own eyes.  These are historical events that few generations will experience. The communist ideology and its regimes, for the greater part, have collapsed.  They are not falling apart through pressures from the outside; rather, they, themselves, brought on an ideological, economic, societal, and moral blind alley. The system simply could not go on!

The non-communist world all too easily became accustomed to communism and communistic domination in various parts of the world.  To some extent, this proved favorable to the non-communist powers since in a polarized world of “good” and “evil” everything seemed simpler and clearer, not only in international politics, but also in the political differentiation among various ideological groupings in lands that had pluralistic political systems.  All of this, however, is disappearing.  New formulations are needed to re-structure and re-balance the world’s political, military and economic orders.  Even the exiting ideological differentiations in various countries will have to adjust to the new world situation.   It is certain, however, that new forms of recognition, moves toward division, and unification among the nations of the world will be found. As was always the case, one’s interests will be the main factor in political relations.  The fortune of individual peoples will depend on many circumstances; nonetheless, it will mostly depend on their action, astuteness, courage, and vision—and on their political leadership.

FINALLY, THE WAR IS OVER. Viewed from a somewhat broader historical perspective, it is easy to see that Europe is only now coming out of the throes of the Second World War.  Even though the cannons have, for many decades, been silent, the war, nonetheless, continued.  It continued in various forms.  The most prominent was the so-called “cold war” between the superpowers and all those who found themselves within their camps.  In the meantime, the remainder of the world was not spared of that war’s “cold.”  That was not only a war of nerves; rather, it stood on the foundation of much suffering, imprisonments, and much persecution, as well as, many human victims in military encounters which were said to be “of a local nature,” but, in fact, were the “hot” eruptions that took place under the mantle of the “cold war.”

The Second World War continued, in particular, in the lands that until recently, we referred to as “Eastern Europe.”  In that part of the world, hostilities continued in various forms.  Other than the cold-war between the two blocs, along with the presence of foreign military forces in those lands, the local Stalinist regimes continued their special war against the “enemies of the people.” The regimes deemed it necessary to strengthen their power not only against any existing opposition, but even against a thought of it that might surface in the mind of the people. At the same time, the oppressors had to legitimize their power at the expense of the “enemy,” by blackening their real or potential enemies as being nothing less than the incarnation of evil which lurks beneath the steps of everyone so as to bring destruction and death to the “people.”  Furthermore, the Croatians are only too aware of the fact that Yugoslav regime applied that formula not only to its ideological and class “enemies,” but, in fact, to the entire Croatian people.  Hence, one can easily assert that the Croatians, far more than any other people, continued to live even up to the present in the shadow of the Second World War: their dead remain un-mourned and un-buried!  Their wounds remain un-healed. The division of the Croatian people into two war-camps kept them, by design, in the state of “war” and prevented any sort of normal healing of its wounds of war. Only after the very first free elections and the assumption of political power by democratic forces in today’s Republic of Croatia, we can say that the war in Croatia is coming to an end. Only now its wounds of war will begin to heal, and she will be able to look to the future.

A HISTORICAL MOMENT. If we view conditions in Croatia and in East-central Europe, we can say, in general, that the Croatian people find themselves at one of the most important historical turning-points. As to its importance, this turning-point is neither more, nor less critical or fateful for Croatia or its people than those of 1102; 1527; 1815; 1848; 1868; or 1918, nor, for that matter after the Second World War. The only difference is that this turning-point in Croatian history is far more fortunate (and one can only hope that no one will transform it into a tragedy). The events of the present year [1990] seem not to be so dramatic or stormy on the surface (God, spare us of a “stormy” future since you did not deign to spare us of our “stormy” past!), as those of wartime; however, that does not mean that they are any less significant. In fact, through free elections in Croatia, victory of the democratic opposition, the dignified and peaceful turnout of the people for the election, the choice of the political party that most clearly presented its program, (HDZ) [The Croatian Democratic Party], the magnificent and peaceful transfer of power to the democratically elected Sabor [Parliament], reveals that the Croatian people have learned their political lesson as based on their very own historical experience and that they have firmly resolved to take their destiny into their own hands. This is a peaceful “revolution” that is, as of yet, unfinished—not only in today’s Republic of Croatia, but also in other Croatian regions where it has only begun—a revolution that leads us to the true road of complete freedom and independence. Only when, in the near future, when Croatia achieves full integrity of its nation and complete independence, will this year be seen as being truly a historical turning-point for Croatia.

Up to the April elections and even into those in May, the disseminators of fear, both in and outside of Croatia, endeavored to dishearten Croatians. Those forces that on the one side spoke to the Croatian people of democracy, free elections, the will of the people, and such nice phrases, on the other side, the same “democratic” forces, in advance, made the decision for the same people that the Yugoslav national framework must be kept alive. They were alarming the world and the Croatian people by raising fears and the threat of civil war so as to short-circuit the wishes of the Croatian people for true freedom. In the end, all of that proved to be ineffective. Dr. Tuđman and the HDZ proved themselves prepared and capable of standing on democratic principles and movements, and the Croatian people also proved that they are politically mature, and that the democratic tradition that is theirs did not die. Perhaps, here and there, one will find disillusionment over the fact that the Croatian people confirmed their political maturity with dignity.

MORAL REVOLUTION. The Croatian people and all citizens of good will within Croatia live in joyful anticipation today. They are happy in their belief that the foundations have been placed for completely freeing the Croatian people from all their oppressors and that they will finally be the masters of their own fate. However, at the same time, Croatia and its new government are faced with multiple problems that must be resolved as quickly as possible. Aside from the obvious signs of general crisis—high prices, unemployment, education, highway systems, birthrate, deterioration of the nation’s cultural heritage and monuments, and even the potholes on the streets—there are far more deeply rooted problems that must be faced and solved, or better said, cured: these problems are societal and moral problems that will prove to be far more difficult to cure than those that are material in nature. I will mention just a few such problems.

FEAR. One of the “gifts” given to us by various foreign regimes and ideologies is fear. Societies in all totalitarian countries—and it would seem, we Croatians in particular—lived (and to some extent continue to do so) in fear: fear from betrayal; fear of those in uniforms; fear of those [agents] in civilian dress; fear of the courts and jail; fear in one’s own home; fear on the streets; fear for one’s passport; fear of working in a foreign land; fear at the border—coming as well as going; fears for ourselves; fear of Moscow and of Belgrade; fear of sickness; fear of debt and borrowing; fear of life—and death; and, fear of the people by those in power, and fear of those in power by the people: one was born in fear and one died in fear. This, of course, is not living a normal life. This, clearly, is a life of the downtrodden!  This is a life of imprisonment. This is why the Croatians, in general, and the youth in particular, need a healthy dose of self-confidence, faith in one’s self and in others, confidence in their political leaders and in their nation, faith in a better future that they themselves can build as free individuals in a free homeland.

CORRUPTION. Even though man is by nature prone to be selfish and possessive, the long-known “art” of corruption of the Serbian “čaršija“ spread as an epidemic throughut the Croatian lands already during the time of the first Yugoslavia. In the second and again artificially created Yugoslav state, corruption changed its ideological coat, but not its nature: it is present throughout all the pores of society. As a result of usury, an entire underground economy developed. Many became rich at the expense of the state (that is, at the expense of others), taking out loans, receiving unearned paychecks, forming their own “companies”—in name only, in the West, whose only product was personal enrichment, and who knows what other forms of fraud and bilking took place.

The “technology of corruption” advanced more than anything else in that state! The goal was not to see who could produce more, or work harder, but to see who could “grab” more. Some were even prepared to betray—or even worse, falsely accuse, their friends, neighbors, or even worse, their very own close relatives so as to be “rewarded” by the regime for their civic cooperation. Medical services were “bought,” school evaluations were also bought, and even “justice” was bought….everything was for sale!  Corruption was most widespread among those who held the power and those close to the power holders. In the meantime, the ideologues consciously allowed all of society to be infected by such corruption since they themselves would thereby be spared of criticism in that regard.

Yesterday’s privileged class and those who benefited from it, those who “knew” how to exploit their positions, have a huge advantage at this transitional period in Croatian history over those who earned their bread “by the sweat of their brow.”  Many of them will become the new capitalists since they had already assured themselves the necessary “start-up” capital. The companies from which they managed to put aside the “profits” of the firm into their Swiss bank accounts will now be used to grab what they can for themselves and become the owners or co-owners of those very same companies. They gained the necessary business experience, they educated themselves, and learned the necessary foreign languages; they also educated their children at the world’s best universities, and the like. Many of these same people will now become newly-minted “Croatian patriots” and “lovers of democracy.” Sadly, those who worked hard to earn a living will continue to work hard. Those who were the mainstay of Croatian national consciousness and who made many sacrifices for the cause will, in many instances, be seen as shadows of past “patriotism” by yesterday’s adherents of a bankrupt regime. A feeling that the old injustice continues—and, in fact, expands, instead of being punished will begin to arise. This will revolt many, and turn them away from the political process. In the meantime, so as to assure better times which are already on the mend, many injustices of the past will have to be “swallowed” and we will have to move forward.

Political patronage is present in all countries and in all systems. It will most likely be with us until the end of time. However, in communist countries where the party held absolute power and where competition for political authority simply was not possible, the corruption of the ruling clique was not able to be put under the magnifying glass by its opponents. However, in these new times and with our new circumstances—at a time when we are entering into a new historical epoch where newly-minted “patriots” and “politicians” abound in excess, Croatia and the Croatians must find a cure for corruption, the habit of favoritism, bribery, and similar diseases which have permeated the Croatian national scene for several generations, if they expect to have a better tomorrow. This will prove to be one of the more difficult tasks of the new government and of the entire Croatian people. In the long-term, this will prove to be the real test of our society’s maturation.

THERE IS NO BETTER WORK THAN NOT WORKING! Tito’s Yugoslavia officially was, and continues to be, a nation of workers; however, nothing about it was of the working class. The rulers in his domain were, in fact, non-workers—professional power brokers who were barely-schooled bureaucrats—and all of this was done, of course, “in the name of the workers.” Meanwhile, even a worker spent more time doing everything else except working at his job. He, too, adjusted his thinking to a system that discouraged true work ethics. This was seen as being “normal” under the circumstances. Experts have calculated that when one totals the time that was spent on meetings of the collectives, on sick-leaves, and other fraud, a worker in Yugoslavia, on average, worked only four hours a day. Besides those professional non-workers who lived at the expense of the people, the (non)working habits and productivity in the country, in general, fell to a minimum.

I had ample opportunity in recent years to meet a fairly big number of persons who came to the United States and Canada to visit their relatives. In a large measure, especially with those who were quite young, it was easy to see that they were, by and large, quite adroit and resourceful. Meanwhile, on the other hand, it was equally obvious that most of them were not prepared to roll up their sleeves to do an honest day’s work: they wanted to quickly position themselves so as to accumulate a large amount of money as quickly as possible. They were convinced that this could be done, but one would first have to find the right “conduit” for doing so, and to take advantage of that opportunity. This attitude of “resourcefulness” (in its negative sense), it seems to me, also convinced them that they knew everything that there was to know, and that no one could possibly teach them anything. There was no private ownership, by and large, work was not rewarded; rather what was at play was establishing “connections” and rewarding craftiness along with ideological loyalties. In the meantime, under the new pluralistic circumstances, and with the introduction of a capitalist model of economics, the stress must be on serious work ethic, and good work habits. It must lead to productivity, to solid education, and professionalism rather than to an unmerited privileged position, connections, and some sort of instinctive “resourcefulness.”

NATIONAL PRIDE. Croatians—especially the newer generation—were raised in abnormal national, ideological, political, educational, and sundry circumstances; hence, there exists an imbalance—if not an unhealthy complex—as regards a healthy national identity, a healthy pride in the past history of our people, and in our cultural heritage.

The Croatians and many other peoples, who have a similar historical past, are often criticized that they are in love with their history and that they tend to live in that past glory. They are accused of having history as an enchanting corner wherein they seek out peace, and from which they draw new strength; this is where they are inspired to new hope. It seems to me that this frequent walk through the past can be compared to a walk in an old cemetery where we read various inscriptions with their wise sayings, where we study the monuments and look at the names inscribed on them, and, even though everything seems so sad, we sense some sort of comfort there since in our historical charters, inscriptions, graveyards, and historical ruins, we come to find ourselves and thereby gain new strength for a future that seems unsure. We looked back and continue to look back to our past since it alone seems to be certain; since our future—for centuries past—seemed murky and fog-bound.

Additionally, history was, and continues to be, a branch of knowledge that was always entwined with a moral sense for us Croatians. It is the picture of the present. Experiencing history in such a manner oftentimes served as a hindrance to us. It also served as the threatening sword hanging over our heads used by foreign forces. Croatian history was too often the object of manipulation. Even today, we are judged and accused by history. We are advised by others that we should really renounce our own history. But, to do so, would be to renounce ourselves as individuals and as a people.

Another of our Croatian traditions is to seek understanding for our sufferings, our tragedies, our merits, our past, and even our future from those who are powerful. Meanwhile, there was always a shortage of such understanding towards us. All too seldom do we contemplate the fact that the victors, those who are more powerful and forceful, determine the value and morals of a people’s history, one’s merits, as well as one’s tragedies. “History” does not judge!…It is the mighty who judge. They accuse, judge, and give “absolution” as they please.

Hence, we must extend the possibility to our new generations to come to our Croatian historical past with pure love and a clear intellect. A far more fortunate future presents itself to them as well as a better life. They will not have to, I am convinced, be so enthralled by the past because they will be too busy building a better future for all. However, while building this more fortunate tomorrow, they must not find themselves short of a solid foundation, or be confused at the crossroads that is before them; they must not forget who they are. And, if they are to know who they are, they must love their historical past and heritage.

An attempt was made to de-Croatize the newer generations of Croatians and, in fact, to impose a sense of historical guilt upon them. This is why so many of them tossed off the “burden of the past,” and “freed themselves” from the “narrow” framework of their cultural and historical heritage. They became more “universal” and more “modern.”—namely, “worldly.” (In fact, to be even a “Yugoslav” was to be “universal!” What a tragic comedy!) It should be made clear to the youth of Croatia that one does not live from the historical past; however, one’s national past is, nonetheless, very important for the life of a people, as well as for an individual. In fact, it is well known that the Croatians attempted to embrace pan-Slavism, Yugoslavism, and even some sorts of universalism; however, everyone, in the end, had to come back to the point from which they started. Nothing else could they be but what they were, that is, Croats. All those movements and ideologies were unsuccessful: only the one that was Croatian endured.

The Croatian People do not reject the successes of civilization; we are part of it. In fact, our people wish to be a part of the civilized, modern world—a world we were part of from time immemorial. Sad to say, many of those who are young fail to see or realize that civilization, in the main, is a totality of the successes of various cultural heritages. The civilization in which we live, it seems to me, draws to itself as though a magnet, not only our Croatian youth, but others as well. They fail to see that it is deceiving. Much of that which entices and enthralls them and that they wish to attain for themselves, does not enrich one spiritually; rather, it tends to neutralize the cultural and spiritual richness of a people as well as individuals. This, then, is why one must begin with himself, from his own culture and his own heritage. Only those who are aware of themselves and of their cultural richness can enter into “civilization” and gain benefit from it as well as add to its enrichment. Hence, in this transitional time, Croatian youth who have allowed themselves to become dissipated in their surroundings, must be shown how to be both Croatian and a part of the world in their outlook and world-view. They can enter into the richness and beauty of the mosaic that is the world, and thus, enrich themselves and others most successfully if they first do so through the richness of their very own cultural heritage. Both peoples and individual must seek to find their place under the Sun.

The last decades, Croatia passed through a period of modernization: we have fast communications, TV, work opportunities in the West, a rise in our standard of living, literacy, and the like. However, such advancement also brought with it many of its consequences as regards the moral and societal spheres. Among other things, it is now a shame to be a peasant. (Yes, one can euphemistically be a “farmer,” but, certainly not a “peasant”). Workers, to a large extent, are “workers” with one foot, while still being tied to the village as peasants (farmers) with the other foot. Those who lived many years in the West, are, in the main, persons who came from villages. They have become a “class” unto themselves. Why, after all, they have seen the world!…they speak “švapski” [German], and have managed to “accumulate” a certain amount of wealth—in other words, they are no longer that which they once were. Their children, those who grew up in the world without parents at home, find themselves in a peculiar situation. There is a tradition in that part of the world, as well as among the Croatians, that a person, as soon as he or she finishes some schooling, separates himself from the village and his peasant heritage. When they find themselves among “Ladies and Gentlemen” they are burdened by a sense of inferiority since they just stepped out of a peasants “opanke”—[their peasant, cow-hide slip-ons]. But, when they are at home in their own village, they assume a complex of “superiority” since, after all, they are educated persons. They are no longer for any job that requires anything heavier than that of a pen! Bureaucracy, more often than not, servitude as opposed to real and serious work becomes the “profession” for such people. These sorts of things serve to introduce confusion and instability into Croatian society.

In order for the year 1990 to be truly historical and revolutionary for Croatia and the Croatian people, that revolution, then, must first of all be a moral revolution. Before all else, a sense of human dignity in and towards each person must be re-established, personal, collective, and national freedom must be assured, and freedom from fear of anyone or anything must be made possible. In the meantime, as a people, we must once again make possible a societal and national renascence in Croatia. If we fail to do so, sooner or later, the entire political structure of pluralism, as well as the technical and material advances will bear unfavorable political and social fruits which will, as we ourselves are witness, tend to thrive and ripen in these post-revolutionary times in many parts of the world.

THE CRITICAL TEST IS YET TO COME. Democracy won in Croatia; however, that is only the beginning of the task that yet awaits the newly-elected Sabor, the government, and President Tuđman. It will be the task and duty of the newly-elected leadership to guarantee a true democracy wherein individual as well as interest-groups will be a real part of the political process, and not some sort of mobilized force in service of political competitors. At all costs, they must avoid any sort of process that would lead to a pseudo-democracy since there are too many such “democracies” in existence today. On the other hand, it is also the duty of those who lost the election to look to the common interests of the nation and to constructively remind the government of its failures and shortcomings. Political parties are a form of necessary evil. They tend to separate and divide—but, we know only too well what it means to have a one-party system. A multi-party political system should introduce a new dynamic in our political life, create new ideas, and strengthen our new-found freedom. This is why we must develop and foster a multi-party system in Croatia but not one where political parties will come to exist out of personal interests and spite—where they become an end unto themselves.

Democratic elections in Croatia simply assured the start of the democratic process. Freedom and democracy are far more than just free elections. Politics must not ever again become a “religion” for Croatia or any Croatian citizen. It must be in the service of each and every citizen in Croatia, in the service of freedom, and in the service of the Croatian people. It is also the solemn duty of every Croatian and citizen of Croatia to contribute to the moral and societal renascence as well as to the material advancement of Croatia through their work and sense of responsibility.