Instead of Being Counted as Sheep, Will Croatians Ever Stand Up to Be Counted?

By 5 August 2018

August 4, 2018 - Sporting success brought 550,000 Croats onto the streets of Zagreb to welcome home their World Cup heroes last month, but when it comes to protesting, they rarely bother. Why?

I have a good friend who is a Croatian activist. She is also a realist about what can be achieved, and she has a full understanding of the likely support she will get on a particular issue. As such, she picks her battles and has a remarkable success rate in effecting positive change. I admire her greatly, because she is one of the few locals I have met here who is not content to complain about everything in cafes, but prefers to turn those complaints into positive action to improve things. 

She is a very rare beast in Croatia. 

She is also, I suspect, very frustrated. Lots of support from people in words, but very little in action. She told me recently that when some scandal emerges, she receives the link to the story from about 15-20 people. They have 'done their part' by informing her about the scandal - it is now up to her to tell the world and stop the problem. 

"Let's do it together," she suggests.

"No, no. Keep my name out of it. People must not know I told you, for it will cause problems for me and my family."

Every time. And almost every person. 

It is something I have noticed a lot in recent years, as I started to understand how Croatia really works after years of living in my happy Hvar tourist bubble. And if you are a tourist and are reading this, then look away - Croatia is a GREAT place for a holiday. Visiting Croatia the tourist destination as opposed to living the dream in The Beautiful Croatia is like comparing chalk and cheese. 

My most recent personal experience of this, of course, concerns my recent articles about concessions in Jelsa and Zecevo. SO many private messages or thanks and support, SO many additional documents and insider information (several of which will be very useful for my imminent lawsuit). I actually felt quite popular - not that that was my aim at all. And so I was curious to see how many people would greet and thank me publicly when I arrived at the meeting in Vrboska. There were about 100 people there. So how many said hello?

Not one.

I am totally fine with that, and I completely expected things to be that way. PLEASE don't think I am criticising, because I am not. It is just a fact about Croatian society. A fact that we rarely get to talk about openly. 

I have been thinking of writing this article for some time, but perhaps there is no better time than now.

So why are so few people with my activist friend, why did nobody greet me in Vrboska, and why will nobody sit with me on Jelsa's main square (I don't mind, by the way, I really love my job and am so behind on my blogs that I don't have much time to chat) when I can see my private supporters in every corner of the square and beyond? 

Because they would be seen. 

And to be seen in public would indicate opposition to the local authorities I am criticising. And that might endanger the thing that is most dear to many. 

Their own private interest. 

I totally understand, and I am not criticising, and I don't blame people. Life in The Beautiful Croatia is extremely tough, and to fall foul of the authorities (and I am not talking about Jelsa, to be clear, I am talking about the whole of Croatia) is to endanger a source of guaranteed influence and finance. People have to think long and hard, and it is a decision where it is easier to take the passive road. 

"I notice you didn't share the article," I used to say to people. 

"No, we are staying out of all this publicly. I hope you understand. But we fully support you, and we are sending it to others."

So that those others also fully support me, but will not put their heads above the parapet, but they too will send forward to others, who will do more of the same. 

It is why I admire my activist friend all the more. To be surrounded by that and still try and win the battles which can be won. 

And so while the private opposition to things exists, public protest is almost non-existent in Croatia. A country which can get 550,000 people to celebrate World Cup success, send their favourite singer on such a fantastic farewell to Korcula a couple of weeks later have set the international standard in how to celebrate both life and death. I wrote an article on the subject a few days ago -   a story which got 10,000 Facebook likes. 

But protests?

There were a couple of big (50,000 people) protests on education reform last year, and some 30,000 on the streets of Split against the alleged (my new favourite word) irregularities of the Croatian Football Association, but apart from that, big protests are few and far between. It is not that there is nothing to protest about... There isn't much I admire about the French - ok, the wine, the cheese, and I guess they are not bad at football - but they are world champions at protesting. If a trade union leader was served a cold coffee in his local cafe in Paris, he could probably have a million people on the streets in an hour.

But Croatia? Part of the reason, of course - and we should not forget this - is that Croatia is a very young democracy. One other reason, sadly, is that personal and private interest is the favoured path, partly due to the fact that there is a cynicism about the ability to make change on a meaningful scale. Politicians are adept at stealing and pushing their agendas - there is not much which can be done about it. And so why rock the boat?

When I started Total Hvar in 2011, I thought I was going to get lots of financial support from the local authorities to promote the island. I was given lots of support as I thought, but of a different kind. Something called 'full support', which came without one crucial thing - money. Indeed, it was only in 2016, ironically through the man who is now suing me, that I got the first small piece of money to promote this beautiful island. 

"Why are you surprised?" a friend asked when I expressed frustration for the umpteenth time. "Go and join a political party, and you will get your funding."

It was the start of a journey of realisation that public money, including money to promote tourism, is not actually always intended to promote tourism, but rather to perpetuate self-interest and the status quo. This voter is looking for funding for a concert - a little donation will guarantee that family's votes next time. That kind of thing. It is a practice common in many countries in the world. Why bother using some of that money which can be usefully used to perpetuate the status quo on an independent tourism project? It took me time to understand. 

So too with state jobs. Croatia has probably the most bloated bureaucracy in Europe. And a bloated bureaucracy means jobs. And state jobs mean guaranteed salaries. And in a small community, that can be a factor that demands loyalty. A nice comfortable state job feeds a family (and usually more than one), and so when it comes to the elections, that family of voters will not have to think that hard about which box to tick. And even if they don't agree with certain things, it would be suicide to actually stand up and say so, for that would put the job (or the concession, or whatever the little favour to demand loyalty is) at risk. And so the private support by sharing emails begins, encouraging those brave (sorry, stupid) enough to protest to keep on going. Bravo, great work. 

It goes a little deeper than that too, crossing political divides. If, for example, the leader of one party wants to achieve certain goals, he may offer a prime job to someone from the other party, someone who happens to be on the council. The logic, or agreement, could be that the council member from the opposing party could vote for his party as he chose, apart from a couple of key votes, where his vote to support the job-giver is the price of the dream job. And those key votes deliver a prize to the job-giver than more than justifies giving a dream job to someone from the other party.

To say that Croatians do not protest en masse would be incorrect, however - more than 300,000 of them have protested on the streets for the same reason in recent times. The biggest protest in modern Croatia, and one which will soon be bigger than the 550,000 who welcomed home their heroes from Moscow. 

On the streets of Dublin, Frankfurt and Stockholm. The protest of emigration. 

It is the only protest left to the decent people of Croatia who are denied hope and opportunity in this country, by a self-perpetuating system which is so ingrained in this society that I doubt it can ever change. 

Just as India would not have changed, if the Brits had offered Gandhi a little concession or three and dream jobs for all the family. And had, he accepted, of course.

Or Martin Luther King - Martin, call off these protests, and we will make life for you and your family so much easier. 

The level of private opposition in Croatia is astonishing. But where is the Ghandi or Martin Luther King?

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