One Foot In Each Homeland – A Returning To Croatia Reality

Danijela and Josip Prahovic with children (Photo: Private collection)

An interview with Danijela Prahovic by Ina Vukic 

Danijela and her husband Josip Prahovic are a couple in the prime of their life who had established a family in Sydney, Australia, and one could say they “had it made”. They had immediate and extended family support there; it is a family of Croatian ancestry living in Australia for decades. They were financially independent and being educated in the social welfare profession Danijela established there a business supporting people to build their life skills and living skills called InnerSparQ. About a year ago they moved to trial living in Croatia and I caught up with Danijela recently (May 2023) to find out about their experiences in a new country. Here is my interview with Danijela. 

Were you and your husband Josip born in Australia? 

I was born in Australia and my Husband was born in Croatia. 

You have three young children who were born in Australia, what was their response to your announcement of going to Croatia to live? 

We are on an open adventure so we set it up with highlighting the positives and negatives that may lie ahead. We included them in the whole process of packing up things and setting up things. We ensure we talk to them every step of the way and check in with them every day as there are always new experiences here. 

About a year now, you have lived in Croatia. What was your and your husband’s main drive in picking up your whole family and going on this adventure from Australia to Croatia? Why did you move to Croatia? 

We always discussed giving Croatia a go and after all the COVID lockdowns and some personal family reasons we realised it’s time to give it a try and explore while we can. It is our heritage, and we just loved the idea of trying to live on bigger land, teaching our kids where our ancestors come from and in general trying the “selo life’’ (village life).

Danijela Prahovic (Photo: Facebook)

Was your plan to move to Croatia permanently, or something else? 

We are undecided. We are what you might call free spirits, we are open to new ideas, new experiences, and new places – we struggle to sit still. We love the idea of being in Central Europe and Croatia definitely has our hearts.

You had a stable business and work in Australia, you had and have your parents and siblings living nearby, you established a young family and the future in Australia seemed safe and prosperous. How did it feel leaving all that and going into a relative unknown, Croatia? 

It was emotionally very challenging for me especially as Australia, the people there and of course my amazing family live there, it is what I have known my whole life. However, the idea of trying Croatia and giving it a go and my faith, that God is with me and my family on this journey is what helped me give this a try. We have lots of family and friends in Croatia to and often visited here so it has always felt like a second home for me. 

What were the main joys of life you imagined you would experience in a new country? Did you experience these joys once you arrived in Croatia? 

I imagined living on land with fresher fruit and vegetables, relaxed atmosphere, my children learning more about their culture and seeing people often without booking everyone in my calendar. I feel like life is so organised in Australia, here it’s more carefree. Since arriving we have experienced eating fresher items but not as much as I thought, a lot of people now are buying much from the shops and so that’s a big change I have seen. As for the social life it is exactly what I wanted – carefree, catching up last minute, music, food and laughing. My children have learnt so much; they didn’t speak Croatian, now they do, they have joined so many different sports here and emersed themselves in this way of living on the land, its so nice to see. The joys have been wonderful. 

What do you enjoy most about living in Croatia? 

Walking the quiet peaceful streets, feeling more relaxed, social life. 

What, if any, were your main fears in moving to a new country, the country of your ancestors? 

The systems that the country has in place e.g., getting documents, paying for things, what items I can buy, e.g., I’m into natural products so accessing that here has been difficult. These systems have tested my patience a lot but the people who work for these agencies have been helpful mostly; some tell you to go back to Australia where its “better” (their words), some are happy you have chosen to be here – it’s really a mixed bag. 

The weather difference. It snows in winter here and I needed to wear big jackets all the time so I wasn’t sure how I would adjust to that; winter was a struggle and not seeing the sun for over 3 weeks wasn’t great. Majority of people in rural Croatia prepare all year with cutting timber so they have it to keep them, and their families warm via heating the rooms and heating water for 6 months of the year. Whereas we flick on a switch, and we are warm or cool in Australia. They need to think ahead here and prepare for the different seasons. 

The health care system was another concern especially being a parent, so far, thank goodness, we have had minimal contact and when we have done so it’s been with a good General Practitioner/GP and private clinics so I can’t complain. 

For some years the return of Croatians from the diaspora has been a largely publicised desire by the Croatian government and many politicians. Once you arrived in Croatia did you receive any help in settling down from any government or government funded source? Were there any readily available information packages on essentials of living such as health cover, employment, housing, education, taxation etc.? 

Nothing that we were aware of…. We did our own research and kept calling and asking questions everywhere, so we have missed out on those so called incentives so far unless there are some that we haven’t found out yet. They send you to so many different departments here when one doesn’t have an answer, they send you to another one, or they just say sorry can’t help you. You must have a lot of patience and spend time calling and researching on your own. 

We asked friends for the departments we need to go to e.g., Medicare, would be HZZO here, and we approached that service ourselves and took it from there. 

Danijela and Josip Prahovic children (Photo: Private Collection)

How was the process of enrolling your children or child into schools? Was there any cost- free assistance for them to learn the Croatian language to the level with which they could easily integrate into school? 

Fabulous process, the local school was very supportive with everything I needed, and it was such a smooth process. There was a fair bit of paperwork and my kids had to do Croatian language testing which takes a while and can be exhausting for them but overall, a lot of the teachers know English which is fantastic, and they have been supportive when I had questions. 

My kids also receive free Croatian language classes after school this has helped them immensely. The government covers the school fees, and they get cooked food (for free) while school everyday, a big difference from Australia. The only possible downside, depending on how one sees it, is they go to school about 4 hours a day compared to 6 in Australia, so if you’re a working parent who has no other family support then you either can’t work or you need to get a babysitter. Some schools have longer hours but that would mean locating to a different town. 

Were there any other programs or services available for integrating into the Croatian society? 

None that we know of or have accessed.

Have you made new friends? Have your children made new friends? 

We have friends here who all have children, so we have all developed some great bonds which I am very grateful for. My children have their own friendship circles and more freedom with play time feels more safer here when they go out to parks. 

Generally, how did you find the transition of living in a new country? What has been the hardest aspect of your “trial / adventure” so far? 

The transition has been very interesting, tested my patience, helped me build resilience. Like with anything in life, I have laughed, cried, said a few times ok it’s time to go back to Australia but most of all I have had such a fun experience that I wouldn’t change a thing. 

What are you doing now? How have you found the work force scene in Croatia? Is it as easy to find a job as it is in Australia? 

We are looking at options if we choose to stay longer. I opened a café which was so interesting for 6 months, but it wasn’t the job for me. The job scene is not that easy here for me, especially my social welfare field which operates quite differently here than in Australia, so I’m starting to do some research and meet new people and see where it takes me. In many cases it still is “who you know’’ to get you a job in certain places. This employment part has probably been the most frustrating for me as I enjoy working and my career is important to me but here it really is baby steps for me. 

Many people work to survive here with minimal money left to enjoy e.g., eating out and they work hard for their money. I respect them very much since I have been living here and seeing how they work and live. I’m motivated to explore the workforce and see what opportunities there may be available. 

What if any is your work or business plan in Croatia? Have you found any frustrations with bureaucracy and red tape we so often hear about in the media? 

I need to do way more research and meeting lots more people. Lots of processes I’m not used to, definitely…… so if you choose to come here you need a great lawyer and a good accountant, without them I would be lost. To do things on your own here is not as simple as it is in Australia. Australia has clear and concise policies and procedures that are simpler, here they have policies and procedures but a lot of paperwork and running around and visiting sometimes up to 5 different departments before it’s all done. They are working on better systems. I’ve seen some changes since we were last here in 2018 so I’m sure they will get there. 

How does the cost of living compare to that in Australia?

Now that Croatia has entered the EU and changed its currency to the Euro and with inflation all over the world, the cost of living here is high. I would say some things cost even more than they do in Australia. I also feel for the average pay of 700-800 euros a month that people get here it’s extremely difficult to live a lifestyle that we are used to in Australia. An example of this: I just to go by bread, pasta, meat and salad for one meal, I’m leaving 25 euros minimum, and this is only for one day where are the other 29 days in the month plus bills, cars, outings etc. The bills are a bit cheaper for water and electricity. 

They have little variety of things here when it comes to items in the supermarkets, they don’t import nowhere near the amount that Australia does and when they do, the prices are double than what the shops in Australia charge. I do miss a lot of products, I’m used to buying in Australia, but I have definitely changed how I shop – I grab only a basket and get what a need… totally different from the shopping I use to do in Australia where I would fill a shopping trolley with things that are not really necessary. Here you have no choice but to adapt and realise you actually don’t need all those things you throw in a trolley, and which sit in your cupboard for months. 

If you could pick up a piece of advice for anyone moving to Croatia, what would it be? 

Give it a go. Everyone is so different. I really believe that if you want to try it then you are prepared for all the ups and downs that it brings but so does living anywhere in the world. I don’t regret the journey not even for a second. The life experience we have received and what my children have learnt is something you just can’t put a price on. Positive mindset and faith in God have definitely helped me to say strong. 

Still At Political Crossroads – Croatian Parliament and Statehood Turn 33 

The Republic of Croatia celebrates its Statehood Day on May 30. That was the date in 1990 when the first democratically elected parliament that would lead Croatia out of the communist Yugoslavia oppressive clutch was inaugurated. It was the time that threatened and preceded unseen horror, Yugoslav Army and Serb aggression, mass murders, ethnic cleansing – epic cruelty and destruction against Croatia and Croats. It was the year after the fall of Berlin Wall when communist regimes came crushing down across Eastern Europe and around it. This was evidently a million times easier for most countries there than for Croatia. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia that was stitched together by Allied imperialistic forces siding with ominous ambitions of the dictatorial Serbian Monarch immediately after the First World War. During World War Two the emerging communist forces crushed the Croatian fight for independence amidst this yet another war marked by brutal politics and destruction on all sides. 

2023 marks the 33rd anniversary of the constitution of the first democratic and multi-party Parliament, and we remember May 30, 1990, when, after decades of communist rule, the foundations of the modern Croatian Parliament were created and its historical role in preserving Croatian statehood was confirmed. But, as far as freedom from communism it is more than clear that those foundations of a new, democratic, and independent of communist fibres state, were indeed false. Communist mindset and communist heritage like a constant pest evidently remained in deeds of many, underground or out in the open.

The complete victory over Yugoslav communist and Serbian aggression occurred in late 1998 and the year after that saw the death of Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, who was undoubtedly the human force of liberation and freedom from communist Yugoslavia that held the majority of Croatians in Croatia and across the world together. As a force of unity and freedom to be reckoned with. Then, year 2000, general and presidential elections, with the emergence on the political scene of communism prone politicians who were either communist operatives in former Yugoslavia or personally associated with those. This transition into would be democracy saw problems arising in several aspects of Croatia’s democracy, steepest decline occurring in the area of corruption (that was exceedingly prevalent in communist Yugoslavia), or rather, stamping it out. 

Albeit with minor changes or cosmetic fiddling, most laws in Croatia even today are reported to be dating back to communist Yugoslavia. Very little, if any, radical or appropriate changes in legislature that would thoroughly reflect the needs of a developing democracy, free from communist indoctrination. The independence of the judiciary, for instance, are merely writings on paper and in real life the Croatian judiciary is not independent of political influence and interference. An example of this appalling state in Croatia could be the one I recently experienced during my current visit to Croatia: the Croatian Orthodox Church (that gathered together in faith Serbs living in Croatia who considered an independent Croatia their home), crushed by Serb-led communist Yugoslavia regime in May 1945 (murdering its leadership in the process), had for at least a decade been endeavouring to achieve its registration as a religious community in Croatia, like any other, only to be faced with the government Minister’s overturning of court of law judgment, after a seven year court battle, permitting its registration with government authorities.  All that time Croatia’s government generously finances the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia, totally ignoring the fact that there are thousands of Serbs of orthodox faith living in Croatia who do not wish to belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. So much for religious freedom in Croatia! To me this looks more like political freedom that ignores all the values of Croatia’s 1990’s Homeland War and the fight for freedom for which 94% of voters had once said “Yes” to and for which rivers of blood were spilled.

The judiciary had its ups and downs, resistant to change, resistant to asserting its obligatory independence within a democracy!  In 2021, for instance, the Supreme Court finally issued a verdict in the long-running Fimi Media case against former prime minister Ivo Sanader and the ruling Croatian Democratic Union/HDZ, finding Sanader guilty and the ruling party responsible for siphoning public funds from state enterprises. Several other high-profile corruption cases have emerged since then, arrests of government ministers among other heads of companies or organisations. However, the judicial branch has not even begun to improve, and the justice system remains under the influence of the HDZ. Social Democratic Party/SDP (former League of Communists), by the way, wore the same boots when it held government during the past 33 years. 

One may indeed ask what’s the use of implementation of government’s various models to fight the runaway corruption in Croatia when in, 2023, its Minister can overturn a Court judgment with a blink of an eye and no repercussions!  I know how this would rate on an independent scale measuring progress of democracy in Croatia!

Indeed, just as it was in communist Yugoslavia, the judiciary in Croatia remains the weakest link in Croatia’s anti-corruption framework: on ‘perceived independence’ it scored lowest in the EU in a 2022 Eurobarometer survey

Corruption cases were a constant in recent years, involving judges, high party officials of the ruling HDZ and opposition, former ministers, and local officials. Although corruption is characterised as one of Croatia’s biggest problems, institutions and the political elite have continued to do only the bare minimum to fight it. And despite registering high levels on corruption perception indexes, citizens also do not use the tools at their disposal, especially elections, to get rid of corrupt politicians. Less than 50% utilise their right to vote at elections within Croatia, while access to polling places for others, such as those living abroad, is brutally restricted or made impossible due to distance and unreasonable personal expenses needed to “catch” a ballot paper.

Given that the judiciary system is a backbone of every functioning democracy it disappoints enormously that 33 years on, in essence and despite existing official statements, Croatian justice system continues as if it was still operating within corrupt communist Yugoslavia.

What tragedy this is!

33 years after its inauguration the Croatian Parliament has only it seems produced worries about independent and democratic Croatia for which multitudes of lives were lost and sacrificed in 1990’s. Through the 33 years one has come and comes across individuals who say that they are better off than what they were in former Yugoslavia – especially those living on the Adriatic Sea, which breaks new tourist records every year (income from tourism is a single major contributor to the state budget). But it seems, the future of the country, to many, looks bleak. More and more young people emigrate (hundreds of thousands in the past decade) because they reportedly don’t see any prospects there. The economy and its self-sustainability have been brought to a crisis point that depends on funds dished out by the European Union. Harvesting of the enormous potential which the Croatian diaspora represents has only been a play of politicians’ words, without follow up in actions. No commitment in all these decades has emerged to place into action a national strategy of making the return (on a larger and needed scale) or the investments from its diaspora happen. Well, I would conclude, former Yugoslavia loathed the Croatian diaspora (because it represented fleeing from horrible communist oppression) and the current official Croatia has done little in attracting and systematically supporting that diaspora to return. Instead, Croatia appears to be allowing the key people for its future to leave the country or not come in at all!    

2024 as a huge electoral year in Croatia (General, Presidential and European Parliament elections) is lining up in the minds of many people as “make or break what Croatia fought for in the 1990’s”, is at the doorstep. The HDZ rule, coupled with its aggressive anti-Croat Serb minority coalition, has proven quite incapable of taking the country there where its founder Franjo Tudjman (and 94% of the voting population) headed (free from corruption, communism; a prosperous Croatian state). The SDP/ Social Democratic Party, found among opposition parties and once quite strong on the political and electoral platform, is utterly incapable of changing anything. The other political parties forming the so-called parliamentary opposition together with SDP resemble an army of leadership hopefuls, ego warriors, that do not have the will or the wish to collaborate with each other to make changes for Croatia as a nation that would bring it back on track with the values cemented by the battle for independence and democracy in 1990’s. While it is in life prudent and necessary for progress not to enter into collaboration with anyone or everyone, but surely, a select few could form a formidable force of change; but only if individual egos are left outside the door. Alarmingly, the ultra-left communist Yugoslavia prone smaller parties appear to be on the rise in the parliament and in the streets. They show no decency nor respect for the grave price Croats paid in 1990’s for an independent state. I often wonder whether this is so because such politicians are not about to admit to the horrendous communist crimes against Croats perpetrated by the regime their family members or friends collaborated with willingly; they are not about to return to the rightful owners the valuable properties their communist ancestors stole from freedom-loving Croats post World War Two.

Is the fight against communist mindset in Croatia still worth our energy, one might ask! You bet it is! 

On my personal spiritual note, Jesus Christ was 33 years old when the persecution, horrible torture against his good teachings culminated in his crucifixion; but he gloriously arose from the dead, anyway! Has the 1990 will of Croatian people for freedom from communism been living the same destiny in the past 33 years? Ina Vukic 

Commemorating Victims of Communist Crimes: If Only They Would Honour Victims By Seating A Few Victim Families In Front Rows

Croatia, Macelj, 13 May 2023 – Commemorating victims of communist crimes, victim families without due honouring as seated away from front rows (Photo: Screenshot)

It seems to me that I have spent half my life wondering “What and who does the Honorary Bleiburg Platoon association serve” (Počasni bleiburški vod) since the organisation of the commemoration of the victims of communist crimes of Bleiburg and the Way of the Cross was stolen from the Croatian diaspora and planted in Zagreb, riddled with former communist operatives. I see, namely, that these commemorations are organised in such a way that they induce the effect of diminishing the significance and horror of the victimhood, of several hundred thousand post World War Two victims!

At the commemoration of these victims of Yugoslav communism held in Donji Macelj on Saturday, May 13, 2023, I finally realised, with a heavy heart, that the most important thing in this commemoration to the organisers and sponsors are not the victims and their descendants (who are also victims) but the descendants of Yugoslav communist murderers or their ideology, for they sat in first rows, not the victims. They, not the descendants of the victims, sat in the first rows, closest to the altar from which Holy Mass in memory of the victims was said! So, in the first rows, on the chairs that signify honouring, not a single victim of that terrible genocide of the innocent Croatian people sat, not a single descendant of theirs! Most of the Croatian government sat there, and they were the first to be greeted! This year, as in previous years, the Honorary Bleiburg Platoon organised the commemoration according to the same pattern and under the sponsorship of the Croatian Parliament: the ruling elite in the first row, closest to the altar, and neither the piety nor the prayers for the victims were visible on their faces or lips from where I sat, along with numerous descendants of the victims. Archbishop of Zagreb Mon. Drazen Kutlesa, leading the Holy Mass, delivered a deeply moving speech focusing on the victims of the communist terror. In Macelj alone 10,000 of them in 130 mass graves so far unearthed. But the Catholic Church was not the organiser of this commemoration, nor of the seating arrangements.

When someone like me comes to Croatia from the so-called civilised world, where at similar commemorations the victims or their representatives are placed in the front rows, often next to the President of a country or the Prime Minister, then this Croatian commemoration leaves the impression of shallowness and superficiality of piety and lack of remorse on behalf of those murderers in whose Party they were once members. This Croatian commemoration was about elitism of those holding power in the country and not so much about demonstrating respect for victims and their families. This is very sad as far as I am concerned and deserves utter condemnation. 

Croatia, Macelj, 13 May 2023 – Commemorating victims of communist crimes, political elites, associated with communist murderers either through family or ideology seated in front rows (Photo: Screenshot)

An unpleasant impression was created that this commemoration created new victims (victims of the commemoration) because, well, those who are associated with communist ideology and regime terror that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Croatian men, women, children and members of the Croatian Army that fought in the Second World War for independence of Croatia were sitting in places of honour during the commemoration; regardless of the fact that the European Union also condemned the communist totalitarian regime. They were not sitting there like those who have already publicly and vehemently condemned these communist crimes and erected monuments to their victims across the country. No, they still let wild grass and weeds grow over mass graves and around the openings of deep pits full of victim remains. 

To me and to most decent, compassionate people this arrangement of seating at the commemoration is perceived as glorification of the perpetrators of the crimes over the victims who are being commemorated, and a kind of license to continue belittling the victims and underplaying communist crimes in the public and state-official space. 

Universally, the right to truth is often invoked in the context of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of humanitarian law. The right to truth implies knowing the full and complete truth about the events that took place, their specific circumstances and the persons who participated in them, including knowing the circumstances in which the violations occurred, as well as the reasons for them. Not in official Croatia. Not about communist crimes. Given that the seating arrangement at the commemoration in Macelj is a measure for revealing the truth, then it seems that these victims will have to wait a long time for it. Unfortunately! 

There is an awful, most unpleasant on humanity’s level, political phenomenon gaining more and more momentum in Croatia. Creating havoc, social division, and heartbreak (especially for victims of heinous communist crimes that are tantamount to genocide). One would have expected the passing time and commemoration of victims would yield a tolerable peace of mind; calmness, forgiveness on national level. However, with the relatively widespread communist mindset in places of power, on local and national levels, the passing time has only brought more determination in those associated in the past with communist operatives to keep justifying and glorifying the atrocious communist crimes and keep labelling the victims and their families as Fascists or Ustashas; even if the latter do not exist and even if the victims were largely not Ustashas during World War Two, and Fascism as such did not exist as a regime in Croatia. The frequent celebration in Croatia of former Yugoslavia’s communist symbols and leaders on the streets of Croatia today is sickening. It is also incredulous that, since year 2000, Croatia has not produced leaders in power who would address this injustice and kick forward a decisive transition from communism.   

Today, 19 May 2023 marks 32 years since 1991 referendum with which Croatians said no to communism, no to Yugoslavia! That 94% “No” vote cost Croatia enormously – 1990’s Homeland War that ensued after Yugoslav Army and Serb aggression. Rivers of blood, rivers of ethnically cleansed Croats from their homes, unfathomable brutality of Serb aggressor and devastating destruction of homes and infrastructure. That, coupled with the arms embargo against Croatia at the time, compared to today and the persistent communist plague interfering with democracy and transition from communism imposes a certain kind of mass restlessness in those faced with such injustice that must, sooner or later, find catharsis. That is simply human nature.  Ina Vukić

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