Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.In order to get into the European Union, Croatia needs the support of each one of the current 27 members. So far, 20 countries have ratified Croatia’s EU accession treaty. As long as the other seven countries do the same, Croatia will become a member on July 1, 2013. In December, as a final sweetener, the EU added a final pre-accession allotment of nearly 50 million Euro – part of a package of nearly 1 billion Euro since 2007 – to help Croatia reach EU standards in various categories. Once Croatia enters the club, then it will have access to another pot of money, known as the Structural and Cohesion funds.
But this long-sought-after goal is by no means a done deal. In mid-December, Croatia’s sovereign debt dropped to junk bond level. The financial powers-that-be are not happy with the current Croatian government’s somewhat permissive approach to austerity. With unemployment at nearly 20 percent and the domestic economy contracting, the Social Democrats allowed the deficit to rise from 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP. This economic performance has contributed to assessments like that of the speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, who said in October that Croatia “isn’t ready for EU membership.” Germany has yet to ratify the accession treaty.
Still, a queasy economy won’t keep Croatia out of the EU; it will just put the country on par with other troubled members, like Romania and Greece.
Croatia’s long-simmering conflict with Slovenia, on the other hand, might prove to be more than a speed bump. The two countries have been haggling for years over Croatian savings in a defunct Slovenian bank. Slovenia wants Croatia to stop the lawsuits for the recovery of the money in the Croatian accounts in Ljubljanska Banka or else it might block entrance to the EU. It’s not a small sum: 172 million Euro. Croatia wants to settle the issue separately from accession.
Croatian support for accession remains high. A year ago, 66 percent of voters said yes to EU membership in a national referendum. But not everyone is enthusiastic.
“I don’t believe anymore in the European Union,” Daniel Bucan told me. “As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don’t necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France.”
Daniel Bucan is not your usual run-of-the-mill Euroskeptic. He’s a former diplomat whose last posting was in Strasbourg, at the Council of Europe. In other words, this is someone who is no stranger to European affairs.
I met Daniel Bucan 22 years ago when he was in the ministry of information in the newly formed government of Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union. Much of his skepticism about Yugoslavia has translated into skepticism of Europe. We also talked about the Croatian Spring, his conversations with Tudjman, and what it means to be a Croatian nationalist.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall and what you were thinking?
I cannot remember exactly. The only thing I remember is seeing it on TV. But let me try to remember…I was for sure in Zagreb, probably at home. Anyhow, it was a historic moment as they say, and I felt like I was witnessing a historic moment. Actually, it didn’t come as a surprise to me, but probably everybody by then knew things were going to change. I mean, there was a process building up to this point. But still, although we might have been expecting those changes, the symbolic dimension of the event was like something you read in a good novel or book of poetry. And that’s how I felt for a moment seeing this.
Did you think at all about what impact it would have here?
Of course. Especially because things had practically already started here, with Milosevic and his party coup in Serbia, what was called in Serbian dogadjanje naroda, which means “the nation is happening.” And he was changing the political elite in Kosovo and Vojvodina. He was instigating these public meetings and political demonstrations all over former Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia. They were already pledging support in Serbia for Knin and other parts of Croatia. So, things here had already been started, and I could not think that the fall of the Wall couldn’t have an impact on what was going to happen here in Yugoslavia.
As a matter of fact, I felt that the problem might be the abrupt way it was happening. There was practically no transition. That was something I felt we should be afraid of. Unfortunately, knowing Milosevic’s political agenda — to consolidate all the republics and to make a unitary state out of Yugoslavia based on the principle of “one person, one vote” — I knew that things were not going to develop in a good way. At that time, the republics had so-called national defense units staffed not by the Yugoslav army but the citizens of the republics. That meant that there was a certain amount of weapons in each of the republics. At a certain point in Croatia, these weapons were withdrawn from the republic. It was a sign to expect the worst, which later on actually happened.
Where were you working in 1989?
I was with the radio, the so-called Third Program, that specialized in culture, art, science. I entered politics because, along with all my friends, we had been dissidents. One of them was a member of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and a friend of Franjo Tudjman. Milovan Šibl is his name: he was also a journalist at the radio. And then immediately after the elections, when he was nominated minister of information, he asked me whether I would become his vice minister. I was reluctant, I said: “I’m not a politician, I’m not a party member, I’m not…” And then he said, “But, you know, for decades we’ve been waiting every day for this to happen, and you shouldn’t give up now.” Finally he talked me into accepting it, and that’s how I entered politics.
But I never became a politician in terms of being a member of any party. For a short period of time, I was vice minister of information, and then I joined the president’s office. Tudjman chose a number of counselors and advisors, and I was one of them. Mario Nobilo and I took care of press conferences and so on. For a short period of time everyone was doing everything, and then Tudjman asked me one day: “What would you like to do? Would you like to remain in journalism?” And I said, “You know all my life I’ve been a man of culture. I know that it’s not such a moment to…” And he said, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay! I like to have you with me, and you can, if you want, be my advisor for cultural affairs.” So I spent two years with him there.
Then when the issue of appointing the first ambassador to Cairo was raised, he remembered that I was an Arabist and that I had some experience with the Arab world. And that’s how I entered diplomacy and remained until 2008, when I retired.
So you were in Egypt…
Egypt, and after that I was in Greece. And my third post was the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. I spent probably the best five years of my life in Egypt. It was tough at the beginning because I arrived there in 1993 when the war between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia had started, and I found all the doors closed to me. I couldn’t do anything. Not having any previous diplomatic experience, I was thinking that this was my fault. It took me some time to understand that the position of ambassador depends on the position of the country, rather than vice versa. I believed at first very naively that the position of the country depends on how much the ambassador is capable. But things changed after the Washington agreement on ending the conflict between Croats and Muslims was signed , and there was a turnabout. All the doors opened to me.
I was personally very much interested in Egypt because I had been an Arabist, and I had a lot of opportunities to find books and things. Ancient Egypt was something I’d been interested in since I was a little boy. I was always imagining myself as an archeologist going down there… After that, four years in Greece was very important. While I was in Greece, Prime Minister Costas Simitis proposed to Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan that Croatia apply for candidacy for EU membership. So I participated in that process.
After that it was Strasbourg, which was a little bit disappointing. As I said, it took me some time to understand the position and role of ambassador in bilateral negotiations, but when I understood it, it was relatively easy. You have your country’s interests; the host country has its interests. If you can combine the two, then fine. If not, then, you know… I like this realistic aspect of bilateral relations. The Council of Europe is an organization based on values, on ideas. It’s a watchdog that sees how those ideas are being implemented in different countries in Europe. It was a disappointment because very soon I understood that this is only on paper. The principles are principles, but the practice is something else. There was a double standard regarding different countries. What Russia can afford to do, for instance, Hungary can’t afford to do, and so on
Actually, it wasn’t disappointing because by then I understood what politics is, and what international relations are. But it was difficult to be there every day sitting at the meetings and pretending that you don’t see these discrepancies. As a matter of fact, I very often pointed out such discrepancies, loudly… So anyhow, I didn’t like Strasbourg as a job, because it’s very difficult for me to say something I don’t believe in. I’m not good at it. Suddenly, I feel like I don’t have enough words to say or enough imagination to formulate the phrases.
So, I was actually looking forward to my retirement. As a matter of fact I had to ask for it. In Strasbourg you are busy from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening, every day. There’s an ocean of meetings, and papers, and it’s not easy. And the Council of Europe is not important anymore. Even for us. It’s not a post that everybody grabs for, so they were keeping me there. If I didn’t write letters to the president, to the prime minister, maybe I’d still be there! I’m joking, of course, but that’s how I felt.
I would like to retire to freedom and live the life I would like to live in these few years that remain. For last 30 years I’ve been busy with medieval Arab philosophy. I’ve translated the books of the five or six most important Arab philosophers, including the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who wrote his main philosophical work using the Hebrew script, but in the Arab language. And I wrote – three books on medieval philosophy. So I wanted to get rid of all of my other obligations.
I want to go back to 1989. You were a journalist working at a radio station, and at that time, if I remember correctly, there was a big scandal around Mladina, the Slovenian newspaper, and press freedom was very important at that moment. I’m curious how that influenced your work as a journalist.
I was lucky having this job on the Third Program, which was in a way an oasis of relative freedom because we tackled exclusively scientific, cultural, and art matters. There was a little bit more freedom within the media not geared to the masses. But every now and then we felt some ridiculous pressures: for example, whether we should use this or that word, whether it was a Croatian word or a Serbian word. It’s very difficult to understand for people who never experienced that part of life.
The choice of words was a very important issue during the Croatian Spring.
Yes, because language is one of the elements that constitutes the identity of a nation. Anyhow, the Mladina controversy was very much influencing not maybe the media but what was being talked about in cafes, in intellectual circles, and so on. Freedom is something that, once you get a little bit of it, you are not ready to go back. You only want to go forward and get even more freedom. There was no way to stop it. Yugoslavia wanted to be perceived as a socialist country, even a communist country, but one with freedoms: the freedom to say certain things and absolutely not say certain other things. As soon as you touched on those that couldn’t or shouldn’t be said, you had problems.
Was there a moment in your own personal life when you felt in your own mind that you were a dissident?
Of course. As a young guy, when I was 18, I became a member of the Communist Party. It was very attractive to young people, this belief that you are making history, that we are going to lead the world, and so on. I became a member of the party just before going to university. Then I came to Zagreb in 1965 after finishing my studies in Belgrade, and I found a job on radio. And there, I confronted what life really is. I understood that our society is completely different from what I thought before.
I always was very sensitive to language. That’s my talent, that’s why I’m a philologist. So, the first thing I discovered was that I was under enormous pressure not to use certain words and then, of course, not to write about certain subjects. Then I noticed that a majority of the leading people on radio and television were Serbs, local Serbs that is. Then I found out that the police is made up of 60% Serbs, although they were only 11 percent of population in Croatia, and so on… That’s how I became a dissident, and that’s how I became what they call a Croatian nationalist.
I remember one of the people who came and talked to me when I was vice minister for information, I don’t remember whether it was you or not, we had been talking like this, and then at a certain point he said, “But Mr. Bucan, I understand from what you are saying that you are a real intellectual. How can you be a nationalist?” And I said, “For me it is not an issue of nationalism. It is an issue of justice.” I mean, I am reacting to injustice. Unfortunately, the injustice has been based on nationality. If it were based on something else, then I would be something else.
So that’s how I became interested in politics.
So you were here in Zagreb during the Croatian Spring.
Actually, I was the secretary of the party at the radio at the time in Croatia. It was a period of euphoria. I was still very young. I said something at the time that almost cost me my job later on. But I didn’t lose my job.
At a party meeting at Radio Zagreb, I proposed that we change the name of Radio Zagreb to Croatian Radio. This was taken as a major sin, because we were discussing short-wave programs listened to around the world. The general director of the radio-television at that time, he was a member of the central committee, he asked me after the meeting, “Are you crazy, what are you doing?” So, with this anecdote, I just want to say that I was young, and it was a period of euphoria.
I was also writing for the Croatian Weekly and it sold 150,000 copies every issue. We felt that people were reading us, believing us, and so that felt great. One felt important. I was mingling with all these people that became friends of mine, like Vlado Gotovac, who was on TV (and before that he was on radio). I remember after Karadjordjevo, which was the end of the Croatian Spring, I wrote a text — I never published it, I gave it to some friends to read — about this defeat. I wrote that it might be a defeat for us, but it might bring victory for the next generation. We were pointing out things that were perceived wrongly in the international community. Abroad, Yugoslavia was perceived as a country of freedom, as almost an “ideal” country. For me, Croatia was something like what I said about freedom: you get a little bit of it and you cannot go back. But the defeat was terrible because a lot of people, including many of my friends, went to prison, and even more lost their jobs.
For a long time I was afraid that I would also go to prison. Years later, I heard that a friend of my father’s who had good relations with Jure Bilic, one of the Communist leaders who took over after the end of the Croatian Spring, had said, “He’s a young guy, his mother was hanged by the Ustasa, his father was a Partisan, so you shouldn’t bother him. Let him be.” It seems that that’s how I didn’t go to prison.
In any case, the Croatian Spring was like a seed planted into the ground.
Even though the Croatian Spring was defeated and many people went to jail, the 1974 constitution was a recognition of these movements — not just in Croatia, but of course elsewhere in Yugoslavia. Some people argue that the 1974 constitution was the end of Yugoslavia, because it decentralized authority in a way that was irrevocable.
That was typical of Tito. I never liked him; I don’t like him now. But he always liked to play both sides, and that’s what he did there too. But in a way, the constitution of 1974 was a return to the origins of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia was reconstructed in 1944 and 1945 by Tito and the Communist Party, it was a voluntary coming together of different peoples, nations, republics, and so on. That’s what we were always taught in school. But you couldn’t say it this way in a political context or you would be immediately sent to prison. The 1974 constitution allowed this political formulation, and in a way it became later on the constitutional basis for dismantling Yugoslavia.
Many people have told me how strange it was to live in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, because the country was more liberal than Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria, and so many people from the region came here on vacation, to sell /buy things. And of course many people could travel to Western Europe and work as guest workers and bring money back, and build houses. So it obviously was more liberal than some places, and yet still as you point out, there was censorship, there were people going to jail, there were limits to what you could say. I mean, how did you feel in those years when Yugoslavia was in the middle of the spectrum between the much more repressive governments of the east and the much more liberal countries of the west?
As a young guy, without the experiences and knowledge that came later, I probably wasn’t aware of all this. As I told you, I became aware of things when I started to live: when I married, when I got a job, and when I began to have problems at my workplace… It was pleasant to hear that we were perceived as “better” than some others. But when I started to live a real life, with my eyes open in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes I thought that the situation here was worse than it was for Hungarians or Czechs or Slovaks or Bulgarians. Not worse in a real sense. But those people knew how they suffered. And we didn’t want to recognize it: we lived in a lie. We thought we were enjoying ourselves. So, it was this double-edged feeling.
When I was talking to Zarko Puhovski, he said he talked with Franjo Tudjman in 1989, because he knew Tudjman’s son, and Tudjman at the time said: “In one year I will be president.” And Puhovski thought, “This man is crazy. He’s already in his 60s. He’s a lunatic.” Then he realized one year later when Tudjman became President, that he, Puhovski, was the lunatic. Things happened so quickly in those days. Did you have any expectation that things would change so quickly with HDZ or Tudjman’s political trajectory?
I’m not sure, but I’ll say this. A few months before the elections in 1990, we were discussing political parties every day in the café: who is going to win, who we are going to vote for, and so on. And 99% of my friends had been for the Coalition of People’s Accord, organized by Mika Tripalo and Savka DabÄeviÄ-KuÄar and others who were engaged in the Croatian Spring (minus Tudjman). And I and a friend of mine said, “No, we are going to vote for Tudjman, for HDZ.” “But he’s a communist general!” they said. And I said, “Guys, you are very naive. Don’t you see that everybody is against Tudjman? The communist government is against Tujdman. It’s not against Savka-Tripalo, the Coalition. That means that Tudjman is the guy.” And that’s how I voted for Tudjman.
And many other people did the same.
The basis of Tudjman’s success was that he was saying, “We want an independent Croatia.” That was enough for the people, because everybody was thinking it, but didn’t dare say it. Besides that, frankly speaking, he had the support of parts of the secret services: the State Security Administration (UDBA). I knew that Josip Manolic, who was practically number two in HDZ, had been in UDBA. But it seems that it wasn’t only Manolic. Thanks to that fact, Tudjman had the logistics that were needed for such success. Of course he was elected freely, and he was saying what people wanted to hear. But I’m not sure that he could have been sure a year before the elections that he would be president without such support.
When you think back to your worldview at that time, in 1989-1990, is there anything that you’ve had second thoughts about? Have you changed your mind about anything?
Essentially not. Everything that happened, I was expecting to happen: even the corruption and the negative things. Look, we have the same problems as Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia — everywhere there is corruption, maybe a little bit more here or a little bit less there. It was something I was expecting, because a revolution creates a certain mentality. This revolution freed people: freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise. Everybody was thinking, “I don’t have money. I’ve been in bad shape economically because of communism. Now communism is gone, I can now live as they live in Germany, in Austria, in England. So, how should I become rich?”
The thing that I didn’t expect, frankly speaking, is the role played by the political elite in this corruption. I naively thought that people who are leading the country, especially a country which has freed itself from communism and later on from an aggression, that those people are going to have the national interest and the well-being of the people foremost in their mind. But like everybody else, they had their own private interests foremost in mind, and this is something that I didn’t expect.
So you expected corruption at a certain level, but you didn’t expect it to rise all the way to the top?
Corruption, unfortunately, is not an individual phenomenon. Rather, it’s a system. Corruption within the elite is not only in terms of wealth and money. Corruption also is when you become a minister and you give posts to your friends.
Anyway, like most people, I’m not satisfied with the way things are economically. We are in bad shape, but then today everybody is. On the other hand, we are also ready, and all the governments have been ready, to accept the pressures from the so-called international community, even in things we couldn’t oppose and did not accept happily. In a way, this is again something that is not new to me. Croatia is like an unwanted baby that wants everybody to like him, and he is ready to do anything to be loved. That’s how we behave, and it’s not a good thing for the country. But as I told you, we are ready to accept everything the “big ones” are asking, even if it goes against our interest.
If you would ask me whether I think that the last 20 years — even including the war — was worth it, I would say: “Yes.” Unfortunately, it was. There is something special about our case, about Yugoslavia. Everywhere I went — Cairo, Athens, Strasbourg — whoever I met in the diplomatic community often asked me, “But weren’t you better off within Yugoslavia, when you were all together?” And I said, “But I never heard you asking this of the Czech ambassador or the Slovak ambassador or the Russian ambassador. Why do you believe that it was better back then? If it had been better, what happened wouldn’t have happened.” Unfortunately, it happened in the most terrible way. If it could have happened like in Czechoslovakia, I would without any reluctance say that it was worth it. But even with what happened, I believe, all in all, that it was worth it.
Do you think that the war could’ve gone on a different path? Do you think that Croatia had any control over the way the war happened?
Not really, except that Tudjman artfully conducted the first months of war, trying to postpone things. He was negotiating with everybody and everyone, and he was gaining time. He was gaining both time and a certain perception within the international community. So to that extent, Croatia had some control. But not in terms of what was going on on the ground. At a certain point, almost a third of our country was occupied. But I would say that Tudjman did a very good job in those years.
One of the dominant interpretations is that Tudjman was, as you say, diplomatically very astute in those early years of the war, and that Croatia as a country had a very high reputation. But that shifted, especially those years when you were in Cairo and the doors were closed to you. That’s when Croatia’s reputation dropped considerably. I guess you felt that to certain extent when you were in Egypt.
Yes, of course.
Do you think that could’ve been avoided and Croatia could have somehow maintained its high reputation?
Since I wasn’t here at that time, I have no direct insight, unlike the first two years when I was with Tudjman in his office. At that time, I was with him every day at lunch and he liked me because I was one of the people who spoke openly. He always said, “I am going to decide, but I want you to tell me what you think.” He also liked me because I was not a politician: I was not a member of the party, I had no relations with other politicians and ministers. Every lunch, every day, I heard all of his discussions with people, and so I had direct insight.
Later on, the reason for this shift in perception of Croatia within the international community was due to the issue of Bosnia. Tudjman believed that Bosnia could not survive as it is. He said, “Bosnia is a micro-Yugoslavia. And Bosnia could exist as Bosnia only under Yugoslavia, before that under the Ottoman Empire, and for a short period of time under Austro-Hungarian Empire.” And so he believed that Bosnia couldn’t survive, and that Croats should secure their territories in Bosnia: for their own sake and for the strategic sake of Croatia. Not necessarily in terms of the dismantlement of Bosnia-Hercegovina, but in any case in terms of an “internal structural division.”
He conducted such a policy in Bosnia. He recognized Bosnia. Actually he made Bosnian-Croats vote for an independent Bosnia. But he always thought that Bosnia was going to be divided, whether in terms of giving some parts to Croatia and some parts to establish a Muslim country if it was dismantled, or to establish within the borders of Bosnia various republics or cantons or regions that have a certain independence in terms of cultural and local development policy. The international community — the United States and so on — wanted Bosnia to survive as it was. But that’s when things fell apart.
In Cairo, I was in contact with an American diplomat more or less regularly, and he told me, “Tudjman is a great man. There are no more statesmen today. He’s a real statesman. He has a sense of history.” Of course I knew that he was just trying to butter me up. This went on until the Dayton Agreement was signed. As soon as Dayton was signed, meaning they didn’t have any more need for Tudjman, the same guy began to tell me an ocean of ugly things about Tudjman. So, they accepted Tudjman when he was playing into their hands. When he started to play his own game, they rejected him.
As far as Bosnia is concerned, frankly speaking I still believe that Tudjman was right, that Bosnia should be divided in terms of political structure. I remember when I came to Zagreb from Cairo after the Dayton Agreement, I met Tudjman and I said to him, “It seems to me that the Dayton Agreement is not a good one.” “How do you mean?!” he asked. I said, “To me it seems like a division of Bosnia between Serbs and Muslims.” And he said, “You may be right, but it was the only way to stop the war, and we are not going to allow Bosnia to be divided between Serbs and Muslims.” That’s what he said. And as a matter of fact I believe that that’s what is going on, and it will be unfortunate for Bosnian-Croats.
Do you think that there was a meeting at Kardjordjevo? Not the one that you referred to before, but the later one where Tudjman and Milosevic sat down and…?
Yes, they sat down. There was this meeting, but nobody knows what they were talking about.
But probably they talked about…
I don’t know what they were talking about, but I know what Tudjman thought about Milosevic. First of all, he firmly believed that developments in former Yugoslavia depend essentially on Croats and Serbs, that the Croats and Serbs are the main players and that they should come together and find a compromise. In that way, he accepted Milosevic as a counterpart. But he didn’t believe him. I mean, everybody says that Tudjman believed Milosevic. It’s not true. But Tudjman said, “What can I do? The Serbian people elected him. He is a representative of the Serbian people, and I have to speak with him. I have to negotiate with him.” Part of this negotiation was probably only tactical, to gain time, and part was strategic in terms of finding a solution, trying to convince Milosevic that he cannot have all of Yugoslavia, including part of Croatia. But then what to do about Bosnia? I cannot say concretely what they were negotiating and discussing.
In Richard Holbrooke’s memoir of the Dayton Agreement, he talks very candidly about his discussions with Croatian top generals. He said to them, “Take as much territory as possible before the agreement, because we need pressure on Milosevic and because after the agreement it will be very difficult to rearrange the borders.” So from Holbrooke’s point of view the Croatian military was an extremely important force on the ground for diplomacy.
But still they stopped us before Banja Luka.
That’s true. Holbrooke said, “Absolutely not Banja Luka.”
So this is another indication that Bosnia was the core issue and that they wanted Bosnia to remain as it is. Or they wanted a balance between Serbia and Croatia. If you look at the trials at The Hague, there as well they are trying to establish a balance… Maybe they were afraid that the Russians were going to take over Serbia, which they didn’t want to happen. Serbia is geo-strategically important. Croatia can be bypassed, but Serbia cannot be. Once I told Tudjman, “To me, Milosevic is crazy. He has something that he could sell for great profit. But he doesn’t do it. I don’t know why he’s playing with the Russians.” Because of Serbia’s geo-strategic importance maybe, the international community didn’t want Serbia to be defeated.
Were you surprised at the indictments handed down at The Hague?
Which one? Against Gotovina?
That was the most controversial one.
Frankly speaking I was not surprised. I expected it. I firmly believe that it’s unjust, but that it’s explained by this framework of making a balance. I mean, how can you compare Vukovar and Knin? I am still sure that the Hague Tribunal is a political thing. Look at the judges that are looking into the verdict to decide at the final level. They say to the prosecution: “You cannot convict them on the grounds of excessive bombardment.” And they ask the prosecution to find something else as a basis for conviction. This is unheard of! I mean, Gotovina and Markac have been before the court for this “excessive bombardment,” the judge says they cannot be convicted on this charge, so they should be free!
There were also accusations concerning conduct in Bosnia during the Bosnian War.
I have no insight into those things except for what I’ve read in papers. But generally speaking I would say that the Hague judges don’t distinguish between the aggressor and the defender. Of course, there have been crimes on both sides, and they should be prosecuted and punished. But you cannot, for example, give Gotovina a sentence of 24 years because of Knin and Veselin ŠljivanÄanin a sentence of 10 years for Vukovar and then let him out after seven! They wanted to make both parties guilty. Why? I believe it is easier to manipulate someone who is guilty than someone who is not.
As you said, there is enormous international pressure on Croatia to abide by the rulings of the Hague Tribunal. And of course, the most important pressure point was membership in the European Union. Do you think ultimately, even if the Hague Tribunal was a bad process, or an unjust process, or a political process, was it worth it to abide by the rulings of the Tribunal in order to get into the European Union?
I don’t think so. Especially because I don’t believe anymore in the European Union. As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don’t necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France.
Did you believe in the European Union when you got to Strasbourg?
At what point did you stop believing in the EU?
I stopped believing when I saw that the reforms were going in the direction of creating more and more centralized power. This centralized power means bureaucracy, which is always a terrible thing, and it means that the strongest rule. I also started to look into how the EU functions, who is paying how much into the budget, and it seemed to me that Germany was paying for everything. How long will they be willing to pay for everything and everybody? This is a shaky foundation. I understand that the EU needs a more centralized decision-making process during this crisis. But then, if it were not for this centralizing tendency, if it were not for the Euro, the EU would probably not have this crisis.
Anyhow, I’m not sure that the EU has a bright future, and I’m not sure that we “sold” ourselves successfully. Because what we gain from the EU will depend on our capacity to exploit EU funds, and our capacity to do so is very low. And yes, we will be sitting at the same table, but we won’t have a real voice. That is, we are going to have a vote, but what does this vote mean for a country like Croatia beside the vote of France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and others?
Isn’t it better to have a small vote rather than no vote at all?
Again, it depends on our capacity. If we can be independent outside of the European Union, it would be better not to have a vote at all. But to be independent in such a context you have to have resources, and a capable leadership, and an efficient governing structure — which we don’t have. So I don’t know whether it is better for Croatia to be in the EU or outside. Theoretically speaking, I would opt for being outside, but practically speaking I’m not sure anymore.
Earlier you said that the issue is injustice, and that you were a nationalist because the issue was an imbalance of power at a national level. Croatia is now independent, more or less, and it’s a sovereign country, so do you still consider yourself a nationalist if that injustice has been removed?
I never considered myself a nationalist in terms of the definition of nationalism, either then or now. If you ask me whether I still believe that national issues are still important, I would say yes. Look at human rights. If you want to be politically correct you have to recognize the rights of all different groups, in terms of sexual orientation, national minorities, any minority. But when you start speaking about Croat national rights or Serb national rights, they are going to look at you as a nationalist, even a chauvinist. A man is defined by many things. He is defined by his sexual orientation, by his gender, by the social group he belongs to, and by his nationality in terms of his language, and so on. So why should I recognize his right as a homosexual, his right as a football player, and not his right as a Croat? In those terms, I believe that this national dimension has weight, at least as much as these other dimensions. These issues are not important in the social and political context where there is no discrimination. But if there is discrimination based on language…
Do you think that there is discrimination against Croatians?
There is in Bosnia. I remember very well at the Council of Europe we were discussing the issue of the school system in Bosnia. There had been a lot of criticism of Bosnian Croats because of the so-called “two schools under one roof.” Meaning that the curricula of Bosniaks and Croats differ in mother language and history. And then I said, “Do you remember when the issue of the reintegration of Eastern Slavonia was discussed at the Council of Europe? Both the Council of Europe and the European Union insisted on different curricula for Croats and Serbs. So how can you deny Croats the right to have the Croatian language as a subject matter, and Croatian history as a subject matter, when you insisted on exactly that in Eastern Slavonia?” Nobody said anything. And they of course acted like I’d never said anything.
So those issues are still important, in Bosnia especially. They don’t have, if I’m not wrong, any TV stations for Croats. Of course, Croats in Bosnia are a minority now. And they, at the end, will be constitutionally recognized as a minority, and there will be no problem anymore with such things. But as long as they are one of the so-called three constituent people, they should be treated like one.
What do you think about the current political situation here in Croatia? Many people have told me that they think — if you put aside the issue of corruption, which of course is always a big issue — that the political situation is more or less normal. You have two parties that are strong, and they kind of go back and forth in terms of who’s in power. The extremes are relatively unpopular, and Croatia is now a normal European country.
More or less yes. Because of this corruption issue and, maybe more so because of the economic crisis, not only are parties not popular but politicians in general are not popular. The ordinary people on the street would say to you “they are all the same,” and they would be right. I might have more or less sympathy for this or that party because of ideology, but they are all the same. And I resent that all of them — or both of them because it’s really just HDZ and SDP with their coalition partners — don’t take care of the national interest as they should. Not just in terms of relations with neighbors. They sold out everything. Croatia doesn’t own anything anymore in Croatia.
So the privatization of…
It’s not the same thing to privatize a factory and to privatize practically the whole banking system — 94%, I believe. Or the communications system. But this happened more or less everywhere. And, again, it’s something I did expect, even back in the 1990s. Because Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia included, was for practically half a century under the Communists, and everything has been destroyed in terms of a normal economy. So, when I was discussing such things with my friends, I would say, “Eastern Europe is going to be for the rest of Europe what Latin America is for the United States.” Maybe it won’t be one hundred percent similar, but close enough.
How we are going to reach the same level with Western Europe, in terms of economy, production and everything? It’s impossible if we are going to become a new kind of colony. Unfortunately, it was probably inevitable. But even as a colony you can conduct yourself in better ways and worse ways.
Because you spent so much time in Egypt, I have to ask whether you were completely surprised by the Arab Spring in Egypt, and how would you compare what happened there with this part of the world?
Again, I wasn’t surprised. Actually, if I was surprised, I was surprised that it happened only now and not before. But then it didn’t happen only in Egypt. It is happening all over the Arab World. And the notion of the so-called “Arab Spring” is completely misleading. It’s an Islamist spring, a fundamentalist spring. Why? In the mind of the average Arab citizen, whether it’s in Egypt or Libya, the alternative to the dictatorship they have been under is not democracy. They have no idea of democracy, unlike Europe. Even here in Yugoslavia we had no experience of democracy, but we had this idea of democracy before our eyes. They don’t have it. Of course, a very thin layer of society, intellectuals and so on, have this idea, but average people don’t have it. So what’s the alternative to the dictatorship of Mubarak, or Qaddafi, or Assad? It’s “real and authentic” Islam.
Even politically it was structured like this. The only real political opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood and such groupings. In an article I wrote a year ago, I predicted what was going to happen in Egypt. In the first stage, the army is going to take power and guarantee the alliance with Washington. If there would be free elections in Egypt, then the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win — which happened. And it’s happening more or less everywhere, and this is, again, normal. But it might have enormous consequences globally, because it will probably change the balance of power in the Middle East, which is one of the most strategically important regions in the world.
These quantitative questions are the last ones. The first one is, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being least -satisfied and 10 being most satisfied, when you think about all that has changed here in Croatia since 1989 until today, what would be your evaluation?
5. Because all in all, as I said, I think it has been worth it. It’s better that those changes happened, rather than not. On the other hand, I don’t think we achieved — especially in terms of economy — everything we could have, even in terms of our position within the international community or within international politics. There are things I’m dissatisfied with, and things I’m satisfied with.
Okay. Same scale from 1 to 10, same period of time, but your own personal life.
That’s tougher. I never thought about it, that’s why it’s tough. Because you live your life and you don’t think about. Well, taking into account that I spent five years in Egypt, four years in Greece, and it was great, and taking into account that I was witnessing, from the inside, a historical process, I would say 8.
Finally, looking into the near future, when you think about what will happen here in Croatia in the next couple of years here, how would you rate the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most pessimistic, and 10 being the most optimistic?
Probably no more than 5.