Croatia: Covid Pandemic Keeps The Nation Divided

This Christmas is the second in a row since the Covid’19n pandemic was announced and I wish you all a blessed Christmas and a happy New Year with the hope that we all get at least a little bit of the warmth of togetherness of family and friendship love during the season.  

Now, well into the end of the second year since the World Health Organisation declared that the Covid-19 outbreak in China had become a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) (January 2020), the Coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the planet with multiple uncertainties, just as it disrupts Croatia. It has been a turbulent and uncertain journey with new variants emerging to seemingly unexpected new outbreaks raging, and multiple new vaccines developed, but their delivery uneven. Uneven because vaccine supplies were as such and uneven because the pro- and anti-vaccination and pandemic measures surges exploded like hurricanes, bringing third, fourth and now fifth waves of the pandemic…impoverishing many families both spiritually and economically.

Covid-19 vaccines have been increasingly looked to as the holy grail to provide the most promising efficient and effective means of putting the pandemic behind us—especially given the lack of effective treatment against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Whichever way one looks at it from the perspective of numbers of well-educated, well-armed scientists the science across the world is clear: Covid-19 vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent serious illness, hospitalisation and death from the coronavirus, and vaccine mandates, particularly around employment and travel, are considered by governments an effective tool in promoting widespread vaccinations. Vaccine mandates have led to the emergence of vaccine nationalism whereby the governments introduce control measures that often rub many people wrongly and, hence, vicious disagreements with these measures develop. Croatia is a relatively small country of around 4 million people, but it is experiencing high rates of deaths from or with Covid; the number of these deaths will surpass 12,000 by the beginning of next week. And that is huge for a relatively small country.

 Clearly, the traditional nationalistic reaction was in fact common to all countries as soon as it became necessary to create public response policies to the pandemic, even if this was done with varying degrees of modesty and countries differed in the “severity” of measures and restrictions vis-à-vis the traditional freedom of movement rights people consider as entitlement. The Covid-19 crisis caused nationalistic practices to erupt almost everywhere: “wars” over masks, tests, vaccines, travel, vaccination certificates. All over the world, national withdrawal was proposed as an emergency solution, triggering the closure of borders at rates and in ways that were specific to individual nations, even when they belonged to the Schengen area of the EU.

Perhaps because it is a relatively small country Croatia’s divided population of the perceived benefits of vaccination, on the usefulness of control measures that are meant to stop or minimise the spread of infections are more visible and felt than in a bigger country. This often leaves the impression that the public mood in Croatia is largely that of bitterness and anger, which are often displaced and thus lead to lack of vision or confidence for the future.

Those looking at rejecting the government measures and lobbying against vaccination have in Croatia, as elsewhere in the world, adopted a warlike nationalistic narrative that can often, on individual bases, emerge as cruel insults to persons who hold differing views regarding Covid measures, in particular.  This aspect of public reactions to the pandemic evidently has to do with some ideological incarnations of contemporary nationalism and points to the national-populist variant that has little to do with the original nationalism, which emancipated from absolutism and imperial, colonial, or totalitarian regime control. Whatever it may be, this national-populist approach in Croatia is more likely than not responsible for a poor picture of health in Croatia when that health is measured by the number of people receiving Covid-19 vaccination. As in many countries across the world the social media in and from Croatia is riddled with anti-vaccination related messages, information and misinformation, and personal vicious attacks and insults against those who think differently.  Levels of vaccination are alarmingly low in Croatia; nationally about 51% of adult population is fully vaccinated at this stage.

It is becoming more and more apparent that in Croatia those standing against vaccination and against various measures such as vaccine mandates are concentrated among the various political parties in opposition, particularly those leaning to the conservative or right-winged patriotic political orientation, e.g., Croatian Sovereignists (Hrvatski suverenisti), Patriotic Movement (Domovinski pokret), various Croatian Party of Rights echelons (Hrvatska stranka prava), BRIDGE/MOST etc. Hence the opinions regarding Covid -19 pandemic, and its management have in Croatia become a political tool that evidently seeks nothing more except gaining favour among and winning votes from them at the next parliamentary elections. It is in my view most sad that all these political parties in the government opposition while protesting against government’s handling of the pandemic fail to explain how they would control the spread of the virus if they won government.

The determination to hold onto a particular opinion in Croatia among political parties can best be seen from incidents that occurred last week when a well-known politician, Member of Parliament for the Croatian Sovereignists, Hrvoje Zekanovic, openly accused the right-wing and other unvaccinated politicians (who are against vaccination) of being guilty of spreading the infection and sending people to hospitals.

“You are responsible – people are not vaccinated because of you. You speak against covid vaccine certificates. Vaccination should not be treated as a footnote. I wonder how those who visit prayer communities and pilgrims will confess, explain why someone on a respirator suffers and only because they trusted Facebook more than common sense,” Zekanovic said in the Croatian Parliament on 9 December 2021.

For these words Zekanovic is being ousted from the political party Croatian Sovereigninsts where he was a leader and indeed a most significant founder. He is apparently being accused of having spoken against the party lines and views on Covid-19 vaccination and measures to do with the pandemic control. And this comes from the political party whose senior members have often expressed criticism against people who follow the government’s advice for vaccination! Croatian Sovereignists have through this case proven that they do not stand for the independence and sovereignty they preach. If they did then they would not act so viciously against Mr Zekanovic. After all. Every political party that seeks to win elections must be seen to support both sides of the Covid-19 war – those for and those against vaccination and measures because the voters themselves, the public for whom the country exists is made up of people on both sides of the argument.   

Furthermore, one shudders in disgust at the raft of individual insults and awfully cruel comments about Zekanovic that have filled the social media. Just because he expressed his personal view regarding pro-Covid-19 vaccination!  I reckon that no decent human being could bear even thinking about let alone express such hatred and ridicule against another human being and fellow citizen.

From the above incidents it has become blatantly clearer than ever before that Croatia is bitterly divided onto two camps. Quashing the pandemic with a majority consensus in one or the other approach is looking more and more unlikely by the day.  

A comical thing one comes across in Croatia these days is that the pro-vaccination people are labelled globalist and blind followers of an ideology as if the anti-vaccination people are also not following a global movement against vaccination and pandemic measures, which also, if one likes, forms an ideology!   The pro and anti-vax movements, like many other issues that have emerged during the pandemic, serves as a stark reminder that our society’s public sphere is fundamentally broken. The long yet essential process of fixing it will require all of us, as responsible citizens, and media users, to work collaboratively on restoring public conversation mechanisms. But while you have politicians that are blind to one side of the argument coming from the people and not to the other, while there is no conversation between the two sides, while insults and vitriolic exchanges continue between the two sides, the politics of selfish pursuit of positions or bums on chairs in parliament will surely continue at the very detriment of the nation and, perhaps, towards a more physical conflict. Ina Vukic  

Croatia Local Elections 2021: Winds Of Change – Still A Matter Of Forecasts!

Apart from a small town or two in Croatia (for example Kraljevec on Sutla) that will need to undergo a Third round of local elections due to resulting ties between candidates at First and Second rounds, the political map of Croatia’s local networks for the coming four years has been cast. The results portray a mosaic of old and new, the established and the establishing, the left and right, the “new left” and the confused that come with them.

While the main governing HDZ party won the posts of County Representative (Župan) in 15 out of 20 counties across Croatia (13 with its own candidates and 2 with its political partner candidates), it’s mayoral and Council Assembly results barely managed to hang on by the skin of the Party’s teeth. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) received an electoral lashing so severe that the once powerful party may indeed cower in pain, into a dark corner, and take quite a few years to return as a political force of note. Hopefully it never will as far as I am concerned because its name used to be Communist League of Croatia and it never wanted an independent Croatia and it never changed its mindset.

As to the larger cities for Croatia SDP retained Rijeka, which has always appeared as a stubborn and staunch supporter of the former Yugoslavia criminal and totalitarian communist regime. Ivan Puljak from Centre party has conquered as Mayor of Split, beating the HDZ candidate Vice Mihanovic. HDZ’s Ivan Radic managed to win the mayoral race for Osijek and Patriotic Movement’s candidate Ivan Penava (mayoral incumbent and formerly HDZ) won sweepingly the city of Vukovar.

The “new left”, green-left “We can!” (Možemo) Tomislav Tomasevic won the mayoral race for the Capital of Zagreb in the second round of voting held 30 May 2021. He is given just over 65% of the cast votes while his opponent Miroslav Skoro, Patriotic Movement, received about 35%. Voter turnout at these Second-round local elections was alarmingly low, in most polling places below 20%!

Tomislav Tomasevic, a perpetual, green-left activist on the streets of Zagreb who has reportedly never held down a real job but made his living depending on grants for various projects, promotes an aggressive environmental policy, transparency and equal opportunity in public procurement and a subtle but repulsive nostalgia for the fallen criminal regime of former Yugoslavia. Tomasevic has also promised the public to clean the house, i.e., clean the Zagreb Holding which controls and manages almost all facets of Zagreb’s infrastructure and business and services.  Tomasevic’s promise to clean up Zagreb Holding also shows that corruption is rife there and he intends to clean it up! This promise may be as superficial as the rest of “We can” promises appear to be, unless, of course, Tomasevic and his team do not know the barriers imposed by the relevant employment legislation. They will need to break open and apart the 20-year rule over Zagreb by the late Milan Bandic and unless done with knowhow and real determination Tomasevic could spend almost all of his mayoral mandate trying to fix or expose Milan Bandic’s corrupt handiwork and legacy.

But then, one wonders if Tomasevic’s promises to tackle corruption head on are nothing but hot steam and empty phrases? After all, he has done nothing of note since 1998, when he set out on his life of activism, to truly tackle corruption in Zagreb or elsewhere!

Miroslav Skoro, on the other hand, promotes new job-creation, new investments, healthier business environment in which corruption and widespread clientelism and wasteful spending of public money will have no place and their eradication sped up.

“Clientelism and corruption have marked the long reign of the late mayor, and unfortunately the corrupt ‘octopus’ has permeated politics at the national level as well, so I understand very well why citizens feel [apathetic],” said recently Miroslav Skoro, the leader of the Patriotic Movement.

The local elections result in the Croatian capital is also significant because, for the first time since the country’s independence in the 1990’s, both traditional parties – the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – were left out of the race for Mayor of Zagreb at the First round of mayoral elections. This also occurred in Split, the second largest city in the country, a “new entry” in Croatian politics has emerged: Ivica Puljak – at the head of a centrist civic list. In the first two cities of Croatia, HDZ and SDP are now relegated to the margins, unable to influence decisions.

Judging by this newly arisen political climate across Croatia, especially in its capital city of Zagreb, it becomes rather apparent that changes, or rather a display of dissatisfaction and disappointment with major political parties, HDZ and SDP, have arrived through the “back door”. That is, at local rather than national levels. “We can!”, the Patriotic Movement (Domovinski pokret) and the Centrists (in Split) are relatively new political platforms in Croatia, propelling the electorate to think, again, as to which one of them (if any) may indeed one day form the “third” political force needed to beak up the stale HDZ/SDP political bipolarism or duopoly. Their presence in the Council Assemblies across Croatia, not just the Capital City, will be felt during the coming four years as each won a comfortable number of seats on municipal assemblies, local government!

Whether both “We can” and the Patriotic Movement will be able to keep this newly bestowed momentum of political power through the coming four years and turn it into a national political force to be reckoned with is yet to be seen. It would appear that a great deal of effort is needed to maintain that force of influence that promises changes for the better; neither HDZ nor SDP are about to curl-up and die! Croatia had in the past decade seen the rise of a possible third political force in “MOST” (BRIDGE) coalition of independents, but it soon dissipated into not much except wishful thinking. The same occurred with the “Live Wall” (Živi zid) lot which can easily be tagged with the “Gone with the wind” tag given to the film based on 1939 Margaret Mitchell’s legendary novel by the same name! There one day, gone the next!  

There is rather a widespread fear that Tomasevic and his green-left or new left, that’s now present in large numbers of Council Assemblies across Croatia, will usher in a new lease of life to the communist mindset and values of the former communist Yugoslavia. This, of course, would mean further erosion of Homeland War values and the reasons why 94% of Croatian voters voted at referendum in May 1991 to secede from communist Yugoslavia. All until the “antifascist” elements of World War Two Croatia are removed from the Croatian Constitution as a foundation of independence of Croatia such fears will be fuelled and sadly justified. Justification, though, means nothing unless actions are taken up to remove the fear.

Tomislav Tomasevic and his political partners in the “We can!” movement are constantly voicing how they want Zagreb to be equal for all, equal opportunities for all but they seem to overlook that equality is not possible in the surroundings that operate on political suitability of individuals and undermining those who fought and died for independent Croatia. Surely – there can be no equality there where many (pro-left usually) still live in houses and apartments stolen by Yugoslav communists from either Jews or Croats who fought for an independent Croatia during WWII. Surely – there can be no equality in a place where one category of mass killing victims (victims of communist crimes) are not afforded respect and justice and the crimes which led to their deaths – covered up.    

Surely, there can be no equality unless the equality is measured against the national goals or values and for Croatia these goals and values are attached to the 1990’s fight for independence from communist Yugoslavia and not to Yugoslavia itself.

The point is that while certain steps towards the change for the better can be made locally, it is the national steps that actually bring real change all across the land. Ina Vukic

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