Marcus Tanner is a London-based writer, journalist, editor and commentator, specialising in Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans and Celtic countries. From 1988 to 1994, he was The Independent’s Balkan correspondent, covering the break-up of Yugoslavia, the fall of communism in Bulgaria and Romania, the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo.
Just over 20 years ago when the war in Croatia was starting, I was booking into my lodgings in Zagreb when the landlady did what all Croats did then on meeting English-speaking foreigners – delivered a potted resume of the last thousand years of Croatian history, ending in a lamentation about the baleful consequences of having joined Yugoslavia. “We’d be just living like the Austrians if we weren’t part of Yugoslavia,” she told me confidently. “Instead we are run by Serbs, which is like… well ….” she was searching for a metaphor - “like being run by gypsies!”
Days later, out and about scouring the city’s defences, I came across a large road partly blocked by a metre-high metal spike that looked as if it has been dragged from the nearest dump. “What’s that for”” I asked a guy loafing in a café doorway? “That’s to stop the Yugoslav army!” he answered.
Those two images, one faintly depressing, the other simply pitiful, sum up my memories of eve-of-war Zagreb and Croatia in general - a gloomy land preoccupied by fantasies about past mistakes, depressed about the present and woefully prepared for what was coming next.
Two decades on, not much of that world is recognizable in Croatia today. It’s not just that the war is long over and that all the big figures of that era - president Tudjman, army chief Bobetko, opposition leader Racan - have long since moved on and died. The mindset has changed, certainly among the young. When I was last back in Croatia a short while ago, most young people I met discussed the war of the 1990s as dispassionately as if we were a medieval crusade. The Catholic Church, so resurgent and powerful in the Nineties, seemed irrelevant to them, as did all those once emotive issues about flags, borders, songs and who did what in the Second World War. Everything was Europe, jobs and “rights” – civil rights, Serb rights, gay rights and yes, even gypsy rights. Their bogeys were no longer Serbia, Communism or the secret police but joblessness, globalization and – the new favourite - corrupt politicians.
Whatever happened to that stereotype of Croatia as right wing, backward looking and obsessed by flags? This was, after all, the land that some said shouldn’t be allowed independence because it would smuggle Fascism back into Europe if it were allowed to breath free.
One part of the answer to that is that the image was false to begin with - based on a skewed interpretation of the complex circumstances that for a few years in the 1940s allowed a Fascist movement to run the country, but which was never nearly as popular as some – mainly outsiders - avowed. The other part of the explanation is that years of being run by the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, a party that traded on Croatia’s historic glories, cured many people of nationalism for good. Flags and songs, they learned, don’t put food on the table or pay pensions and medical bills.
Now, in the run-up to EU membership in July 2013, the danger facing Croatia today is not of a relapse into nationalist nostalgia, let alone Fascism, but a future of excessive political blandness and stifled discussion.
With the HDZ knocked out by one corruption scandal after another, all the commanding heights of the state, from parliament to the presidency, are in the hands of a similar group of Euro-enthusiastic centre-leftists, all of whom seem to share much the same background and outlook.
No danger of them of rocking the boat in Brussels once Croatia joins the club as the 28th member. If anything the problem is the other way – of an excessive docility and an automatic and almost unthinking submission to the phrase “Europe expects…” January’s referendum on EU membership, in which the authorities made no real attempt to giver the “no” camp any chance to state their case, was an indication of how this top-down, we-know-best mindset will operate in practice.
This tendency on the part of the Croatian elite, always to look for solutions, guidance and even opinions elsewhere and outside their own country has long been there. It is part of the national DNA and reflects the lack of self-confidence common to small nations that have always been on the edge of things, on the outside, looking in, seeking inclusion. The great Croat leader Stjepan Radic noticed this characteristic almost a century ago, when he complained that Croats were hurrying into the new Yugoslav state “like blind geese in a fog”.
Today there is a similar air of hurrying along into a new arrangement, centred this time on Brussels. Perhaps this is one that will finally “fit”, after being taken under the wings of Austria-Hungary and Yugoslavia failed to work out. But it will be a pity if the Croats, starting with their leaders, decide that being “good Europeans” in practice means leaving all real decisions to others. A mature democracy surely is a country that above all trusts its own judgement. Measured by that standard, Croatia has a way to go.