Letter From Zagreb: Before the Deluge or After the Storm?

31 maj 2023 14:36

Artikulli i përkthyer.

As background to the text below, in 1989-1990, I had an academic fellowship at the University of Zagreb Faculty of Political Science to conduct research on “the development of private sector small business in a socialist economy” as part of my plan to transform my doctoral thesis on “political innovation and policy implementation in socialist Yugoslavia” into an academic publication.  It turned out that the ‘political innovation’ that was going on in Croatia that year was far more significant than formulas for ‘outside the box’ economic reform taking place in Croatia and Yugoslavia at that time. 

Whilst I did my research on private sector start-ups, association of small businessmen and the like, I turned fully to the political transformations then taking place in Croatia.  I attended regular meetings of the Association for the Yugoslav Democratic Initiative, and collaborated on research projects with the forward-thinking political scientists supporting the newly-elected Secretary of the Croatian League of Communists, Ivica Račan.  I closely watched on television the aborted 13th Extraordinary Party Congress in early 1990 that ended with the Slovenian and Croatian party delegations walking out of the congress.   And I observed how large numbers of political emigres began returning to Croatia for the first time in many years.  Soon thereafter, elections were scheduled in Croatia for April 1990, soon after elections in Slovenia, and preceding elections in the other Yugoslav republics throughout the year.  It was not entirely clear at the time, but this was one of the early acts of Yugoslavia's dissolution.

On June 1, 1990, I wrote this letter to my close friend and American historian, Professor Lawson Bowling of Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, in my apartment off of Ilica, one tram stop past the Square of the French Revolution, and one before Britanski Trg (British Square).  I wrote it in the style of articles I had been publishing in the Zagreb bi-weekly Start on a variety of issues throughout the year, and I also sent a copy to my colleague, Yale University historian Professor Ivo Banac as an eyewitness account in the era before the internet and social media.   I have not changed it since it was first written in 1990.

Yesterday Zagreb witnessed the inauguration of the first Croatian government elected in multi‑party elections since World War II. This event is more than the denouement to mere local elections, for the elections, themselves, were the second round in what most likely will prove to be elections in all six republics and which will culminate in federal elections by the beginning of 1991. In the current Yugoslav version of the pluralization of political life, this event can be taken as a kind of bellwether of things to come. And, as elsewhere in what we once quaintly called "the Communist World," the Communists have been chased from office.

The government was formed by the HDZ [the Croatian Democratic Union], a nationalist party from whom most "respectable" intellectuals remained apart. HDZ won approximately 63% of the seats in all three houses of the parliament. They received only about 42% of the vote. How did this happen? Aside from independent candidates and a small green coalition, two other relatively well‑financed and very well‑known groups were in the race. The first was the "Coalition of National Conciliation." It was composed of an ideologically broad range of parties ‑‑ from the moderate Social Democrats on the left to the nationalist Croatian Democratic Party on the right ‑‑ and headed up by "non‑party personalities" and former Croatian leaders Miko Tripalo and Savka Dapcevic‑Kucar, both purged after the nationalist "Croatian Spring" of 1971. In addition, the League of Communists ‑‑ now calling itself the "Party of Democratic Change" ‑‑ was headed by a group of reformers who had formally initiated the whole process of political pluralization at its 11th congress in December ‑‑ almost two years after independent political associations first appeared on the scene.

While the Party was forced to run on its record, the Coalition portrayed itself as a sophisticated anti‑Communist alternative. The HDZ (many of whose leaders are also ex‑Communists and ex‑partisans from World War II) ‑‑ really more of a movement than a party ‑‑ was viewed by ordinary people, if not intellectuals, as a far more serious alternative, than the Coalition could ever be, to "Communism." People voted for them in rejection of the often arbitrary rule and corruption of the Communist Party during the past 45 years. Like Lenin or Tito before them, leaders from the HDZ and Coalition have spent time in jail. Unfortunately, at the end of the twentieth century, a jail sentence remains an important step in an East European political career ‑‑ as a badge of moral virtue in a political world sullied by corruption and compromise.

The Croatian public also voted for an affirmation of Croatian national identity. I often heard from people that "we have not been able to take pride in being Croatians since the war. Now we don't have to be ashamed any longer." In their minds, Croatians are once again sovereign and masters of their collective fate. They also voted for an affirmation of religious identity. HDZ's strong "pro‑life" position was well known and Churchmen throughout Croatia gave strong tacit support to the party, although it remained officially neutral. The victors will return the favor, of course. At the inauguration of one newly elected local government, the president of the county council placed the building of a new church at the top of his administration's political agenda. "For 45 years," he said with a bit of exaggeration, "we have not been allowed to attend church. We intend to correct this situation." HDZ's victory was a victory for God and country.

Why such a complete defeat of the Communists ‑‑ particularly when they defined the rules of the electoral game? Not only did the Party arbitrarily choose the date of the election, its experts wrote the electoral law. Why, then, the gap between the vote won by HDZ and its percentage of seats in parliament? Here the geniuses in the Party stepped on their own feet: their lawyers felt that since the Party was better organized than any of the newly formed groups, it would gain a substantial parliamentary majority while winning by a plurality of votes. As the people behind the Party's electoral campaign told me, "we are different than the Party elsewhere in Eastern Europe. We came to power in a popular revolution and continue to enjoy more support than the parties do elsewhere." After all, they added, "we took the initiative in creating political pluralism." They mistakenly thought that multi‑party elections could be a plebiscite which would simply legitimize their new reformed direction. Thus, the Croatian electoral law called for a majoritarian system rather than a proportional system in all houses of parliament. If no party commanded a full majority in the first round of voting, all candidates with more than 7% in the first round ran again. The candidate with the most votes in the second round won. As in England's system of single‑district voting, parties which win a significant percentage of the vote can be very poorly represented.

In this three‑way game, the Coalition was the odd‑man out and lost big. Miko and Savka drew tears at rallies from the faithful in memory of the "Croatian Spring" 19 years ago, but no one wanted to vote for losers who were once prominent ex‑Communists and favorites of Tito to boot. On the other hand, the HDZ won the day and won it big. It was even more well‑organized than the Party. 45 years in power had made the "Party of Democratic Change" more than a bit complacent and its huge bureaucracy proved to be as inefficient in its campaign as it has become in everyday life. I have heard tell of posters that did not go up and of mailboxes that were not stuffed. I saw how HDZ stands on the main Square of the Republic in Zagreb were manned earlier and longer than those of the Party. I saw a passion in the HDZ rallies that was lacking entirely from those in the dignified affairs sponsored by the Party and the Coalition. In short, the HDZ people were hungrier than those in the party; and, most importantly, they were more committed to their cause. The Party was reduced to picnics advertised on radio stations with suggestions that people either bring their food or buy it there because "there is democracy now and you can choose for yourself," as if to show people how little choice they have had for the past 45 years. The Party even held a disco in the Central Committee building between the two rounds of voting ‑‑ another way of letting people see how well appointed the party was for all these years. In the end, of course, many party members voted for either the HDZ or the Coalition: they did not even stay around for the funeral.

Since the election, HDZ has moved professionally and almost brilliantly ‑‑ much like President Reagan in 1980. After they attracted their right‑wing following with a strong Croatian national and religious appeal, they have moved to convince everyone else that they are not at all insane and have since been reaching to the Center. Initially, none of my friends supported HDZ: most successful intellectuals were associated with either the Party or the Coalition. The "lumpen" intellectuals joined HDZ. Since the HDZ victory, however, people I know who were associated with the Coalition have decided to join the HDZ government in a variety of ways. Moreover, HDZ is receiving a good deal of advice from the British Conservative Parties and the Republican Party on a variety of things, such as public relations and the like. Franjo Tudjman, the leader of the HDZ and now the President of Croatia, reached beyond its Croatian national base and offered a vice‑presidency to Jovan Raskovic, the leader of the Serbian Democratic Party in Croatia. For a variety of reasons, Raskovic turned this down and is maintaining a cool distance from HDZ. Still, in the end, HDZ will probably end up where it sees itself ‑‑ as a center‑right party along the lines of Kohl's CDU in Germany or of Thatcher's Conservatives. Before Tudjman can be called successful, however, he has a long way to go. His party faces a variety of substantive (i.e., economic) and procedural (i.e., constitutional) issues: the degree of Croatian sovereignty within the Yugoslav (con)federation; decreasing production in 1990 when compared to 1989; potentially crisis‑level unemployment, to name only the first three on my list. Indeed, the next few years do not promise to be terribly happy ones either in Croatia or in Yugoslavia.

This is why the rituals marking the inauguration of the HDZ government ‑‑ billed as the "celebration of Croatian statehood” ‑‑ were so interesting. They give a sense of the world as imagined by the newly elected government. HDZ leaders and supporters were just a bit troubled that in attendance were neither the Serbian Orthodox clergy nor the Serbian politicians whom they so recently courted. On the other hand, the Catholic Croatian clergy, Moslem clergy and the leader of the Croatian Jewish Community all lent their official approval to the event. In classic Croatian fashion, the Party members attended but did not celebrate.

Zagreb television seemed to copy American reporting of such events. It had gavel‑to‑gavel coverage of the opening of parliament. Tudjman, who holds a doctorate in history, outlined the history of Croatia from medieval times to the present and painted in broad strokes the basic goals of the new HDZ government. Like Stalin, he is a charismatic figure who does not speak terribly well; thus, throughout the day, crowds everywhere shouted, Fran‑jo! Fran‑jo! Fran‑jo, while they waited for the briefest of glances. Stjepan Mesic, new prime minister of Croatia, outlined his program in far more detail with an eye to halting the deterioration of the economic situation in Croatia and accelerating the economic reforms, and to resolve "open questions" in Croatia's position within the Yugoslav federation. The television coverage was replete with interviews of newly elected representatives and of the man‑in‑the‑street ‑‑ who came all the way from Munich, Detroit and Sydney for the fun. Predictably, everyone praised the new government, the "newly won freedom," and the wonderful weather, while they were somewhat more sober in discussing pressing economic issues and the substantive tasks that lay ahead.

After all the speeches, nominations and selections of officers, the new government leaders solemnly marched to the Square of the Republic ‑‑ formerly called Jellacic's square after a 19th century Croatian national governor ‑‑ where a variety of traditional dances, songs and speeches celebrated the renewal of Croatian state sovereignty. The celebrations throughout Zagreb which had begun mid‑morning went late into the night, with continual appearances by the leaders of the new government throughout the city. I heard time and again from people who strongly identify as Croats: "it was a completely democratic ceremony at a European standard." The celebration will be replayed throughout the weekend in a variety of festivals sponsored by HDZ's newly‑selected local governments. In the surrealism of the moment, however, it is not at all clear whether the victors are celebrating the beginning of a new and happy era or the prelude to really hard times. Does Croatia find itself after the storm or before the deluge?

On the morrow of yesterday's ecstasy, there remains strong sentiment to put Josip Jellacic's name and statue back on the square as a final convocation of Croatian statehood. Thus, as Croatia enters the 21st century, its new government is moving to regain the symbols of its 19th century. Unfortunately, symbols alone will not be enough. The real test of the new government will be in how it addresses the issues of economic reform and constitutional deadlock which affect the entire Yugoslav federation. It will make interesting viewing. Stay tuned.

Mark Baskin, Zagreb, June 1, 1990

31 maj 2023

Mark Baskin