Croatia: In The Throes Of Threat Of Illiberal Democracy

 

Dr Franjo Tudjman
Ushers Croatia Out Of Communism – 1991
Photo: http://www.franjotudjman.hr

November 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. While for Germany it meant reunification of the country, for communist countries in Europe it meant fall of communism, fall of totalitarian regime, was imminent. For Croats living abroad at the time who pined for democracy and freedom, who fled communist Yugoslavia due to political oppression that made living in Yugoslavia virtually a harsh battle for mere survival and even life-threatening the fall of the Berlin Wall echoed with real prospects for Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia. Sweeter echoes could not have reached their ears and hearts and minds.

Personally, my greatest hope was for Croats living in Croatia and those living outside it to experience freedom. The freedom experienced by people living in full democracies laced richly with opportunities for advancing own life and pursuit of individual expression without fear of reprisals that threaten one’s existence and progress in life. My greatest concern, though, was to experience the brutality of power, and in general, of human nature once harsh communist operatives and pro-Yugoslavia apparatchiks start feeling the heat of rejection.

I recall three key moments from that time. Reading Croatian press published in the diaspora with Dr Franjo Tudjman (the first president of independent modern Croatia) writing about real possibilities of seizing the moment (of the fall of Berlin Wall) and going head-on together with Croatian diaspora in the move to establish a free and independent Croatia. Formation of multiple political parties in Croatia and first multi-party election to form the new Parliament in 1990 after 45 years of communist Yugoslavia totalitarian rule. The independence or secession from Yugoslavia referendum in May 1991 and the phone calls I received from Croatia which all in sweet excitement said words to the effect: “it’s all going to be alright; Croatia will be independent.”

My response was always – I fear all is not going to be alright; the communists are a wild, brutal lot and will not relinquish their power just because 94% of voters voted “Yes” to independence at the referendum. And so, all was not alright – Serb and Yugoslav Army onslaught against Croatia unleashed a horrific war of aggression in Croatia, murderous taking of tens of thousands of lives, ethnic cleansing of Croats from one third of Croatian territory, vicious destruction of Croatian homes, religious and cultural buildings and property.

My biggest hope was that Croatia would adopt the Western democratic values. That Croatian youth will have the same opportunities to advance in life as our children living in the West had.

Thirty years on and Croatia in independent and a member state of the European Union. Democracy seems to have won, but recent political developments and revival of nostalgia for the former communist rule indicate a path towards illiberal democracy. Former communists, or their kin, sit is chairs of power; mainstream media is controlled by those who continue smothering Croatian patriotism and love for Croatian people. One of the biggest challenges to democracy today is posed by the dramatic change in the political-party landscape. Attention understandably has focused on the rise of a variety of populist candidates and movements, but what has enabled their rise is the drastic decline in support for the parties that had long dominated the political scene. Without grossly exaggerating, one can say that for decades the modal configuration of Croatia’s political systems has featured strong centre-left and centre-right parties or coalitions that support the basic principles and institutions of liberal democracy but compete with each other in regard to a variety of specific issues within this larger framework. Current public recriminations that both centre-left and centre -right major parties have not delivered on the initial promise of full democracy and are equally guilty of holding tight to the processes and mindset commensurate with former communist regime and undemocratic mindset has particularly clipped the wings of popularity for the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). While left (whether centre or not) had always been seen as an extract from former staunch communist regime, HDZ is increasingly criticised as being the same with its apparent distancing from its original aim, a democratic state of Croatian people. These days virtually every new round of elections indicates that this longstanding pattern of dominance by the centre-left and centre-right is losing its hold.

Today, much of Croatian society is sick. What is worse, a significant part of it refuses to get cured from communist mindset; lustration has not occurred and every mention or attempt to usher in an organised lustration process is quashed or ridiculed. Communist nostalgic keep churning out fairy tales about how good life was in Yugoslavia, forgetting the cruel drop in living standards once Western financial assistance turned the taps off; forgetting the fact that Yugoslavia (and hence Croatia) had some 1300% inflation by 1989, which saw supermarket shelves bare, petrol severely rationed when available, thousands of companies and employers unable to pay wages to its workers for months upon months…

The source of this state of mind, the state of mind that refuses to be cured from communist mindset, seems to be a feeling that Croatia (and other former communist Eastern European countries, indeed) is just a buffer zone between East and West. Croatia, after 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall still levitates within parameters where either going forward into full democracy or moving backward into a state-controlled existence are possible. The vocabulary of totalitarianism is creeping back unnoticed, which is incredibly dangerous, and Croatia needs to revitalise and maintain with strong resolve the positions it reached in defending the idea of freedom and democracy it fought for in the Homeland War of 1990’s.

This requires a lot of efforts today.

The people of Croatia live in frustration. Victims and culprits became one. The people who have power are those who got rich during the communist Yugoslavia rule and those who got rich during the wild years of privatisation in the 1990s. The corruption and nepotism are still prevalent and the political will of the ruling castes to well and truly rid Croatia of this plague does not exist or is not visible at all. Former agents of the Yugoslav Secret Police (UDBA) are embedded at every level and avenue of society, people representing the former communist power are arrogant and their arrogance stifles progress to painful levels. The loss of Croatian identity is alarming; politicians on the path to preserving and strengthening that identity are mocked, to say the least.

The majority of politicians and people behave as if 1989 [the year marking the fall of communism) never happened. The majority of politicians and people behave as if the European Union had not recently condemned communism as a criminal regime of the past! The “comrades from the party” are attempting to build capitalism with a socialist face: it is the victory of the chosen ones, who operate outside the rules of competition and open tenders. They discard as frivolous the profound and selfless sacrifice for Croatia that Homeland War veterans made.

Judging from public mood expressed via mainstream, non-mainstream and social media, Croatian people are contemplating an essential question: do they want an open full democracy or a closed society, freedom of expression or censorship, rule of law or a new form of authoritarianism. This question cries for articulation, but who will be the brave one to ask it? Certainly, it seems that none of the Presidential candidates currently vying for the high office will ask that question publicly. With Presidential elections due on 22 December this year, it appears most candidates are playing it “safe”; casting their voter-catch net widely. Campaigns are riddled with confusing or unclear messages, with generalised catchphrases promising “something” must change in Croatia (e.g. the slogan of one of strong candidates “Now or Never”) but none are clearly saying what that “something” is and how exactly they aim to change things, even though that “something” gnaws at the bones of most. Given the real danger of illiberal democracy in Croatia and public mood of frustration or impatience for a better future that elections slogan “Now or Never” is a phrase that many Croats attach to the urgent need for lustration/decommunisation and full democratisation. But the bitter scent whiffed by apparent lack of needed “political machinery” and practical mechanisms disappoints deeply. Ina Vukic

 

Croatia – A Lapdog To EU

Ursula von der Leyen
President of the European Commission

If being “a success story of the European Union and a role model for other countries attempting to get EU membership,” as the newly elected president of the European Commission said this week about Croatia, is an assessment reached through weighing an EU member country’s efforts to suck up to EU needs rather than needs of the same country’s people, then, yeah, with alternating Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) led governments since 2013 Croatia has been an EU lapdog above all else. Had von der Leven taken the effort to look at the widespread despair and political quagmire within Croatia itself that is seeing multitudes leaving their homes for other countries in search for work and a decent living then her appraisal of Croatia for Croatians would not include the words “role model”. But then again, she is about EU “political corporation” interests and not about the interests of individual nations making up the EU.

Given the past SDP/HDZ governments’ track record since Croatia joined the EU, unless the players making up the next government (2020 general elections) change, Croatia could become even more of a public acolyte (a lapdog, a disciple…)  for all things EU. In reality, most countries that supported Croatia’s inclusion in EU would have known that, in all likelihood and if not actively resisted, Croatia would remain lock step with the liberal political route largely paved with Soros funds, and so its membership was a way of extending EU influence into Eastern Europe where Russia’s political and practical backers maintain a constant air of communist nostalgia, resistance to true and full democratic change.  Had, during the expected  democratisation period after 1991, mainstream journalism evolved throughout Croatia toward an independent and aggressive style, more attuned with the role of the free press as a fundamental tool with the checks and balance necessary for a working democracy, then Croatia would have been a different environment to what it is today. It would have rid itself of most individuals in positions of power who held such position in communist Yugoslavia and that in itself would have been the main part of the formula through which corruption and nepotism, especially, are eradicated to, at least, a degree that does not negatively affect the livelihood of workers, of ordinary citizens.

With significantly eroded living standards, alarming emigration increase and pronounced economic development slouch coupled with large-scale corruption scandals, it is now more than clear that a small power such as Croatia should have never thought it could depend on building up brownie points for the benefit of its own people with superpowers (EU), as EU movers and shakers, by their nature and purpose, pursue their own interests without let or heed to so-called loyalties to lesser states.  Similarly, the dangers of continuing to be seen as an EU puppet and how this is inimical to Croatian interests within its own borders emerge as issues that must seriously be visited, particularly given the widespread fear among Croatian people that unless the backbone of political tides is changed, and Croatian politics turned inward more than outward, Croatia as a nation will disappear even in our own lifetime.

The lapdog to EU mentality becomes even more distressing when one looks at top-level, palpably autocratic decisions in Croatia to introduce the Euro, rid Croatia of its own currency Kuna despite the fact that opposition to this move is rather widespread among the Croatian people.

Given this, we can only hope the future government of Croatia will have something far more intelligent and more in Croatia’s long-term interests in mind. So far, membership in EU has, for Croatia, seen a perpetual politically-pitched promise of EU money that will change for the better everyone’s life and yet a widespread capacity to draw on those funds from Croatia has been kept at the lowest possible level. The road to EU funds grant applications remains a mystery and a closed alley for most individuals in Croatia; little if any public education has occurred. If we exclude the concept of being a lapdog from positive people-oriented politics, little, if any, assertiveness of Croatian interests has been witnessed in the EU corridors of power except individual politicians’ evident ambition to gain a position within the EU “corporation” power machine.

The lapdog mentality in aligning Croatia’s legislation with that of the EU has further eroded Croatia’s independence from communist Yugoslavia and Croatia’s absolute need to fully address the impact on itself of 1990’s Serb aggression. This alignment has meant that minority rights have developed not as rights within a majority setting, but as rights that are equal to majority rights. And so, one gets the soul-destructive outcome where Serb minority in Croatia (largely made up of individuals who were actively or politically associated with the 1990’s aggression against Croatia) are joined in holding the rudder of Croatian life. But then, this suits the EU as its eye of future expansion is cast on Serbia!

Politics is the art of the possible and this was clearly demonstrated through activism of left-oriented individual politicians in Croatia who pushed for EU membership to that degree where relative minority of voter turnout at referendum could carry the referendum forward! And so, Croatia’s membership in the EU may at this stage be its only short-term option.

But what about the future?

What happens when EU interests directly conflict with those of the Croatian people? The fact that they already do is palpable and the fact that they interfere or stifle the needed progress towards decommunisation (democratisation) of Croatia’s public services and administration, including legislation, has spread into a nationwide concern over the lack in meeting the needs and interests of Croatian people and their personal living standard. Do Croats, by staying lapdogs to EU, really want to be drawn into a regional conflict brewing as illegal migrants and asylum seekers clutter the borders and compromise national security upon which citizens depend for their personal safety as well as for the safety of national existence? And what of Croatia’s future economic prosperity? Will Croatia continue to allow EU-defined free trade agreements to be rammed down its throats at the cost of local jobs, local business enterprises growth and their viability in the face of EU quotas and standards? These are all serious questions which must be addressed with long term thinking. Unfortunately, Croatia’s elitist political class seem to have their fingers in the till (as they did during the times of communist Yugoslavia) or their heads in the sand, or both. Croatia talks of a saving potential ingrained in its diaspora or Croats living outside Croatia, yet the governments in Croatia have done their utmost to stifle adjustment of Croatia’s legislation to that potential.  Croatian politicians talk of being nimble yet do the utmost to stifle innovation in building a fully functional democracy well rid of former communist mentality and its destructive approach to creating opportunities for individual growth and expression in all walks of life. Instead of putting the welfare of its citizens first, Croatian corridors of power pander to EU interests and its rapacious greed for control and compliance to its own standards that have no regard for individual national identity and needs. Risk averse and too short sighted to see the car crash ahead of Croats, Croatian governments remain as ever the obedient servants of the EU. And yet, modern Croatia is founded on taking risks: risking human life for the glory of independence and democracy! What has gone wrong? Ina Vukic

Homage To Ante Starcevic – An Unforgotten Champion Of Croatian Independence

Dr Ante Starcevic 1823 - 1896 Croatian Rights Movement

Dr Ante Starcevic
1823 – 1896
Croatian Rights Movement

 

Today, 28 February 2016 marks 120 years since the death of Dr. Ante Starcevic, one of the wisest ever born among the Croatian people. Starcevic is referred to as the father of the free Croatian nation; a well of energy for freedom and democracy that lasted and lasts.
Ante Starcevic (1823-1896) was one of those Croatian politicians who had the strength to strongly resist all political parties in the then Croatia (swallowed as a territory of the Austrian and then Austro-Hungarian Empires in his lifetime). His political ideals and convictions remained consistent throughout his adult life and his assertion of Croatian rights as a distinct nation entitled to freedom and democracy of its own often left him alone and lonely in public circles. However, he did enjoy the support of only a few intellectuals, writers, youth and nationally oriented youth.
In 1861, he was appointed the chief notary of the coastal Rijeka county as well as being elected to the Croatian Parliament as Rijeka Representative; with Eugen Kvaternik, in that year Starcevic founded the Croatian Party of Rights (i.e. state’s rights) and was re-elected to the parliament in 1865, 1871, and from 1878 to his death. The founder and the leader of the Croatian Rights Movement, Starcevic was a persistent and staunch advocate of democracy, uncompromising fighter against slavery, a visionary Croatian freedom and independence, an anti-cleric and a rebel; Starcevic was sharp on the tongue and the pen as no one in his day in Croatia. The program of his Party of Rights was essentially in the tradition of the nineteenth-century nationalism and it called for the formation of an independent state of Croatia. In 1862, when Rijeka was implicated in participation in protests against the Austrian Empire, he was suspended and sentenced to one month in prison as an enemy of the regime. When he was released, Starcevic returned to working at Sram’s law firm in Zagreb, where he remained until 11 October 1871, when he was arrested again, this time on the occasion of the Rakovica Revolt. Croatian armed revolt against authorities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the revolt was soon quashed by the Imperial Austrian troops and Starcevic’s Croatian Party of Rights – abolished. Starcevic was released after two months in prison. He retained followers and after his death in 1896 his followers split and one may say it was by no surprise – the hardline to independence ideas seemed to punch wedges of divide as they did not seem to be capable of deciding which was the greatest enemy of independent Croatia: Vienna, Budapest or Belgrade. Almost a hundred years on Croats would learn, soaked in blood, that Belgrade was and had been the greatest enemy.

 

Ante Starcevic grave Sestine, Zagreb, Croatia

Ante Starcevic grave
Sestine, Zagreb, Croatia

As Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist after WWI, Croatia was forced into the Serb-led Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later/1929 renamed as Kingdom of Yugoslavia) Starcevic’s Croatian Rights Movement did not of course make any comeback; Croatia was more oppressed under the Serb dynasty than ever before and any whiff of freedom and democracy was fiercely quashed.

Starcevic’s Croatian Rights movement re-emerged during WWII within the complex of Independent State of Croatia movement under Dr Ante Pavelic who considered Starcevic as spiritual father of his Ustashe forces. Pavelic was a part of revitalising Starcevic’s Croatian Rights Movement since 1919, when Croatia was attached to the oppressive Serb-led Kingdom within the former Yugoslavia territory. The success of this attempt for Croatian freedom was doomed from the start as Ante Pavelic decided to side with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as support for achieving the goal of independence. Hence, Starcevic’s name sunk into deep mud out of which it would not rise again for decades and when it did the mud from being associated with Pavelic’s regime would stick at home and abroad. At the same time Croatian (and Yugoslav) communists led by Josip Broz Tito fought against the Nazi’s, the Fascists and Pavelic’s Ustashi forces towards the aim of keeping Croatia within Yugoslavia and thus deny it independence and freedom. Hence, it was Communist Yugoslavia that once again quashed any ideas or attempts for independent Croatia, which of course, included the outlawing of the Croatian Rights Movement.

Monument by Ivan Rendic 1903 instead of a mere tombstone for Ante Starcevic grave Sestine, Zagreb, Croatia

Monument by Ivan Rendic 1903
instead of a mere tombstone
for Ante Starcevic grave
Sestine, Zagreb, Croatia

The Movement rose again in 1990 as part of multi-party democratic system drive led by dr Franjo Tudjman for a free, independent and democratic Croatia. Starcevic was among Franjo Tudman’s favourite politicians in the history of the Croatian people. Modern Croatian Party of Rights was established in 1990 without Tudjman’s membership, though. The modern Croatian Party of Rights and it’s various alternatives did not manage to muster wide support among Croats since 1990’s and that was perhaps because of the connotation associated with it from the terrible WWII crimes committed by those whose political fodder came from Starcevic’s grand and honourable ideas. An overwhelming number of Croatians chose in late 1980’s and early 1990’s to join Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union and achieve the honourable and deserved dream of freedom and democracy Ante Starcevic dreamed of more than a hundred years before and before him all Croats for more than nine centuries, since the Kingdom of Croatia perished at beginning of the twelfth century.
Given that Croatia is still much influenced by the communist Yugoslavia oppressive rut, there is little done to mark Starcevic’s life and anniversaries of his death. It would seem that Starcevic suffers today still (as he did 150 years ago) – his ideas purposefully misinterpreted and misrepresented in some circles especially the pro-communist or pro-Yugoslavia ones of today. In the space of wide political and ideological divide that has plagued Croatian public discourse and served obstacles and barriers for notable progress in democratic freedom and economic well-being one cannot but think that Croatia today needs politicians of Starcevic’s caliber. In saying that such a politician in the fashion imagined by Starcevic would cut short the politicians (parliamentarians’) preoccupation with political survival and get down to the roots: worry about and act for the betterment of each individual person in the country, regardless of his/her religion or ethnic origin. Talk about Starcevic, Starcevic’s works and thoughts should take a prominent place everywhere in Croatia for, as Starcevic thought, true national independence and freedom can only be sustained with the true independence and freedom of each person.

Ante Starcevic Mature years

Ante Starcevic
Mature years

“…Therefore, survival of the government, of the State and of the Nation depends on people,” Starcevic wrote. “And I judge every system that survives, no matter what kind it is or where it is, by its fruit and that fruit shows itself most clearly in the morality and well-being of the people …States are built and ruined by people, and people are guided by freedom, well-being – fortune. Where these do not exist there can be no survival of the State, no matter how old or recognised it may be. No one has yet succeeded in forming a State or keeping it upon misfortune of its citizens…fortune is, therefore, individual people that form a nation … I do not look to see how many souls there are in a nation or a State – I look to see if all the souls in that make up the nation are happy, that they do not suffer some injustice …”

Lest we Croats forget this champion of freedom, independence and democracy. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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