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Croatia’s biggest leap since independence

Independent, 16 June 2013, by Keith Micallef

The 1st July is seen by many as a historic day in Croatia’s relatively brief existence as an independent state, marking the country’s accession to the EU. Twenty-two years have passed since the country declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Before that, Croatia’s only experience as an independent state was between 1941 and 1945, as a German puppet state under Nazi leadership. After a civil war that ended in 1995, EU membership was only a distant image on the horizon. Yet, after a prolonged negotiation period spanning more than six years, in 2011 Croatia finally received the green light to join the elite club, two years later.



Unlike the 2004 enlargement, these days EU membership is no longer viewed as a fast track to economic boom and job opportunities. The financial crisis that has hit Europe hard since 2009 meant that much of the glamour is gone, nowadays. However the EU is also about political stability and peace.

This is highly relevant for the former Yugoslav republic, which boasts a long coast along the Adriatic Sea stretching over 500 kilometres. On the Northern side, the country shares its border with Slovenia and Hungary. Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina are the other neighbouring countries on the Eastern border.

Croatia is mostly associated with Dubrovnik and Split and the hundreds of islands scattered along the Adriatic coast, which are usually the most sought after tourist areas in the country. However, a brief visit to the capital reveals a thriving city, with streets full of life and where culture and the arts play an important role.

As for the imminent day that will mark EU accession, there is no sign yet that something historic is around the corner. The reality is that Croatians seem to be very unimpressed, since they are well aware that the good old days of the post-2004 enlargement are now over. This sentiment is largely a reflection of the current economic landscape in the country where the unemployment rate is set to become the third highest after Spain and Greece.

 

It’s all about peace and security

In the eyes of Slavenka Drakulic a 64-year-old prominent Croatian intellectual, who survived Tito’s communist rule and witnessed the rise in nationalism two decades ago, the decision in favour of joining the EU rests mostly on the guarantees that it brings for peace and stability after the turbulent period of the early nineties.

“There was no Vaclav Havel in Yugoslavia, but there still were writers who finished up behind bars”, says the Croatian writer. “At the end of 1980s there was no political alternative and the collapse of communism came as a big surprise. The country was not ready for change”. She recounts how writers did enjoy some degree of freedom under the communist regime when compared to Eastern European countries behind the Berlin Wall, but those who dared ask too much were still punished.

“There were a lot of ‘state writers’. With the creation of the Croatian state in 1991, if not from the mid-1980s when nationalism began rising its head, the seeds of war were being sown even psychologically through literature. Emphasis on ethnicity was perpetuated in order to create division and foment war”. She reveals that Radovan Karadzic, who is currently facing charges at the International War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, was a poet.

She says that even though independence was supposed to bring about democracy, the model of “state writers” still prevails in a certain sense, despite privatisation of the media. “The only difference is that this time around it is being driven by nationalistic influences”.

Ms Drakulic sums it all up in a nutshell when she says: “Democracy does not produce dissidents but people of different opinions”.

With EU accession, things started to improve, but there is still some way to go. There are still ties between the government and the press. The greatest weapon used is advertising, and the biggest fear for the independent media of being unofficially boycotted.

She says that corruption is still blatant, “like all former communist states”, referring to various failed privatisations. “You cannot trust politicians, since they have their own agenda” she says. In contrast “corruption in western society is not the model or part of the establishment.”

According to the Croatian writer, right now there is a sense of insecurity as in the rest of Europe, which is giving rise to extreme right-wing movements, especially in Nordic countries, where the left traditionally has much stronger roots. “This is always the case when there is economic downturn. Major parties are not managing to understand the major fears leaving a vacuum and maybe paving the way for extremism” she argues.

One of the issues that Croatians are finding hard to deal with is how to project their identity. Though one might argue that this is to be expected for a country that has existed for little more than two decades, Croatians find it hard to accept – especially when they are referred to as a “Balkan state”. As a matter of fact, EU accession is also viewed as an opportunity to highlight even more Croatia’s credentials as a Western European state, with distinct culture and traditions from its neighbouring countries.

Slavenka Drakulic believes that simply having Croatian as an official EU language is only a symbolic gesture as most of the time the money spent on translating EU legislation does very little to keep a language alive.

 

Artists fear missing out on EU funds

According to Milan Pelc from the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, there is a feeling that the creative industry as well as the arts are low down on the pecking order in the country’s priorities. The feeling is also prevalent among his colleagues, whose fear is that Croatia will miss out on a lot of funds once it joins the EU. Such an argument could highlight an urgent need for some kind of infrastructure for NGOs to tap funds and or else the lack of lobbying influence in government circles.

 

Zlatan Vehabović – A success story

Nevertheless, there are some success stories. Zlatan Vehabović is a young artist with Bosnian parents who had to resettle in Croatia at the height of the war. Though he is only 31 years old, he has already established himself not only in his native country but also abroad, especially in New York, where he enjoys quite a good reputation.

As a matter of fact, he can afford to earn his living from art. “Very few can survive on art in Croatia, but I was one of the lucky ones” he admits. By his normal standards, he is quite happy when he manages to finish ten works of art per year, which are usually quite large in size. This is also testament to the fact that his works are getting a very good price, especially abroad.

On the other hand he admits that there are no famous art galleries in Croatia “as the market here is very small and limited”. So it is not surprising that most of his business is carried out directly from his very modest studio, at Zagreb University.

Reality is that the business he carries out abroad is much more lucrative. “The money I earn abroad is worth even more here, because of the relatively low of cost of living”.

 

Ten years from now...

The clock is now ticking and Croatia’s days outside the EU are numbered. While it is still too early to draw any conclusions, it may well be the case that a decade from now, other former Yugoslav republics will be once again be united – this time under the EU flag. As a matter of fact, Macedonia and Montenegro are already candidate countries. Serbia has applied for membership in 2009 while Bosnia Herzegovina is already being touted as a ‘potential candidate country’.

 

The writer was on a three-day visit to Zagreb learning about Croatian art and culture. The visit was sponsored by the European Commission.

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