Days of Rage in Croatia

Protest in Croatia; photo via EuronewsThousands of people have gathered in the main square of the capital city demanding the resignation of the ruling government. This time it’s not Cairo or Tripoli, but Zagreb. For the past 16 days, the residents of Zagreb, along with citizens in towns across Croatia, have been demonstrating every other day. Their numbers seem to be growing. According to recent estimates by Croatian media, up to 100,000 people across the country have participated in the protests.

The protesters’ demands are relatively few but very clear. The current ruling government must step down, and new elections must be held. Politicians must also acknowledge both the desperate economic and social conditions that Croatia faces today as well as their role in perpetuating corruption and poverty in the years since the end of the war in the 1990s.

The ruling government coalition, led by the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has responded to these demands either through silence or through calls for “order,” “stability,” and “progress.” At a special press conference on the protests, Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor connected Croatian progress to its eventual accession to the European Union, reiterating that elections will take place only after the finalizing of negotiations with the EU.

Croatian protesters, like their Middle Eastern counterparts, are challenging the rhetoric of stability and moderation as a mere vehicle for the entrenchment and enrichment of political elites.

Who Are the Protesters?

The Croatian protests originally started at the end of February as a gathering of war veterans joined by several right-wing politicians and celebrities. When the war veterans split over support for the HDZ government, a party they’d consistently supported in the past, it opened the floodgates to a questioning of the political programs of an entire spectrum of political parties in this small Balkan state.

In turn, the protests swelled in size and became considerably more diverse. The veterans have been joined by unemployed workers, fishermen, pensioners, students, academics, the disabled, and a slew of other disenfranchised citizens of all political persuasions. Left-wing politicians such as Damir Kajin and Dragutin Lesar have participated. At the end of last week, farmers used 200 tractors to block six major traffic ways in Croatia, at least two of which interrupted border traffic to Hungary. They have warned that the blockades will continue into this week.

These citizens have gathered to protest not only the actions of the ruling government, but the very way that government and citizens have engaged each other in the years since the end of the war in 1995. In an act of defiance toward the entire class of ruling elites, protesters last week burned the flags of both the ruling HDZ party and the main opposition Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP). In the days since the flag-burning, the offices of major political parties in various cities have been splattered with red paint in solidarity with the protesters.

Many Croatian politicians have been quick to condemn “extremist” elements at work among the protesters yet are legitimately concerned that the protests might give rise to hate speech against certain ethnic or religious groups. Although Croatian citizens certainly still grapple with radical nationalism and hate speech, these acts of flag-burning and paint-splattering were important for exactly the opposite reason. They signaled a new kind of class solidarity above other kinds of divisions. Furthermore, the flag-burning was directed not only against political elites in the state of Croatia, but against the fact that, in Croatia, political elites are synonymous with economic elites. In a common joke in Croatia, a young boy says to his mother, “When I grow up, I’m going to be rich and shower you with gifts, travel all over the place, meet celebrities and hang out with soccer players and live in a palace.” The mother replies, “Oh, and what will you be then when you grow up?” The boy answers, “A politician.”

Protesters have focused on the lavish lifestyles of many of Croatia’s politicians. The discovery last week that former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader received a commission of 3.5 million Croatian kuna in negotiations with the Austrian Hypo Bank has served to consolidate the loose alliances amongst protesters created via newspaper websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, talk on the streets, and phone calls between family members. Croatian media reports have come back to the claim that protesters do not have an agenda or an end goal. But the agenda is clear. At the protests following the initial veterans’ demonstrations at the end of February, banners and posters held by participants in the cold Zagreb winter displayed only economics statistics, personal experiences, food prices, and contempt for elected officials.

The number of officially unemployed in Croatia is 334,000, which translates into a nearly 20 percent unemployment rate. But this figure masks the tens of thousands who are employed but have not received a salary in six months, the tens of thousands who are paid in a combination of cash and store credits that they have to spend at particular grocery stores by a certain date, and the many families with only one or no income. Pension checks, which arrive on an irregular basis, are not enough to sustain pensioners, most of whom become dependent on their children for financial support. Croatia faces a growing credit crisis where very few guarantors are left to sign the astonishing number of loan contracts that foreign banks hand out.

Last week, Prime Minister Kosor met with large food producing and processing corporations, including Agrokor and Dukat, to make sure that prices of basic foodstuffs would not rise. However, this reassurance will not do much for the large number of people who already cannot afford to feed themselves.

Toward the European Union?

The international media have barely reported on the current situation in Croatia. But domestic newspapers have been overflowing with statements from Croatia’s government officials. Many of these statements have called for “order” and “moderation.” At the same time, HDZ officials have portrayed the protesters as “hooligans,” “anarchists,” and “troublemakers.” This past week, HDZ member and former presidential candidate Andrija Hebrang accused the opposition of paying each protester 250 Croatian Kuna. He blasted protesters for walking by politicians’ apartments in Zagreb, saying that “only in Croatia do herds chant in front of politicians’ apartments. What an embarrassment!”

The president of the opposition SDP Zoran Milanović has adhered to a similar position. He has time and time again reiterated that “we are not Libya, we will not hand over power in the streets.” Most common of all among Croatia’s politicians, however, has been a veiled public threat that these protests will threaten Croatia’s bid to join the European Union. These threats have been coupled with warnings of an even grimmer economic situation. Minister of Tourism Damir Bajs warned that the protests endangered the upcoming potentially lucrative tourist season. He stated in public that “there have not been many questions from foreign news reporters, and let’s hope it stays that way.” Deputy Prime Minister Domagoj Ivan Milošević called reporters to a briefing and said that “protests affect the investment climate very negatively,” and continued to reiterate that “we will be entering the EU soon. All this might be slowed by the protests.”

Since the beginning of Ivo Sanader’s government, the HDZ has pursued EU membership at all costs and as a remedy to all of Croatia’s political, economic, and social problems. All government officials have resorted to the language of order, progress, incrementalism and, most importantly, moderation in pursuit of this goal. These politicians have been largely supported by foreign powers because of their shift away from the explicit nationalism of the immediate post-war years to a more careful language of civic and national identity. Similarly, all dominant parties in the European Parliament have reinforced this language through their own narrative of inevitable progress toward EU accession.

Croatia’s path to “proper” European statehood began with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. Marked at first as a state “in market transition” away from socialism following the collapse of Yugoslavia, then as a post-conflict state “in transition” to the cosmopolitan profile of the EU members, Croatia’s position is not unique in the region. Indeed, all the former Yugoslav states have been placed along a spectrum with the social and political maturity of the European family of nations at one end and the Balkans’ developmental handicaps and peripheral conditions at the other. In a stunning complement to Croatian President Ivo Josipović’s declaration that protesters “offended Zagreb with their savagery,” Jadranka Kosor, at the recent opening of the centrist-right European People’s Party Congress in the European Parliament stated that “we will do our job, and proudly, with head held-high, enter the European Union and return home to the circle of European Civilizations.” Both thereby implicitly contrasted current Croatian society as “primitive” and “backwards,” not a part of “European civilization” with its almost messianic possibilities.

Yet, the protests in Croatia have been remarkable precisely for their peacefulness. This past Wednesday, many protesters threw tulips at the feet of Zagreb riot police controlling the event, and chanted “we love you” in a chorus to the officers. At the same time, the language of moderation, order, progress, and culture used by Croatian politicians has been at odds with what Asli Bali and Aziz Rana have called “any tangible commitment to actual moderation – understood as an internal project of democratization or political openness.” Since the announcement that there would be demonstrations every other day until the government resigned, the protests have been characterized by the very qualities extolled by moderate pro-Western factions: a dedicated focus on human rights and the right of the majority to choose its elected officials.

In the years since Dayton, through their installation as beacons of civilization and harbingers of European membership, the politicians of moderation have effectively assured and strengthened their own legitimacy in the eyes of European and Western powers. Simultaneously, the legitimacy offered to these politicians of moderation by Western powers has prevented critique from a large disenfranchised and increasingly impoverished population. Despite their façade of democratization and the discourse of “local commitments,” these political elites have created a state that is extremely corrupt and impossibly remote from the concerns of the average citizen.

Local and foreign politicians immediately condemned the burning of the EU flag that took place at last week’s protests as an attack on Croatia’s path toward order and stability. Most vocal was Doris Pack, the MEP for Saarland and a member of Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union). She described it as “disgraceful” to “burn the flag that is a symbol of freedom and peace.” However, this flag-burning event should be interpreted differently, as citizens taking a stand against domestic politicians who have used the rhetoric of EU membership as a vehicle for their own collective aggrandizement and enrichment.

Is Croatia Another Egypt?

Over the last 20 years, Croatia, along with the other former Yugoslav states, has shifted from non-aligned policies to the current interventionist world order where local rulers rule longest (and with most legitimacy) if they toe the dominant geopolitical line, be it European or American. The air of moderation and rhetorical talent of most of these leaders has for years masked the pillage of national treasures, natural resources, industrial capital, and public wealth.

This politics of false moderation links the ruling elites of Croatia and the Middle East. Rejection of this false moderation links the protesters in the two regions.

The demands of protesting Croatian citizens are clear. The current ruling government must step down. The current prime minister and her cabinet must step down from their positions. Early elections need to be convened. Croatia must enter a new era of true accountability to public needs and the concerns of the disenfranchised, which is the key to long-term stability for both Croatia and the region.

Sabrina Perić is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.