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.