Notes from the Recently Crazed

By 14 May 2018

May 14, 2018  - TCN is delighted to welcome Stephen Good to the TCN team. Welcome, Number 116!

As a newcomer to this country, I’m coming around to the view that Croatia now stands at a tipping point politically, economically and socially. Depending on what happens over the next three to five years, things could go very well, or very badly indeed. There is enormous potential for growth and prosperity in this country, and for the nation to have a significant role in the economic development and political stability of the region. There’s also potential for catastrophe arising from systemic flaws and selective cultural blindness when it comes to recognizing the need for drastic change in key areas. Sadly, it also appears that there are those in Croatia whose first concerns are private gain at public expense, and the preservation of familiar but destructive social or cultural attitudes and practices.

I should probably backtrack a bit. It’s true that in terms of the experience of daily life in Croatia, I’m one of the newer kids on the block. The statements I’ve just made are therefore likely to raise a few eyebrows, even though I’m trying – really – to be on my best behaviour. I’ve been living in Zagreb with my family for a about a year, and we’ve been enjoying ourselves while working our way through the bureaucratic nightmares that seem to plague expats and Croatians alike. I have the advantage of having a wife who was born here and speaks the language; I’m not sure I’d be up to dealing with local institutions on my own yet, even though most people here speak some English. I’m a Canadian, and I’m here because eleven years ago, we made the decision to sell everything, retire, and leave Canada behind to go live the dream in Europe. We’ve lived in a few different places (Malta, beautiful Tuscany in Italy, and the south of France), met some interesting people and had some interesting experiences.

In our travels, we’ve also learned all about peculiarly European forms of bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence, and as you can imagine, prolonged exposure has now made us a little cynical. We’ve learned about corruption and chicanery at all levels of government, and about social apathy, political manipulation and insane, counter-productive policy-making.

We’ve heard the lip-service paid to the strong national work ethic claimed almost universally by EU countries, and we’ve seen those claims fall drastically short in many instances. We’ve lived in at least one place where people seem to make a lifestyle out of very politely robbing each other blind whenever they can. They reserve even worse treatment for tourists and those they consider “strangers.”

I’m not really interested in naming the place or the people specifically, though I’m sure some of you will read between the lines accurately. However, their experience, socially and culturally, does provide a useful frame of reference for discussion. The sad thing is that most of these folks aren’t really nasty and thieving by nature – or at least they weren’t, if you go back far enough in time. Unfortunately, the systemic problems they face have been so much a part of their daily lives for so long that the negative attributes I mentioned have become modern cultural traits. These are people who have learned that no matter what they do, there’s no real future for them as individuals if they’re honest and patriotic – not economically, not socially, and not politically, as matters in their homeland are almost always in a state of relative turmoil.

Instead of being able to rely on at least the prospect of things improving in an uncertain future, they see with absolute clarity that nothing will change for the better, no matter who is running their government. They know that those who work within the existing system have a vested interest in preserving their own little nests at the public’s expense. They know their own government, which is already taxing them into a coma, will continue to think of new and creative ways to get at whatever money they manage to keep after trying to make ends meet, with minimal regard for their ability to feed themselves and their children. They know government corruption will not merely continue, but will thrive; they know that the black economy flourishing all around them will similarly thrive. They know government bureaucracy will continue to grow, becoming more intrusive but less meaningful and less effective at every turn. They’ve been forced by necessity to embrace the destructive notion that in order to get by, they will have to lie about their incomes, cheat on their taxes, pay for things under the table, sidestep the top-heavy bureaucracy at every opportunity, and fleece whoever they can for whatever they can. Any meaningful success they’re likely to experience will almost certainly depend on who they know, rather than on what they know or what their capabilities are.

Confronted with that reality, how can one NOT become a thief?

As I said, I’m here in Zagreb now, with my family. I can’t help but think about my unfolding experience in Croatia relative to what I’ve seen elsewhere. I can’t help feeling that I’m witness to the slow (for now) spread of an insidious cultural rot that has all-too-familiar social, economic and political implications. It’s the kind of thing that the folks I described above have been living with for many generations. While it’s not reached the same proportions here yet, it doesn’t leave me feeling warm and fuzzy about the way things are in Croatia right now. It’s like I’m watching a poorly scripted television show: I’ve figured out what’s likely to happen, and I can see some of what’s going on. I just don’t have the means to do anything about it, beyond articulating my concerns to whoever will listen.

I’m staring at what I think is a critical cusp, a significant time of decision for this country and for Croatians as individuals. They must become a good deal more proactive in selecting the courses of action they want to adopt, and the personal and national values they want to espouse. Failing that, they must prepare themselves to accept the consequences if they allow matters to progress unchecked in some strange, evolutionary way. It’s not unlike swimming in a river: if you’re able and willing to swim faster than the river’s flow, you have at least a chance to navigate your own course and avoid hazards as they arise. If you can’t or won’t make the effort to swim faster than the flow, then you’ve no alternative but to let the current take you. In that case, if you go under or get smashed up against some rocks, you have nobody to blame but yourself. Blaming the river or other swimmers is useless, even if you feel that doing so somehow frees you from all responsibility for whatever bad stuff happens.

Whatever you choose to do (or not do), you’re going to find yourself in the river. It’s going to keep flowing, regardless, so the onus for meaningful action rests completely on you. You’ll reap the rewards of your choices or bear the consequences. So, if you’re Croatian, or even if you’re a foreigner who has decided to build a life here, the question becomes simple: how much of your future and this country’s future are you prepared to leave in the hands of others who are either quite happy to preserve the worst aspects of the bad old days, or who simply don’t give a shit about what’s happening as long as their own backsides are covered?

I’ve already been here long enough to hear people talking apathetically about the likelihood of political or social change in some important areas of Croatian life. Some of these folks are starting to feel disempowered, and that’s a critical sign of trouble. They’re losing confidence in the idea of building a strong Croatia in which everyone can grow and benefit, and that means they’ll increasingly leave the decision-making to others as their apathy becomes entrenched. Their frustrations with failed bureaucracies and political mismanagement also continue to grow. At the same time, most of the people I’ve met don’t appear to have trouble voicing strong political opinions, both privately and publicly. There’s no hair on their tongues at all when one asks a question about a political or social sore spot. Unfortunately, all that energy magically dissipates when it comes to taking some sort of concrete, grass-roots action. It’s like, “I reserve the right to bitch about the problems; I just don’t want to be responsible for having to do anything about them, especially if it will interfere with my coffee time.”

To be honest, I’ve never seen so many decently dressed people, heavily armed with mobile phones and tablets, spending so much of their time sitting around in cafes and complaining about things that aren’t working (including themselves), or bemoaning their low pay or lack of “decent” work.

I’ve also been hearing about too many young adults leaving the country because they view the prospects for career employment, job satisfaction and real success in Croatia as slim to none. Some of those who are leaving seem already to have accepted the idea that no matter how skilled or well educated they become, meaningful opportunities will arise here only for those few who have the right connections. At the same time, I’m hearing tales of businesses – particularly in the restaurant and tourism sector – going begging for employees because they have open positions they can’t fill. There’s this strange paradox in which you find jobs that can’t be filled, and Croatians who say they can’t find work or are uninterested in what’s on offer here. There are plenty of folks who complain about the lack of “good” jobs that should be ready and available for them when they want to work. Those who complain the most loudly apparently operate on a thinly disguised expectation that they’re somehow entitled to employment involving minimal effort for maximum reward – nothing else is good enough.

That’s a dangerous level of self-entitlement. When you hear about Croatian businesses hiring both seasonal and full-time employees from Serbia because they can’t get Croatians to fill the available positions, you know something is seriously amiss.

I’m also more than a little concerned about what I’ll describe as the “values gap” I see evidenced in the behaviour of too many younger Croatians. It seems worst with teenaged guys, some of whom I’d like to slap. Some of these kids have parents and grandparents who fought in the bloody conflict to liberate modern Croatia. Yet here in Zagreb at least, they’ve apparently been raised with so little regard for their country and their city that graffiti is a huge problem, with the little weasels out tagging buildings and then viewing their defacing of public and private property as some pathetic badge of achievement. I’ve actually seen groups of well-dressed adolescent boys loading their backpacks with cans of spray-paint in broad daylight, right in Trg ban Jelacic. I have to assume that neither their parents nor their schools have been effective in teaching them modern civic values, modern history or ethics of any kind, preferring instead to allow them to develop a sense of terminal self-entitlement and an utter disregard for the sacrifices of the previous generation or two.

I really hope I’m not the only person who is, on Zagreb’s behalf, deeply offended by this sort of thing. It’s symptomatic of problems that are far more serious than the cost and labour involved in the removal of the graffiti. I know exactly what I’d do about the problems, but I’ll keep my mouth shut in that area (cough…return to mandatory military service…cough, cough). I imagine I’m already getting myself into enough hot water as it is.

Then there are the Croatian versions of those lovely financial and bureaucratic difficulties, experienced by both locals and expats, when it comes to doing business here. I’ll point out the obvious: you can’t expect that a ridiculously high value-added tax rate, prohibitive development costs, decade-long permit and approval delays, capricious policy-making and stunning levels of red tape are likely to be viewed as wonderful incentives to small business start-ups or major development projects.

Yes, that was sarcasm. When a foreign investor has been patient for many years and has invested many millions of euros in compliance with bureaucratically driven demands, only to have the process change under his feet repeatedly and without warning, it is not unreasonable to assume that sooner or later, the investor in question will get pissed off and take action.

In September of last year, an Israeli investor applied for international arbitration in a dispute with the Republic of Croatia over a planned golf course development near Dubrovnik. The investor is seeking potentially as much as half a billion euros for years of delay-related damages and alleged bureaucratic inefficiency. It’s a situation that could probably have been avoided, had the government itself been willing to adopt and enforce systemic changes from the outset, instead of doing things as they’ve always been done because…well…that’s the way they’ve always been done, with the local wheels being greased accordingly.

Those sorts of issues aren’t the only issues that pose serious threats. There also appears to be a more general disgust at the government’s perceived lack of responsiveness to broadly held social concerns and supposed mishandling of some of the country’s international policy positions and commitments. Recent large public demonstrations in Zagreb over the issue of Croatia’s presumptive adoption of the Istanbul Convention (whatever your views on its merits) illustrate the sort of response government can expect when it attempts to foist unpopular EU policies on an unwilling national population. Then there’s the critical but only reluctantly acknowledged problem with nepotism in government and business, generally covered over by urbane pronouncements from politicians and disingenuous corporate types who really don’t want to engage in meaningful discussions about fairness and transparency issues. The tacit willingness of those in power to turn a blind eye to blatant nepotism (perhaps because they themselves have been beneficiaries of the practice) is astonishing to a relative outsider. As well, there are real and growing frustrations with questionable tax policies and income tax rates: after all, you simply cannot tax an already struggling population into prosperity.

Repeated attempts to do so always create serious social problems and unrest. This is a lesson that no government in history has ever learned in a timely way, and especially not left-leaning governments.

In addition, there are serious public concerns about characters like Ivica Todorić, who was apparently able to maintain his financial charade with Agrokor far longer than should have been possible under normally rigorous accounting and regulatory scrutiny, especially given the sheer scale of the enterprise. Aspects of his behaviour are arguably consistent with the conduct of someone who was certain he could continue indulging in “inappropriate” financial practices as long as he liked, without fear of discovery or prosecution. This begs the question as to who else might have known what was going on and perhaps benefited in some way, at least until the rewards no longer justified the perceived risk. In fact, as I write this, there are ongoing revelations and new questions being raised about the conduct and knowledge of current Minister of Economics Dalic with respect to a law firm and various consultants acting for Agrokor. It’s been suggested that she was somehow involved in the creation of circumstances under which money could be extracted improperly from Agrokor. Total Croatia News has itself covered aspects of these developments.

Not surprisingly, I’ve seen aspects of the real, smaller, every-day truths up close here in Zagreb. I’ve personally experienced the attitudes of snotty government workers who think it’s perfectly fine to refuse to provide a service to me because I had someone from a law office helping me resolve some minor bureaucratic issues. In one instance, a 20-something government employee who, knowing her job couldn’t be touched, rudely informed me that she didn’t like the fact that “lawyers think they know everything,” and I should therefore go away and come back another day because she wasn’t prepared to provide the help she’s paid to offer the public.

That sort of thing is the least of it, in fact: when we first arrived in Croatia, a government worker took it upon herself to deal with our paperwork in a way that exceeded her authority, though we couldn’t have known that at the time. The result was the loss of a year’s worth of time in which I could otherwise have been engaged in economic activity, and I’ve had to spend thousands of euros to correct the results of her negligence. Worse still, this worker had made a sufficient number of errors over her career that when another employee in her department learned who had “made the mess” in our case, he was not remotely surprised. She had built up quite a reputation, even with her own colleagues, for incompetence and negligence that appear to have been habitual. All to no avail, as she was allowed to roll on unchecked for many years.

Conveniently, she’s very recently retired, but that won’t stop me from seeking redress soon in the appropriate venue. I don’t expect to win the redress I feel is deserved, but I can certainly make things unpleasant and publicly embarrassing for the department in question. I’m going to bother because nobody else does, and because those in the bureaucracy who refuse to take their work or professional obligations seriously have learned that in almost every case, they can be as negligent as they like for as long as they like, with total impunity.

Or so I’m told.

I’ve also found a stunning regulatory illogic that seems pervasive. For instance, if you come from another country and apply for a Croatian passport because you have Croatian ancestry, the government wants a criminal records check from the police in your “passport country” as a normal part of the process. My daughter, who is of Croatian ancestry, holds a Canadian passport. She left Canada more than ten years ago, so there will be no Canadian records beyond that time. For all the local authorities know, she could have decided to try a career as an axe murderer in the last ten years, but they don’t care – we asked. They’re not interested in criminal records checks from the other places we’ve lived more recently in Europe, even though the check they’ve requested will provide them only with valueless, obsolete information.

That attitude would seem to defeat the purpose of requesting a criminal records check at all. I’m sure there’s logic in there somewhere, but I confess it escapes me just now. And, while my daughter is definitely not a threat to Croatian national security or public safety, I’m not convinced that the same can necessarily be said of others who might be in her position.

There’s always a price for this sort of illogical bureaucratic practice….
I’ll bet that you’re already overly familiar with these sorts of problems, especially if you’re Croatian or have had to engage in any dealings at all with the various government bureaucracies running the place. To be honest, and as you’ve probably already figured out, I’m far less concerned with the specifics of the many bureaucratic horror stories one hears than with the problems of which they are merely symptoms. The same is true for the genuine hardships imposed by high taxes, low wages and growing youth employment issues. You really don’t have to look hard to find symptoms of that slow, insidious, comfortably familiar rot that’s been entrenching itself for decades.

As terrible as all this sounds, there’s so much that is wonderful to be found here. Most importantly, there are still a great many people willing to show kindness and generosity to newcomers, and to represent in their own ways the best attributes and the potential of Croatia. We’ve been helped by strangers (sometimes extravagantly so); we’ve been welcomed in places that were new and unfamiliar to us, with no expectations or hidden agendas on our hosts’ part. We’ve been charmed by numerous aspects of daily life, from conversations with strangers in our local bakery, to the almost daily community events in the main square, to small kindnesses from local shopkeepers, bank personnel and restaurant staff who are already beginning to know us. In marked contrast to the apathy and frustration, we’ve also seen quiet pride in Croatia and its post-war accomplishments (and not-so-quiet pride in the accomplishments of its athletes).

I’d love to see the positives grow stronger, and the apathy and frustration fade as people accept accountability for coherent change in their own lives and the life of the nation as a whole. There’s clearly a struggle going on, and there are still too many people refusing to recognize its implications, or even its existence. If people don’t accept personal responsibility for the kinds of change they’d like to see, I wonder how long it will take before “average” Croatians lose their optimism and conclude that nothing they can do will ever change the terms of the social contract under which they live their daily lives. For now, there’s still hope; things are still good, for the most part. But the cynicism and apathy are slowly growing. For those who are prepared to see it, I fear the handwriting will soon be on the wall.

It will, no doubt, be right next to the graffiti.