Zagreb Business Owners are Left Reeling from Lockdown Inequality

By 12 March 2021
Zagreb Business Owners are Left Reeling from Lockdown Inequality
Photo credit: Time Mossholder Pexels.com

March 12, 2021 - TCN welcomes back Courtney Long, with a thought-provoking piece on TCN as seen in Beijing and the realities of Zagreb lockdown inequality. 

The last time I wrote for TCN, I made a few blunt observations about the Croatian government’s response to China in the early phases of the COVID19 outbreak. More specifically, I expressed concerns about Croatia’s acceptance of PPCs from China as well as its handling of the Pelješac Bridge project.

I believed that these issues, as well as Croatia’s laser focus on tourism at the expense of other industries, could be detrimental to the economy in the long term.

I didn’t expect much attention to come from this article. In fact, I assumed I was preaching to a large but silent choir, and that my observations would get a few nods of agreement until the next news cycle.

Online spies see everything

To my surprise, my article did garner attention, and not exactly the good kind. Even more surprising was that the response came from an unexpected source. A few hours after the article’s publication, I received a text from a friend from mainland China who was working in Croatia on a visa. She asked if she could call, and the wording of her message indicated that it was urgent.

When we spoke, she asked if I had written an article about the Chinese government for a local news publication. I confirmed that I had, but was surprised that she was aware of it. I hadn’t spoken with her about the article; in fact, very few people knew about it. What was even more baffling was that my Chinese friend had learned of the article a mere three hours after TCN uploaded it to the website.

Our conversation was candid. It became clear that I needed to state out loud (presumably for my friend’s own security and for her employer’s records) that she’d made no contribution to my article, and that she’d had no prior knowledge of what I’d planned to write. The idea was to substantiate that her slate was clean so that she wouldn’t be held accountable for my unfiltered political opinions concerning China.

I’m not a huge fan of controversy, but there are moments when matters become so egregious that I can’t keep my mouth shut. I’m about to step into the middle of something again – just not about China this time.

This time it’s about Zagreb’s lockdown measures that have crippled small businesses. My problem isn’t with the need or rationale for lockdowns, or with Croatia’s compliance with EU safety regulations. Instead, it’s about gross inconsistencies in municipal enforcement of lockdown regulations dealing with cafés, bars, and restaurants.

Given the impact of COVID lockdowns here in town, we ought to examine how both the Croatian government and Zagreb’s city council could have handled matters less destructively for the local economy.

Open hours for thee but not for me

Back in early February of this year, small business owners congregated in Trg Ban Jelačić to protest against lockdown measures that had been in effect for several months. The patience of owners and their staff had reached its limit after gym owner Andrija Klaric was arrested for re-opening his facility to customers.

Klaric was detained, and faced the possibility of a two-year prison sentence for defying the government’s shut-down policy, despite his respect for both hygiene and social distancing requirements. Regardless, the police took Klaric away in handcuffs and shut down his business.

According to Jutarni List, the police actually sympathized with Klaric and apologized for having to detain him. Klaric explained that from his perspective, the problem was not with the people charged with enforcing the law, but rather with the legislators who passed them and the bureaucrats who administered them. At the protest, thousands of local owners chanted in support of Klaric. Not only did they see him as a symbol of resistance against rigid measures that were costing them their livelihoods, but – more importantly – they saw that the existing regulations were not being enforced equally or consistently among businesses.


(Klaric interviewed by Croatian media at the Voice of Entrepreneurs protest - you can read the TCN account of the protest in A Foreign Eye at UGP Croatian Entrepreneur Protest in Zagreb)

Candid conversations with bar owners in Zagreb’s Kaptol region reveal a disconcerting reality behind the so-called safety measures administered by politicians and inspectors: strict but often unclear social distancing requirements are applied rigidly, but only to small businesses. Too much is left to inspectors’ interpretive “discretion.”

One confidential source, a bar owner, said, “Look at bars and cafés in Cvjetni Trg, and you’ll see them packed! There’s no protocol for social distancing, and in some areas, people are crammed in like sardines. No penalty, no intervention from law enforcement, nothing!”

The source’s establishment, like many similar businesses, used to be active consistently, but now it’s mostly empty – even desolate. Despite the cold weather and meticulously distanced tables inside the bar, drinking indoors is forbidden. Penalties for breaking this and related rules can include fines of up to 50,000kn, a sum many businesses can’t afford to pay – especially now.

Unless you have friends with political clout, it would seem.

A customer standing next to me explained that she had met with friends for coffee at a hotel in Zagreb’s Donji Grad. The restaurants and cafés were “packed,” according to her, and wearing masks was apparently optional, rather than obligatory, throughout much of the space.

The consensus reached by many struggling workers in the service sector is that the only way for business to resume is either to gain the support of lobby groups, or to find cash to pay inspectors to turn a blind eye to infractions. For Zagreb’s small independent business owners, neither option is available, and some have likened the current work environment to the Wild West.

Apparently, you’re safe and can keep going, just as long as you’re friends with one of the sheriffs.

This is killing us!”

Another looming concern for bar and café owners is that ever-changing safety protocols and fluid municipal regulations may leave them with no other choice but to shut business down permanently. The abysmal support they claim to have received from the government, and their practical inability to serve customers, are exacerbated by the grim fact that many of them are still required to pay full rent to their landlords.

After a tumultuous 2020 that brought us not only the first pandemic lockdown, but also a devastating earthquake in Zagreb (followed by a few more for good measure), to say that businesses have suffered terrible financial losses would be a gross understatement. Adding insult to literal injury, one of the landlords that hasn’t yet shown any willingness to reduce the rent for its tenants is the Catholic Church, which continues to insist on its full monthly pound of flesh.

So much for extending a generous and charitable hand to one’s flock in trying times, I suppose. After all, we’re talking about a branch of the richest religious organization in the world here…

As Zagreb’s regulatory environment becomes increasingly hostile to small business owners (and bar, café, and restaurant owners in particular), there seems to be one choice left to those have worked in Croatia as expats, or who have returned from the diaspora: leave Croatia and resume business back home as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. For some business owners, continuing to work in Zagreb under the current draconian regulatory scheme has become more of a suicide mission than a plan for survival.

I have to wonder how this economy will be able to sustain itself when throngs of business owners are struggling to stay afloat. While some appear to be flailing in water over their heads, others are searching frantically for the nearest lifeboat to carry them to safety elsewhere. I don’t know whether Croatia’s economy minister has taken the time to calculate the damage Zagreb’s economy will sustain if these businesses close their doors permanently, but now might be a good time to consider that possibility – and its consequences – very seriously.

The ongoing struggles facing independent owners and their employees in the service sector is pushing many of them over the edge, and it’s disheartening to consider the mounting obstacles that owners are forced to confront in these already trying times.

This frustrating reality brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend who’s worked as an accountant for over a decade at one of Croatia’s largest banks. As the conversation veered toward politics, this individual shook their head and told me, “If you knew how this country is managing its economy and liquidity, you’d be shocked. It’s just not sustainable. This is a house of cards; it’s not a matter of if this place collapses, but rather when.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. But one thing is clear: as more business owners are threatened by officious regulators and selectively blind inspectors, my accountant friend’s words echo in my ears.

I’m very much afraid that a country with an already fragile and corrupt economy will soon face another major crack in its foundation unless the status quo changes.

And quickly.

Read more on this subject from a recent TCN editorial, As Gym Owner Faces Prison, the Virus Must be Laughing at Croatia's Inconsistent Measures.