Croatia is finally at the doorstep of the EU. Now the door is open and there
is no need to knock and wait to get in. Oh, when I remember how we envied
the Bulgarians and Romanians for being admitted before us a few years ago.
That, in our view, was not justified , since Croats – as our former
president Franjo Tudjman used to say, were “Europeans before Europe”. And
now, within a year, Croatia will be a member.
That is, if the EU still exists.
So, are we to celebrate? Or perhaps not? It is not so clear nowadays, the EU
is different from what it was ten years ago when Croatia started its
accession process. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the turnout in the
recent referendum was only 43. 51 %. The majority, 66.27%, were in favor of
joining the Union but the joy was spoiled by low participation.
Arguments against membership ranged from the EU falling apart, losing
sovereignty and national identity, opposition to the global economy to the
servitude to foreign capital. Interestingly enough, the arguments of the
political left and right converged on this particular issue of losses. Those
in favor, especially politicians, spoke from the rather infantile position
of the goodies they would get: we will get foreign investments, jobs, funds,
sounding almost like children waiting for Santa Claus. Stability and peace
in the region were also mentioned, but not as the most important item on the
wish list. Needless to say, nobody spoke about what Croatia and its people
could contribute to the new union.
Both those who propagated membership and those against it at the referendum
were right. Yes, the country will lose part of its political sovereignty
(but not necessarily national identity) and yes, Croatia will be more
exposed to the brutal model of capitalism, although our own gangsters were
already pretty good at stripping the country of much of its riches through
the privatization process.
But the real dilemma behind the referendum was: could Croatia survive , would
it be viable on its own, outside the EU? Not being rich like Norway, that
is. There are no arguments to believe that a small country of 4.5 million
people, whose main “product “ is tourism, could survive on its own, as we
spend more than we earn – Greece being a case in point. In the end, even the
Catholic church and a war criminal, Ante Gotovina, sentenced by the ICTY to
24 years in prison, supported the referendum!
For them, membership in the EU is definite proof that we Croats (being
Catholics!) are Europeans – while they, Serbs (being Orthodox) are not! Yet
Serbs, too, will be in as soon as they find a way to solve the problem with
Kosovo. Which is strange, because only some twenty years ago we in
Yugoslavia fought wars in order to separate from each other. Now, it seems
that we separated only in order to unite in a different, but similar union.
This is what I call “the Balkan paradox”.
Today it would be hard to say if Croatia is envied by Serbia, Macedonia,
Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo - all states that emerged from the former
Yugoslavia – or by Albania, Belarus, Ukraine, which are outside, too. It is
no longer so certain that our neighbors should consider us lucky. What is
waiting for us there? After all, many citizens of former communist countries
, from Poland to the Baltic republics, from Romania to Slovakia, Bulgaria ,
the Czech Republic and Hungary, all of which are already members - not to
mention people from the former GDR! - are complaining that Westerners are
treating them like “second class citizens” .
It is not hard to imagine how they feel. When I was in primary school in
Yugoslavia in the late fifties, we often went on school excursions by train.
At the time, trains were divided into three classes: first class had
compartments with seats upholstered in plush, red velvet, like in the
theater; second class was, of course, less comfortable with seats made of
light brown plastic that would stick to your skin and smell of – well,
plastic. And the third class wagon did not even have compartments, much less
It had rows of hard wooden benches. There, you really felt like a third class
traveler. It was uncomfortable, dirty and smelly. No chance to cross over to
second class just like that, there was a teacher and also a higher
authority, a conductor who took care of following the rules and the
conditions of transition. Your only consolation was that you were on the
In the EU’s parallel, the first class wagon is divided between the luxury club
that really decides and the rest of the Euro zone. Then there is second
class , consisting of the former communist countries, though there are
differences between Poland and Romania , the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
They are all equal, but “some are more equal than others,” as George Orwell
so succinctly formulated this kind of attitude in 1945, albeit in a metaphor
about communist society in his novel “ Animal Farm”.
Then there is the rest, the last part of the composition, third class with its
wooden benches. And even that is divided between bad pupils and worse, those
who might get passing grades and make it to the next step, jump into second
class, and the rest. You can see it easily, better pupils sit close to the
teacher and listen carefully. Then there are those who usually sit far
behind, not paying attention to the instructions and hoping that they will
get there at some point, if only for strategic reasons, like Ukraine and
But is it justified to again bunch together these former communist countries
from Eastern Europe , both outside the EU and in? Both the lucky and the
less lucky? After all, the communist bloc collapsed over twenty years ago
and these countries finally gained the right to emancipate themselves from
the common political denominator and take advantage of their historical
differences. They deserved to be seen as individual countries with similar
but different histories and even similar but different types of communism:
goulash communism in Hungary, bunker-communism in Albania, liberal communism
I think it is justified to look at what was common to them all, even if only
for the purpose of better understanding their post-communist experience and
their current feeling of inadequacy and inequality - from the Czech Republic
to Serbia, from Poland to Albania. The fact that they all had similar
experiences of communism, I believe, is reflected in some common features
even today . Many people there still demonstrate similar habits, behaviors,
world views, values, i.e. a certain mentality. That mentality is very hard
to change .
Communism in the USSR and in the Soviet bloc countries collapsed quite
accidentally, by mistake. We easily forget that the beginning, Mikhael
Gorbachev’s attempt at glasnost and perestrojka, was meant to improve the
political system and keep it alive, not abolish it. It was abolished for all
kinds of other reasons, but this surely was not his intention. Gorbachev’s
biggest contribution to the events of 1989 was that he did not react once
political changes got out of control.
Unlike in Poland, where the revolutionary movement of Solidarity was alive for
years and yet did not topple the communist government on its own, the
collapse of the communist regimes happened more or less without the
participation of the people. It simply imploded. If anything, the passivity
of the masses is a great common denominator influencing the mentality .
Next comes collectivism, as opposed to individualism, a way of seeing yourself
as part of a mass, a class , a group, a nation, sometimes even a tribe. It
is hard to start to act as an individual, because in spite of democracy,
when one’s background is communism it is difficult to believe that an
individual opinion, initiative or vote can make a difference for the better,
rather than just get you into trouble. Besides, to act on your own as an
individual means to take on individual responsibility, and that takes a lot
of time to learn. Especially if you are used to blaming the higher authority
even for personal failures. That lack of responsibility turns out to be a
serious handicap in the post-communist era.
Another important feature of the inherited mentality is egalitarianism. New
political and economic changes were understood as a promise of enrichment,
as a consumer paradise for all. But changes from a totalitarian political
system to a democratic one, from a planned economy to capitalism, did not
automatically translate into a better life for everybody. True, the
transition was characterized by a new kind of poverty and insecurity, a
growing gap between rich and poor, high unemployment, terrible corruption at
all levels. In two decades, disappointment slowly sank in: not only were
old dreams not fulfilled, but most of the new promises failed, too. This
was perceived as injustice.
What followed was wide-spread distrust in political elites, democratic
procedures and state institutions. Lost in transition? Maybe, especially
because this raised another question: transition to what? To where? After
the collapse of the financial market and the crisis of the Euro it looks as
if the locomotive puling the composition forward has slowed down –just to
return to the metaphor of the EU as a train. It has also become apparent
that not every new member of the EU wholeheartedly supports the project and
that gap is widening.
Czechs, Hungarians, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania – they all express
it in various ways. Their dissatisfaction and distrust is visible from the
government crisis in the Czech Republic to protests against austerity
measures in Bucharest and Hungary’s mishandling of the the media and the
constitution, regardless of warnings from the EU.
To add to the complications, along with the East-West divide, there suddenly
appeared to be another one, between Europe’s North and South. Greece,
Italy, Spain, Portugal are all , to our utter surprise, judged to be bad
pupils! The traditionally tolerant North is now leading in right-wing
populism as new nationalist parties like the True Finns, Sweden Democrats,
Party of Freedom in the Netherlands spring up. Some political leaders
quickly identified the growing feeling of anxiety and insecurity as a
“crisis of national identity”.
As if, when politicians have nothing to offer, they offer national identity in
exchange for a feeling of security. It is easy to use immigrants as
scapegoats, especially Muslims. Even if such leaders don’t have much to
offer, at least they provide something to blame, be it immigrants,
globalization, hedonism, decadence, capitalism, corruption, democracy, old
communists, new oligarchs, the West, or Gypsies. Insecurity breeds fear -
and societies in fear have a tendency to close up.
The ultimate consequence of the actual crisis – some experts say – might well
be a crisis in the very model of global capitalism.
Yet, only last June the Financial Times published the findings of a
comparative study suggesting a different conclusion. The European Bank for
Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank conducted their study in
34 countries in Eastern and Western Europe. Although badly hit by the
financial crisis and austerity measures, citizens of the former communist
countries appeared to be more satisfied with their lives than citizens in
the West of Europe.
It is easy to see why: for them life was still better than it had been before!
Does anybody in Eastern Europe today under thirty, remember that not so
long ago toilet paper was a luxury in the former communist countries? I
guess my generation is the last one to remember that, and when we are gone
it will be entirely forgotten. People born after 1989 will say in
bewilderment: there was no toilet paper before? But that is simply
impossible! How could you live without it?
Now we have gotten used to it all - but we have also developed a taste for
much, much more. This makes us unhappy, because the desire to have “much
more” is likely to be suspended for a while in the lucky and less lucky
countries, in the second and third class compositions alike. In this, it
seems, we are all pretty equal. So, even if the “new” Europeans did for a
few years resist the prevailing gloom and doom in the West, they are giving
in to it now.
Yes, before 2008 there was the hope of bridging the gap between East and West
more quickly because there were more means and motivation. Now, when the
entire train seems to be slowing down , there is less and less of a chance
for those at the back. However, we should remember that it was not good to
be outside the EU. Being inside offered great possibilities, but it turned
out to be more difficult than expected. Democracy has its weaknesses;
capitalism is in crisis. But what could be the alternative? Dropping out?
Turning towards other neighbors eastwards ?
Maybe, before coming to any far-fetching decision , former communist countries
should remind themselves more often of what it was like only twenty years
ago. Never mind the soft toilet paper; it is peace and security that should
always be on our minds. And being in the EU, we still have a chance to
contribute to it. Now, for a change, we could participate and be active in
social, economic and political projects of common interest. Is it not worth