Defending the Underdogs

It looked and sounded like something out of the Deep South during the civil rights era in the United States. Angry protesters, men and women, were shouting racist slogans and trying to prevent a group of 50 young schoolchildren from entering an integrated preschool.

Except that this wasn’t happening a half-century ago. It was happening this last fall, in Croatia’s Medjimurje County.

There are approximately 15,000 Roma living in Croatia, the majority in Medjimurje County. In 2010, the European Court on Human Rights had its Brown vs. Board of Education moment when it ruled that separating Roma and non-Roma students in the Croatian school system was tantamount to discrimination based on ethnicity. The integration of Croatian schools has proceeded fitfully since then. Preschools are now open year round, with longer hours. The state provides transportation and two meals. An after-school program to help with homework is also now available, though the funding is limited.

But there’s a lot of catching up to do. “Of 1,589 Romani pupils attending the county’s primary schools, which run from first to eighth grades, only 92 are enrolled in the eighth grade,” writes Barbara Matejcic. “Just 123 Roma are attending high school, according to the county’s department for education, culture, and sports. About 20 Roma graduate from high school annually.”

Tin Gazivoda has been involved in the integration struggle in Medjimurje from the beginning. “When we faced the situation of open segregation of Roma pupils in Medjimurje county, we were actually receiving pleas from parents of Roma children to help them,” he told me in Zagreb last October. “When we went to Medjimurje, we were mobbed by these pleading people, because we were from the Helsinki Committee, and it had a certain reputation and a certain influence by then.”

There’s a prevailing myth of Roma parents are not interested in the education system. What they’re not interested in is a second-class education system.

Gazivoda led the effort to bring the case to the European Court. “I myself said to the county prefect at that time: ‘You may win this in the Croatian courts, but eventually in the European Court you will lose,’” he continued. “Of course, two years later the politicians would no longer be in those positions, maybe not involved very much in politics afterwards, so what do they care? I’m being perhaps a bit cynical. But we won the case in the European Court in March 2010: barely, it was a very close call.”

But he also learned from this work that winning a court case is only the beginning. “For a real transformation,” he concluded, “you need to work on the majority population, at the level of changes in the political culture and the educational system. You need to have a much more comprehensive, integrated, long-term approach, which is much more complex and sustained work.”

For Tin Gazivoda, the work on integration in Medjimure is only the latest in a series of initiatives defending the underdogs. It all started with an internship at the Bosnian mission to the United Nations in 1993, which led to his work at Stanford University with Students Against Genocide. He continued his human rights advocacy with the Croatian Helsinki Committee and now works for the Open Society Foundation out of Zagreb. We talked about his academic research on civil society, the “ethnification of politics” in Croatia, and the intolerance of the younger generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I was in the United States, but I can’t situate the exact date. So the precise answer would be: no. I don’t remember this as a stark event that I would directly link to a state of mind and my location at the time. Unlike, for example, the announcement of Tito’s death in 1980. I remember I was a young kid in London and BBC was doing  shows on all channels about this. And I remember I was in Zagreb when the first crossing of the borders happened from Hungary. There were all these discussions with my parents and on the TV about this. The fact that I can’t situate where I was when the Wall fell is probably related to the fact that I was changing locations as a young person at the time.

 

Do you remember thinking at some point about what impact it would have on Yugoslavia?

 

It seemed rather distant. I was 14 at the time, but I was starting to think about politics and wider developments. To me it seemed that two big changes were starting to take place. There were changes happening on the macro-level, in the Cold War context, and then there were the implications on the system we were in and the relationship that Croatia had within the Yugoslav federation. I certainly wasn’t predicting at the age of 14 what was going to happen, but somehow I felt that the latter issue was closer to home, and that it would have a much bigger impact on our lives, at least in the short-term…

In 1989, there was already this feeling that the relationship between Croatia and the Federation was changing. Milosevic was holding his big rallies, the one on June 28th, 1989 in Kosovo Polje, which I watched on TV. There were a million people chanting and Milosevic was saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “there will be war if it’s necessary.” Seeing those first signs and then some of the reactions from people in Croatia, I could see that things were going in the direction of conflict. That it would be armed conflict, with such tragic consequences, was something we couldn’t see. But we could feel this immense tension developing.

 

When did you first decide that civil society was going to be an object of interest, not only in terms of academic study but as a profession?

 

It was at Stanford where I ended up studying international relations. Because of my family background, I was implicitly drawn to economic issues, but other developments raised my interest in international affairs. For instance, I was a volunteer at the Bosnian mission to the United Nations as I was finishing up high school in New York. It was when the ambassador was Muhamed Sacirbey. That was quite an experience: totally intense. We were still working in an apartment at that time. It was 1993. We were getting faxes from Goražde and other places that were just terrible.

This was somehow transformed into my involvement with Students Against Genocide (SAGE) at Stanford. There were other universities in America with SAGE branches that were working on raising awareness about what was going on in Bosnia. This is where I found a sort of activist drive and started to spend a lot of my free time in organizing campaigns, fundraising, trying to bring computers to Bosnia, trying to be involved in activities that would change U.S. policies toward the region, and so on. Then we came up with the idea of organizing a conference on American foreign policy in Southeast Europe. We co-organized this with Central European University, with the department headed by Professor Ivo Banac. Lots of people showed up at this event. It was in June 1997 at Stanford, just before I graduated. There was Ivan Zvonimir Čičak, the president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, and Peter Galbraith and William Perry. I still have some documents about this conference in my personal files.

This is how I got to know the people from the Croatian Helsinki Committee. When I came back to Croatia, I initially had a bit of a dilemma:  Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Croatian Helsinki Committee, or something else. But I really couldn’t see myself supporting the regime – that’s a more accurate word than “government” – of Franjo Tudjman at the time. Or for that matter getting into a suit and tie everyday and working my way up the ladder of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In other words, I’m not sure I would have done it even if the regime had been better. But it made the decision easy.

 

The suit and tie would’ve been the same.

 

Yes, exactly! That daily routine would’ve been the same, and the whole working up through the hierarchy of the system.

So, the Helsinki Committee was dealing with very politically sensitive issues at the time: human rights protection, confronting the government, war crimes related to Operation Storm, protection of national minorities, defending the basic rights of all people. But most of the cases were related to the rights of Serbs and ethnic issues, which were the primary human rights violations taking place at the time. Of course there was also the privatization process, and today we get questions like, “How come you weren’t dealing with social issues, workers’ issues, the privatization process, when there were so many bad things happening?” But people were being killed, and this to us seemed like the primary issue, so economic and social issues were secondary. That’s how I got involved in the Croatian Helsinki Committee, then later with election monitoring and the get-out-the-vote campaign Glas 99.

 

The decision you made to work for the Bosnian mission, was that just by chance? You could’ve worked for lots of different places. Why the Bosnian mission?

 

Every day, CNN was showing terrible things that were going on in Bosnia: the siege of Sarajevo, the situation in the enclaves in eastern Bosnia, the camps that Roy Gutman reported on in his work. I tried to contact the Croatian mission, but it didn’t work out. And then I was telling my dad, “You know, I would really like to work somehow on issues related to Bosnia.” Of course, I was quite idealistic at the time. And he had some contact through the company Energoinvest. And someone there put me in contact with the ambassador, Muhamed Sacirbey.

 

Do you know where he is now? I mean, he got involved in some dicey things later on.

 

From what I understood, he was allegedly involved in those things even while he was at the UN mission. I didn’t see any of that. I was a young, idealistic person that was engaged in a four or five week internship, though I think I stayed on for a bit longer. It was a really engaged embassy staff, led by Ambassador Sacirbey. He was receiving threats at the time and was carrying a gun to defend himself. So the Bosnian state, even though it was recognized by the UN, wasn’t really functioning in any way. It’s still not functioning fully today, unfortunately. But then it was even a question of the basic conditions in which the embassy was functioning.

 

Sacirbey was incredibly charismatic.

 

Yes, he was incredibly charismatic. I also think he was incredibly successful. I was personally involved, of course, but what I could see from the meetings he had with other diplomats at the highest levels, and I had the opportunity to attend some of these meetings even in the UN, people perceived him extremely well. I think it was also positive that Bosnia had an American face. He was able to explain through the American media to the American public what was going on in a way that I don’t think many other people could.

 

Izetbegovic couldn’t, for example.

 

Nor his son, for that matter.

 

You came back to Croatia in the late 1990s?

 

I came back just after that conference in June 1997.

 

In terms of civil society here, there was the Helsinki Committee, there were some brave individuals working on behalf of human rights. How would you assess the civil-society situation in general at that time?

 

This is something that I’ve lived through and recently studied. There was an important segment of civil society here that was autonomous, based on the concept of an open society, defending in that sense liberal democratic values, and it was really politically engaged. There was the Helsinki Committee. There was also the Civic Committee for Human Rights and Zoran Pusic. There were also groups in other places in Croatia. The movement was Zagreb-centric unfortunately, but there was also the Center for Peace in Osijek, a group in Pula, Pakrac, another in the Knin area. This was the human rights community.

There were also some other organizations like women’s organizations. A large segment of these organizations were also close to these values and were in opposition to the regime, and were sometimes much more critical than  the political opposition. Then there was also a part of civil society that included more politically neutral organizations that were providing services of various sorts, during the conflict and in the post-conflict situation. These included, of course, humanitarian organizations.

Finally, there were also a whole set of organizations and associations that I don’t know to what degree we can group in civil society. They had a more or less clientelistic relationship with the Tudjman regime, from Don Ante Bakovic and his populist, pro-natalist movement to war veterans associations and other groups like Bedem Ljubavi (Mothers for Peace). At least some of these clientelistic groups, or at least certain parts of their activities, should be included in the sphere of civil society regardless of what we might think of them.

On top of all of this was the anti-war movement, which is something I wasn’t involved with, since I wasn’t in Croatia for the most part during those war years. There were also international humanitarian organizations and other outside organizations, which I think is very important for understanding the whole process. Sometimes you hear the over-simplified argument that civil society was imposed from the outside. Of course, the roots of civil society can be traced back at least to the 1970s and the socialist period, if not before. I don’t think that we can speak of a fully developed civil society in the 1990s though, but rather, there were elements of civil society. They were highly reliant on foreign assistance, and that had its own dynamic: both positive in terms of sharing experience and also negative when there were cases of imposing ideas on others, conditionality, and so on. The stronger civil-society organizations in Croatia were obviously in a better position to defend against attempts to influence their independence. Other, smaller or more local organizations were in a weaker position. There were also service providers that were in a more clientelistic relationship with the regime. So there was conflict and adversarial relationships even within civil society.

 

What were the major cleavages?

 

The relationship to the issue of the nation and ethnicity was the main cleavage: whether you believe that certain values, ideas, are important regardless of one’s ethnicity or whether you put ethnic identity above everything else. This cleavage developed in Croatia, as in other countries where what Claus Offe terms the “ethnification of politics and society” was really strong. It happened in a gradual way, but it was getting stronger during the mid-1990s rather than weaker. And then from the perspective of the regime, there was a switch from the external to the internal enemy, which also solidified these cleavages within civil society.

 

Do you think the turning point in terms of this ethnification of politics was Tudjman’s death at the end of 1999? Or would you identify a different turning point?

 

On the level of the political system, the change that took place in January 2000 with the elections was the turning point. But it had a lot of causes. It wasn’t just Tudjman’s death, but Tudjman’s death in a way ensured that the results would be implemented. Whether they would have taken place if Tudjman had stayed alive for a year or a few months longer is an open question. But obviously during Tudjman’s regime, the possibility of going beyond the ethnic, of changing the framework, didn’t exist. So on the level of the political system, that’s the turning point.

But on a deeper social level, I don’t think that was the turning point. This is not something I’ve given that much thought to, because I was dealing mainly with the political system in my Ph.D. But at a deeper social level was the realization that along with the war taking place was a major fraud called privatization. We’re now aware of all the negative sides: the corruption, the mismanagement, the loss of resources that happened during privatization. When did this awareness take place? When did people see? Maybe some people who were close to certain privatization processes actually saw what was going on even as it was taking place. But for the most part society learned about this only much later, maybe around 1998-99. I think this was one of the elements that contributed to the defeat of HDZ in the elections in early 2000. First it was on the level of feeling, and only later was there confirmation.

In fact, many of these cases connected to privatization have never been processed, even until today. Largely thanks to the current president, Ivo Josipović, we now have a clause in the constitution that investigations of crimes related to the privatization process have no temporal limit, just like war crimes. This actually allows the possibility for some court cases to start now. A few cases happened in the early 2000s; a few cases happened five years ago. So, by five years ago, people were quite aware of the scams associated with the privatization process, just as they are now starting to be aware of the degree of corruption that developed during the Sanader era.

 

Was there anything that civil-society organizations, ones you were involved with or others, could’ve done differently in the late 1990s to achieve their goals? Perhaps to resist the ethnicization of politics? Perhaps more narrowly at the level of tactics?

 

Those organizations from the regime were effectively coming from a minority position, and a marginalized position. They didn’t have access to the media. They didn’t really have a constituency: Srdjan Dvornik talks about this in his book about actors without society. I think that’s one of the most successful things that the Glas 99 campaign did: it was able to build a wider platform and then, because of this wider platform, attract a somewhat larger constituency. Because of the socio-political context of the time and because of this minority position, I’m not sure if civil society had used different tactics at that time more could’ve been achieved.

Now, were mistakes made? Was there infighting within the organizations that was counter-productive? Were there donors imposing their interests? Did ideological prejudice and old conflicts reemerge that weren’t productive or relevant to the work we were trying to do? Yes! But that’s reality, and it also came out of the Croatian context. I’m sure there were things the organizations could’ve done better, but I don’t see anything from today’s perspective that that would’ve made a major difference. It was more a question of better functioning, maybe better coordination, maybe missed opportunities on specific engagements. But even these, added together, probably wouldn’t have produced something substantially different. Civil-society organizations were reactive, and I don’t think they could’ve been pro-active. I also don’t think that these organizations had the capacity to deal with other issues, like economic and social issues.

 

But the situation today obviously is different here in Croatia: ethno-nationalist politics has dwindled, HDZ has moved more or less toward the center, the Party of Rights is much more marginal. I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for this. One rather depressing explanation is that the ethnic Serb population is smaller, and therefore is not perceived as a threat, so the internal enemy, so to speak, has more or less disappeared. Another is simply that the European Union – and by extension the Hague Tribunal — forced the Croatian government to change a number of its policies. A third is that a generation of politicians passed and a new generation came in. What would be your explanation?

 

My explanation would be all of the things you mentioned, plus something that I don’t think others would say or even agree with. We have, in the meantime, developed the political culture in this country to some degree. This is a key element in the state of democracy or the state of society. It would be interesting to analyze how this happened, but somehow it happened. The development is small. It’s not a major advance since we don’t really have a political culture of participation and the educational level is anyhow still rather low, but there is a change. People might dislike certain segments of the democratic political model, but they have come to accept it. They have even implicitly come to see some of its advantages. It’s still not an understanding. I don’t think that a wider part of the population has admiration for the concept. Of course, the concept has its own problems, but I’m talking about the good sides of the system.

And people are more and more willing to deal with issues in a more – “moderate” isn’t the right word – in a more standard way. When there is a protest, then it’s a protest in which views are articulated, not a protest that includes so many extreme positions. I think protest is good. I think civil disobedience is good. I see these as essential components of an open society. I think we should have more direct democracy. I think we should have more deliberative democracy. But at the same time I think that parliamentary, institutional democracy is irreplaceable.

There are more well thought-out elements of direct democracy, of deliberative democracy – such as direct consultations with civil society, with citizens of various sorts – that need to happen but still haven’t happened. This would deepen democracy here. But a minimal level of participatory political culture has developed in a segment of a population. It’s not exactly irreversible. We can go back a little bit, depending on the situation, but I don’t think that we can go back so far that we would actually challenge the basics of the democratic political system. Of course, this is related to the economic system and the crisis of capitalism. But that’s a different issue, one that can’t be solved solely within Croatia itself.

 

I would agree that the political culture has developed here in Croatia, that there is at some fundamental level greater faith in democratic institutions and democratic practice. And yet, at the same time, there’s such a thorough loss of faith in the actual politicians themselves. I can’t find anybody who would say, “Yes! We have a great collection of politicians” or “We have a couple of good politicians” or even “We have this one good politician.”

 

I don’t know how to explain it, but I agree with the assessment. There’s been a small but significant development of political culture, and yet at the same time the persistent distrust of politicians.

 

In your own personal and political odyssey, have you substantially rethought any of your positions from the the 1990s about civil society, about political activism, about Croatian history?

 

Yes, several things. When I was initially involved in civil-society organizations, I thought that this was standard practice, that this was the way to approach civil-society engagement, advocacy, and so on. In recent years, I have seen that this might have functioned in the context of the late 1990s and a few years onwards, but it has changed today. For the challenges that are important today, including those related to economic and social issues, restricting the concept of civil society to NGOs—I didn’t do that before, but implicitly I was coming from that perspective—is limiting, and, in a way, wrong. Many informal and ad hoc initiatives can respond better in a more flexible way to current challenges. The potential that exists in social initiatives, like the one we had in relation to Cvjetni trg here in Zagreb [an anti-gentrification struggle to prevent the construction of a retail/commercial center in the heart of Zagreb] is something very positive. It can be equally valuable as the contribution of some more institutionalized, and well-established, and well-experienced organizations that base their work on solid data, evidence-based approaches, and so on.

The second thing I’ve learned—and I’ve learned this through the Roma situation—is that a really radical human rights perspective can sometimes work, but not always. When we faced the situation of open segregation of Roma pupils in Medjimurje county, we were actually receiving pleas from parents of Roma children to help them. When we went to Medjimurje, we were mobbed by these pleading people, because we were from the Helsinki Committee, and it had a certain reputation and a certain influence by then. Their children were going to segregated classes. In one school Roma children were eating lunch on one side of the room and non-Roma kids on the other side. We saw this. The facts were not hidden. The authorities considered this normal at the time.

We said: “If that’s the position you take, that they’re simply dirty, uneducated, and so on, then we have to sue you. And we’ll go to the European Court if that’s what it takes.” Actually, this is what I myself said to the county prefect at that time: “You may win this in the Croatian courts, but eventually in the European Court you will lose.” Of course, two years later the politicians would no longer be in those positions, maybe not involved very much in politics afterwards, so what do they care? I’m being perhaps a bit cynical. But we won the case in the European Court in March 2010: barely, it was a very close call.

The point is that I have recently been to Medjimurje. I’ve been going there more intensely this year, including to the Roma settlements, and I’ve realized that our approach might’ve been a necessary starting point, but if you leave it at that, you’re not doing very much. You’re creating the type of confrontation that can lead to transformation, but you’re not really supporting the transformation until it becomes something sustainable. For a real transformation you need to work on the majority population, at the level of changes in the political culture and the educational system. You need to have a much more comprehensive, integrated, long-term approach, which is much more complex and sustained work.

 

Are there resources available to do that?

 

Hopefully. It won’t depend just on our little office here in Zagreb, or even the Open Society Foundations as a whole. A number of actors need to support the process, from the local authorities to the Ministry of Education and, of course, the Roma themselves. And in the meantime, there’s been a change: whereas 10 years ago the local politicians were more or less openly racist, or at least prejudiced toward Roma, today people from the Medjimurje county are trying to make progress. Eventually, the goal of this intervention should be to make this change systemic at the level of the educational policy of the county and the government.

 

And that would involve as well changes in the textbooks that everybody is reading.

 

Yes. We did a study while I was still with the Human Rights Center, which was initially a UN technical cooperation project and then a public institution. We did a study of human rights in high schools, and the basic finding of this study is that most of the really direct stereotypes and prejudices—most, not all—have been removed from the textbooks, between 2000 and 2007. Now it’s a question of what are the positive values of tolerance, open society, understanding of difference, inclusion, and so on. We’re only at the beginning of that. Croatia is one of the last countries to include this program on civic education in high schools, elementary and secondary schools, and university. It just started this year, at the level of a pilot project.

There is research by GONG from December 2010 about attitudes of high school students that shows that the kids who grew up in the 1990s – what the theater director Borut Šeparović has called Generation 91-95 — have more intolerant positions than their parents. It’s not a surprise: They grew up in a war environment and with textbooks shaped by that context. On the other hand, leading up to the election in 2000, we wanted to get this generation out to vote. At the time it could be proven that they were more inclined not to support the values of the regime. But because of the level of apathy, it was just a question of getting them to the voting place. So, the younger generation then became potential agents of change. This is no longer the case or at least not in the same sense.

 

In Bulgaria I’d ask people all the time what they learned about Roma in textbooks in school: nothing.

 

No. Nothing.

 

You can get rid of the negative stereotypes, but then there’s nothing there to replace them. And they continue to pick up negative stereotypes from their families, their friends.

 

This is particularly a problem in divided communities. Which is not the case in terms of all Roma in Croatia. There are Roma living in Zagreb that attend schools in Zagreb. Even in Medjimurje now we have more positive cases, like in the city of Orehovica. But in one place, in Kuršanec, the Roma settlement is three kilometers away from the actual settlement. They meet in school (for the most part in the first few grades of school), but then there’s complete separation.

 

And what about representations in media or culture here? Has that changed at all?

 

One breakthrough happened when a Roma person won the Big Brother contest. We can look at this story from different angles, but I think it also has a positive side.

 

You mean that a Roma person lived in a house with lots of other people and it was televised as a reality show?

 

Yes. And he was voted by average citizens as the best.

 

That is something.

 

That’s why I mentioned it. It’s something that a wider group of average citizens were involved in.

There’s a Roma MP, for the second time. It was Nazif Memedi last time, now it’s Veljko Kajtazi. There is a whole generation of older Roma NGO activists. From that position, they speak publicly and they’re present. Other than that it’s very limited. When it comes to people that would somehow be part of mainstream organizations, like the director of a theatre in Serbia that happens to be a Roma, it’s really limited. In Croatia the Roma community is much smaller, officially 15,800 but probably in reality at least two to three times that. Also, people need to identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic identity in order for us to consider them as that ethnic identity. But it’s a much smaller community than in Serbia or Macedonia, where you have many more Roma individuals present in different public functions. Here the Roma community is quite heterogeneous. There are the Bayash Roma in Medjimurje. There are Roma who came from different parts of Yugoslavia before the war and others who came from Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia during the war. And there were a lot of tensions within the community, even more than in other places.

And then the educational level is extremely low. There are fewer than 10 Roma in Croatia with a university degree.

 

Ten people?

 

Yes. At least to the degree that we know about this.

 

What about representations of ethnic Serbs? Obviously some people who appear in the media won’t be identified one way or another. But are there people who are identified as such in a culturally significant way?

 

Like Nikola Tesla.

 

Yes, but in some sense that go against whatever the prevailing stereotype might be.

 

I’m sure if I thought more clearly there would be a few. Certainly if you look at the history of Serbs in Croatia you would find a lot of positive examples. If you actually go to the office of the Serbian National Council, they have pictures of some of these individuals. And there are of course Serbian MPs in the parliament who identify themselves as representing the Serbian national minority.

I was told that the Serbian-language weekly has quite a following here.

 

That’s a recent development, and that is perhaps something along the lines of what you were thinking. A lot of people involved in Novosti, the Serbian-language paper, used to work at the Feral Tribune. There weren’t a lot of places for them to work, and this was an opportunity for them. But obviously the editorial team of Novosti was open to this idea. So this is now an amalgam of issues relevant for the Serbian community and broader issues that are written about in a Feral Tribune style.

 

Critical, you mean.

 

Very critical: ranging from Obama and Guantanamo Bay to very current Croatian issues.

 

My interpreter over lunch said that the major problem here in Croatia is that there’s no Croatian identity. She was talking about Poland, she said, “Poles have an identity. You think about Poles and you get this picture, but Croatia has no national identity. I want you to ask people whether they think there is a Croatian identity.” I said, “I only have one more interview here.” And that’s you. So you have to speak for everybody on this issue!

 

I think that there is a Croatian national identity. I think it’s a mixture of the history, the culture of this country that goes back centuries, but it’s also largely shaped by recent developments. On top of this is what Dejan Jović would refer to as the founding national myth. Every country has this, and perhaps a founding national myth is one of the features of a national identity. In Croatian politics, it comes from the position of the country under attack: a victim position that ends up as a victor position.

 

A founding myth like the nurturing of the Croatian identity during the Croatian Spring and then its suppression, followed by Tudjman’s political rebirth and his successful attainment of Croatian independence through HDZ as a political vehicle?

 

Generally yes. But I would say that the Croatian Spring component was somehow set aside: not criticized, not thrown away, but set aside. At a deeper level for Tudjman was also this historic reconciliation between the Ustashe and the anti-fascists. Also, that there were three officially legitimate sources of Croatian identity in the sense of past political ideologies: Ante Starcevic, the Croatian peasant party and Stjepan Radić, and I’ll have to get back to you on the third. At the same time, he wanted to include the antifascist component as well although he was much less open about it.

 

I read one account that argued that for this national identity to be sustainable, it was necessary to remove Tudjman. If Tudjman he had stopped his political career after the first two years or so, that would have been fine.

 

Even 5, I would say.

 

But now I understand that the number of people who go to Tito’s birthplace is far more than the number that go to Tudjman’s birthplace – and these places are quite close to one another. Tudjman has proven to be problematic in terms of this consolidation of Croatian national identity. 

 

Problematic is the right word, but I’m also not sure what will happen 15 to 20 years from now, whether there’ll be a different account of the role of Tudjman. It might go from one extreme to the other and end up in a sort of middle ground. Let’s not forget that like Tito, Tudjman in the 1990s had a high degree of legitimacy. But then, in the latter years, he lost a segment of his credibility. I’m sure that he’s problematic, but I’m not sure about the other thesis, that the only way for Croatian national identity to be really sustainably established was for him to be excluded from the whole scheme. I’m especially not sure whether this will be the case 20 or 30 years from now. He certainly won’t have a positive role, but it might end up being a mixed account.

 

Look at Walesa, at Havel. Their reputations changed considerably over the course of their political lifetimes. Of course, there’s still significant portions of the population in Poland that revere Walesa, and the population in the Czech Republic that revere Havel. But it was almost as if their role as transformative figures had to undergo substantial revision during their lifetime. Even to the point at which people radically distanced themselves from Walesa, from Havel, from Zheliu Zhelev in Bulgaria. Again for different reasons, but these transformative figures, these cornerstone activists of democratic politics got their hands dirty. They had to get their hands dirty, because they entered politics. And they entered politics at a time when politics was still problematic, and they paid a price for that.

 

But Tudjman didn’t really come from a dissident perspective.

 

That’s very true. He was a communist general.

 

We know now that a whole series of circumstances led to Tudjman being the first chief of HDZ. It could have been very different, even if some small things happened in a different way. If it had been someone linked more directly to the Croatian Spring, for example, the situation might have been closer to these classic dissident situations.

I would also say the revision of Tudjman took place not during his lifetime but over the next ten years. An important element of that is Ivo Sanader, who as the chief of the same party distanced himself from Tudjman only a few years afterward Tudjman’s death. But I think this revision is slowly settling down and there is even a reversal of sorts. For instance, Tomislav Karamarko in the last campaign was mentioning the need to re-Tudjmanize Croatia, though he eventually stopped saying this. So, we’re getting a bit more balanced picture, though in many ways I wouldn’t agree with it.

 

Have you noticed any less reluctance to address the really tough questions of the war years in terms of Croatian responsibility, Croatian government actions, reactions from citizens? Or is still just a very difficult set of issues to discuss?

 

These are still difficult issues to discuss. But I actually think that we in the Helsinki Committee and the other organizations started the discussion in the public sphere early, even as some of these dark sides of the war were happening. This allowed the discussion at a relatively early stage to be based on some solid facts about war crimes committed by ethnic Croats. Initially, of course, these were brave activists in a completely minority position, subject to harassment and attacks for doing so.

But already you can see the difference from 2001 to 2005. I remember in 2001 there was this big protest along the waterfront, the Riva, in Split to protest the accusation of war crimes against General Mirko Noric, with 100,000 people and a big speech by Ivo Sanader. 100 thousand people! In 2005, when Mirko Norac was sentenced and actually sent of to prison, there was a protest of 100 people. That’s a huge change.

One of the surprising conclusions that I’ve come to is that, considering everything that has gone on in the last 20 years, the transformations at all levels, Croatia is relatively well-off. Maybe I shouldn’t even be saying this considering the number of people who died, the number of unemployed and everything else bad that took place, but so much has happened including in the segment of dealing with the past. It started with a group of brave activists, then it was a larger group of civil-society actors, then some investigative journalists and others. Slowly but surely, larger segments of society began to realize that there was a negative side to the war. It’s still a complex situation, and there are still sensitive issues. But from a position voiced by the president of the Croatian Supreme Court in 1997 or 1998 that Croats cannot commit war crimes to the event in Split, to the sentencing of Mirko Norac, and then the trial against Ante Gotovina.

 

The last three questions are quantitative questions I ask everybody. When you look at the situation from 1989 to today, on a scale form 1 to 10, 1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied, how would you evaluate all that has changed or not changed here?

 

Six.

 

And your own personal life, over the same period and the same scale?

 

Eight.

 

And when you look into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Croatia? Scale 1 to 10, 1 being the most pessimistic, 10 being the most optimistic.

 

Six and a half.

 

Zagreb, October 16, 2012


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