Guest post: Protests in Croatia – Manufacturing the politics of moderation since 1995

I’m slightly worried about writing anything, saying anything, because I’m not sure what I would try to tell you – I’ve been watching Croatian news almost non-stop for the past week, and the language of the Croatian media is far from moderate. I have nothing moderate to say, either. Instead, I will simply re-post a text by Sabrina Peric, which says everything I could possibly want to say, to an English-speaking audience. (Sabrina is a very smart woman from my hometown (Rijeka), and a current PhD candidate at Harvard. The text is reproduced with her permission, and her blog is here.)


This short piece was written in response to the unbelievable lack of media coverage of the protests in Croatia, especially English-language media coverage.

The astonishing lack of international media coverage of protests across Croatia this past week has drawn attention to the growing domestic discourses on ‘protest’ ‘stability’ and ‘order’ in the Balkan region.

For the past six days, citizens all over Croatia have been demonstrating every other day in cities across the country, demanding the resignation of the current ruling government coalition. Though the protests originally started as a gathering of war veterans, bolstered by the appearance of several right-wing politicians and celebrities, the war veterans themselves have become fractionalized along the issue of support for the current ruling conservative HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) government. The seemingly trivial fractioning of this consistently HDZ-voting bloc though has opened the floodwaters to a questioning of the political programs of an entire spectrum of political parties in this very small yet very corrupt Balkan state.

Since Saturday, the veterans have been joined by unemployed workers – those both with and without postgraduate degrees, farmers, fishermen, pensioners, students, left-wing politicians such as Damir Kajin and Dragutin Lesar, and a slew of disenfranchised citizens to protest not only the actions of the ruling government, but the very way that government and citizens have engaged each other in the years since the end of the war in 1995. In an act of defiance towards the entire class of ruling elites, protesters on Wednesday night burned both the flag of the ruling HDZ party, as well as the flag of the main opposition SDP (Social Democratic Party of Croatia).

Many Croatian politicians have been quick to judge this as indexical of the ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ elements at work amongst the protesters, outside commentators have worried about the structural ‘right-wing’ or ‘fascist’ implications of these acts. And it is true that the state of Croatia has much work to do in dealing with nationalism and hate speech amongst its citizens. These acts of flag burning however were key for exactly opposite reasons: they did signal a new and particular kind of solidarity amongst demonstrators, but it had nothing to do with a realignment of contemporary Croatian politics. Rather, it was a class solidarity, and a recognition of class solidarity above other kinds of divisions. Furthermore, the flag burning was directed not only against political elites in the state of Croatia, but against the fact that, in Croatia, political elites are synonymous with class elites. A common joke in Croatia goes along the following lines: a young boy says to his mom “Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to be rich and shower you with gifts, travel all over the place, meet celebrities and hang out with soccer players and live in a palace.” The mom says “Oh, and what will you be then when you grow up?” “A politician” answers the boy.

Protesters too have been quick to point out the lavish lifestyles of many of Croatia’s politicians. The discovery earlier this week that Ivo Sanader, former Croatian Prime Minister who is currently awaiting trial for the Hypo bank affair in Austria, received a commission of 3.5 million Croatian Kuna in the negotiations with Hypo, has done more than any one single affair to consolidate the loose alliances amongst protesters created via newspaper websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, talk on the streets and phone calls between family members. Croatian media reports have come back to the claim that protesters do not have an agenda or an end goal, however, the class agenda here seems very clear. At the protests following Saturday’s initial veterans’ demonstrations, banners and posters held by participants in the cold Zagreb winter displayed only economics statistics, personal experiences, food prices and contempt for elected officials.

The number of 350 000 officially unemployed in Croatia masks the tens of thousands who are employed but have not received a salary in six months; it masks the tens of thousands who are paid in a combination of cash and ‘store credits’ that they have to spend at particular grocery stores by a certain date; it masks the fact that many families have either only one or no income; it masks the fact that pensions are not enough for pensioners to live off of, and therefore most become dependent on their children for financial support; it masks the irregular arrival of both pension and disability cheques; it masks the growing credit crisis in a country where very few guarantors are left to sign the astonishing number of loan contracts, handed out irresponsibly by foreign banks. At the beginning of the week, Prime Minister Kosor met with large food producing and processing corporations, including Agrokor and Dukat, to make sure prices of basic foodstuffs would not rise. However, this reassurance will not do much for the large number of people who already cannot support the already exorbitant food economy (nor will it do much for the Croatian politicians’ ever-expanding and exorbitant waist lines).

Though some have drawn a line of connection between these protests in Croatia and the uprisings in progress in the North African and Middle East region, it is more important to put all of these protests and uprisings in the larger context of the economic programs, international geopolitics and financing of the (at least) past 20 years.

Though international media have barely touched the current situation in Croatia, domestic newspapers have been overflowing with statements from Croatia’s government officials (coincidentally, the fewest number of statements have come from the HDZ Prime Minister, Jadranka Kosor, who has been the most prominent target of demonstrators). The largest trend amongst these statements has been the call to ‘order’ and ‘moderation,’ and the simultaneous portrayal of protesters by HDZ officials, amongst others, as ‘hooligans’ and ‘troublemakers.’ Earlier this week, HDZ member and former presidential candidate Andrija Hebrang accused the opposition of paying each protester 250 Croatian Kuna to rid the protests of their peaceful character. The president of the opposition SDP, Zoran Milanović reiterated “we are not Libya, we will not hand over power in the streets.” Most common of all however has been an underhanded and veiled public threat promoted by a range of political actors that these protests will threaten Croatia’s European Union ascension bid. Yesterday Milanović reiterated “the talks with the EU must be finalized, we all know what the dynamic is towards that goal.”

The veiled threats over EU ascension have been coupled with foreshadowings of an even more grim general economic situation. Minister of Tourism Damir Bajs warned the public that they were endangering the upcoming potentially lucrative tourist season with their protests. He stated in public that “there have not been many questions from foreign news reporters, and let’s hope it stays that way.” Deputy Prime Minister Domagoj Ivan Milošević called reporters to a briefing and said that “protests affect the investment climate very negatively,” and continued to reiterate that “we will be entering the EU soon. All this might be slowed by the protests.”

The demand for stability, economic success and the answering of class grievances has for many years in Croatia been equated with the question of EU membership. Since the beginning of Ivo Sanader’s government, the HDZ has ruthlessly pursued EU membership at all costs, and as a remedy to all problems, political, economic and social, in Croatia. All government officials have resorted to the language of order, progress, incrementalism and, most importantly, moderation in pursuit of this goal. Similarly, all dominant parties in the European Parliament (EP) have reinforced this language through their own teleological narrative of EU ascension.

The signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 might be marked both as the culmination of years of regional intervention and humanitarianism, but also the beginning of these particular narratives of statehood. Marked at first as a state ‘in market transition’ away from socialism following the collapse of Yugoslavia, then as a post-conflict state ‘in transition’ to the cosmopolitan profile of the EU members, Croatia’s position is not unique in the region. Indeed, all the former Yugoslav states have been discussed within the ideological framework of the social and political maturity of the European family of nations on the one hand, and of the Balkans’ developmental ‘handicaps’ and peripheral condition, at the edges of EU membership, on the other hand. In a stunning complement to Croatian President Ivo Josipović’s declaration that protesters “offended Zagreb with their savagery,” Jadranka Kosor, in her speech yesterday at the opening of the centrist-right European People’s Party Congress in the European Parliament stated that “we will do our job, and proudly, with head held-high, enter the European Union and return home to the circle of European Civilizations.” Both thereby implicitly contrasted current Croatian society as ‘primitive’ and ‘backwards,’ not a part of ‘European civilization,’ with the almost messianic possibilities offered by the ‘cultured’ European factors.

The purpose of this brief digression has not been to promote or justify violent behavior amongst protesters. To the contrary, the protests have been remarkable precisely for their peacefulness. On Wednesday, many protesters threw tulips at the feet of Zagreb riot police controlling the event, and chanted “we love you” in a chorus to the officers. Rather, my goal is to stress how the language of moderation, order, progress, culture, and has been at odds with what Asli Bali and Aziz Rana in an article on “The Fake Moderation of America’s Moderate Mideast Allies” for ‘Foreign Policy in Focus’ call “any tangible commitment to actual moderation – understood as an internal project of democratization or political openness.” Since the announcement that there would be protests every other day until the government resigned, the protests have been characterized by the very qualities extolled by moderate pro-Western factions: a dedicated focus on human rights and the right of the majority to choose its elected officials.

These events in Croatia, and reactions to these events highlight what Bali and Rana call “the falseness” of the chaos-order dichotomy as the frame through which we must understand the events in Croatia. The chaos-order dichotomy has been more than complementary to both playing on citizens’ fears of a stumble back to so-called atavistic conflict, as well as the fear that Croatia may never enjoy the ‘stability’ ensured by entry into the geopolitical playground promised by NATO and the EU.
But more than anything, the chaos-order dichotomy has been most crucial for the installation and manufacture of politicians of ‘moderation’ in the years since Dayton. The politicians ‘of moderation’ have effectively, through their installation as the beacons of moderation and as harbingers of European membership, both assured and strengthened their own legitimacy in the eyes of European and “Western” powers. Simultaneously, the legitimacy offered to these politicians of moderation by “Western” powers has discursively prevented critique from a disenfranchised, increasingly impoverished population. Despite their façade of democratization and the discourse of ‘local commitments,’ these political elites have created a state that is extremely corrupt, that can no longer fiscally carry the theft its politicians have orchestrated, and a state apparatus that has placed itself in a class position that the average citizen cannot relate to.

The burning of the EU flag that took place on Wednesday night might then be read also as citizens taking a stand against the legitimacy of domestic politicians who have narrativized the EU ascension process, and who, for most of Croatia’s citizens, represent European legitimacy in the Croatian public sphere.

What brings together the Croatian case with other protests in the Middle East region might best be summarized not by the transition from ‘autocracy’ to ‘democracy’ nor by the transition from ‘socialism’ to ‘capitalism.’ Rather, Croatia, along with the other Yugoslav states, has been, in the past 20 years characterized by the transition from decades of non-aligned policies and politics to the current ‘interventionist’ world order, where local rulers rule longest (and with most legitimacy) if they tow the dominant (whether it be Europeanist or Americanist) geopolitical line. The air of moderation and rhetorical talent of most of these leaders has for years masked the pillage of national treasures, treasuries’ reserves, natural resources, industry and individual citizens’ lives.

Right now, over 10000 protesters have gathered in Zagreb, and their numbers are growing even larger. Their demands are far from ‘hazy’ or ‘disarticulated.’ To the contrary, their demands are clear. The current ruling government must step down. The current prime minister and her cabinet must step down from their positions. Early elections need to be convened. And a new era of class politics, of realigned political concern to local situations, must be recognized in Croatia, and in the wider region as the key to long-term stability.

Sabrina Perić is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University.

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