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Croatia: On The Path To Schengen – Interview to Marin Belak

I met Marin Belak three years ago. It was a warming winter afternoon and I was going to attend my very first class of Slovenian. Despite my obvious difficulties in learning that sweet and melodious language, I totally felt at ease in that room. Welcomed in an embrace of support and mutual admiration. We had a lot of fun, enjoyed delicacies from all over the world, shared tiny moments of everyday life…

Marin is one of the gr8humans that have made my Erasmus in Ljubljana unique. And I can only be honored to interview him and share his words with you.

Although 2020 hasn’t been happy for any country in the world, it showed up, from the outset, as a decisive year for the “European future” of Croatia. During the first semester, the youngest member state held the presidency of the Council of the European Union, for the first time it joined the EU. It is a formality but the Croatian government has placed great trust in it, in the light of political interests and economic ambitions.

The Central Bank Governor stated that the timing of the process towards integration in the Euro-area will not be diverted: Croatia will reach this target by January 2023, at the end of the two years in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The countries that want to join the Schengen Area, must meet certain standards in four field of responsibility: border controls, visas, police cooperation and data protection. Recently, however, the border controls issue has become alarming in Croatia…

Bihać and Velika Kladuša are two Bosnian towns, neighbouring Croatia. The inhuman and unhealthy life conditions push more than 5,500 people to consider migratory choice as the only chance of survival. Yet, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other NGOs denounced many episodes of violence perpetrated against immigrants and illegal rejections on the border with Bosnia. There are, therefore, doubts about the country’s ability to implement effective border control, which is coherent with the International Law and the EU Conventions on migrants rights. But the are doubts also on the role played by the other European governments in this issue. At the beginning of the year, Amnesty International reported a tendency for negligence, if not complicity, on the part of the other member states, which are “turning a blind eye on the ferocious assaults of the Croatian police” and financing their illegal actions.

How did the Croatian gvernment respond to these charges?

First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to do this interview, I truly appreciate it.

To examine Croatian politics regarding Syrian and other refugees, we have to go back to 2015, when the refugee crisis started. Croatia was in the middle of the so called ‘’Balkan refugee route’’, partly because of its geographical position, partly because of the fact that Hungarian government refused to accept any refugees whatsoever. As Croatia had a centre-left government at the time, (and Germany was still completely open for refugees), there was no barbed wire on our border. The border was open, the refugees were allowed into the country. Trains were organised from the town of Tovarnik (near the Serbian border) to Croatian border with Slovenia, as the great majority of refugees intented to go to Germany or other western countries. Unfortunately, the situation has changed since then.

The end of 2015 brought a tied election result between the previously ruling centre-left SDP (Social Democratic Party) and the main opposing party HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union). Though nominally centre-right, HDZ was at the time led by Tomislav Karamarko, who shifted the party to far-right,Orban-inspired policies, and created a coalition with outright xenophobic parties like HSP-AS or HRAST. Even though the election results were very tight, HDZ ultimately managed to form a government with another centre-right party, but it was short lived due to many differences between them.

Karamarko was forced to resign as HDZ leader and he was replaced by the moderate Andrej Plenković, who became the prime minister after 2016 early elections. HDZ broke off coalitions with the far-right parties, and “Orbanist’’ policies were meanwhile marginalised in Croatia. However, that didn’t seem to prevent the mentioned changes in the way Croatia manages refugee crisis. Reports of police violence against the refugees became recurring, but mostly in foreign media. I believe that Croatian mainstream media ignored or diminished the seriousness of these events.

In November 2017, a 6-year-old Afganistani refugee, Madina Husinny, was killed by a train near the Serbian municipality of Šid, after her family was forced by Crotian police officers to return to Serbia by walking near the railway. In 2018 and 2019, there have been reports of police officers destroying cellphones of refugees and physically injuring them, as well as some reports of police officers kidnapping refugees and then driving them in circles in police vehicles to make them uncomfortable. I believe that these human rights abuses are systemic and at least silently approved by the government. It is, however, unlikely that the violence is caused merely by the political changes in Croatia. The real reason might be the fact that Western countries, primarily Germany, have already welcomed a large number of refugees and are unwilling to accept any more.

In April 2019, Germany stopped processing asylum requests from Syrian citizens. So, Croatian government is probably silently pressured by some western European governments not to let any other refugees pass through its territory. While I understand Europe’s capacities to accept refugees aren’t limitless, I still think there is no excuse for methods like beating up, kidnapping, destroying personal property or similar.

To finally answer your question, Croatian minister of Interior, Davor Božinović, recently answered questions on police brutality. As far as I remember, he stated that anyone could have bought an uniform similar to police uniforms and enforce their own vigilante “justice’’, and there is no proof that these abuses were actually commited by Croatian police. While that may be theoretically possible, I found it to be a cynical statement. And, very likely, a false one. While I am ashamed of the police brutality, I’m glad that about a few thousand asylums were granted for Syrian and other refugees in Croatia since 2015. I wish them well.

In the summer of 2019, Croatia hosted more than 21 million tourists, but this year the sector has clearly fallen sharply as a result of the pandemic. Plenkovic proposed to negotiate “tourist corridors” and attempted to encourage domestic tourism – providing, for example, discounts for employees etc. But Croatia has 4 million inhabitants and could never, alone, reach the levels of the international tourism.

Given the key role this sector plays for the domestic economy – it represents the 20% of the national GDP… what does it mean for Croatia to join the Schengen area?

For years, many people, including myself, have been warning that the economy based on tourism is not sustainable. I used to say that one natural disaster, terrorist attack or even a simple rainy summer can cripple the economy of a country, if it is not diverse enough. Now we are stuck with COVID-19 pandemic, just like the rest of the world. And it did remind us that we should rely less on tourism and more on production. While some destinations that rely on air traffic, like Dubrovnik, suffered a major decrease, on a national level Croatian tourism “only” decreased by around 40% compared to 2019, while the numbers were expected to be much worse before the season started. Our traditional guests, Germans, Italians, Austrians, Slovenes, Hungarians, Bosnians, Serbs, Slovaks, Czech, and Poles, didn’t want to give up on their vacation…

As for the Schengen area, I presume there will be practical benefits of joining it, as there will be no more waiting on the borders with Slovenia and Hungary: a great benefit for our traveling citizens, as well as for our tourists when they’re on their way back home. I don’t know if it will bring any increase in the number of guests, but it will make it easier for them to plan their journey.

Croatia’s accession finds a further obstacle in Slovenia’s intention to veto the candidacy of the neighbouring state, due to the Piran Gulf dispute, started 29 years ago. In 2017, the Arbitration Court in The Hague issued the final judgment but Zagreb did not accept it… From that moment on, the bilateral issue has become a European affair, able to influence the future enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans.

What do you think will have a greater influence on the annexation of Croatia to the Schengen area: the dispute with the Slovenian government or the the “expansionist policy” of the outgoing president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and his closeness to the political group of the Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic?

I think the intention to block Croatian candidacy was attributed to the previous Slovenian government led by Marijan Šarac. This summer, the current Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, stated that Slovenia doesn’t want to block Croatian candidacy and that, despite the dispute, he wants Croatia in Schengen area as soon as possible.

I study in Slovenia and I’m aware that Janša’s government is in many ways disastrous for Slovenia itself, because of his rampant xenophobia, wannabe-authoritarianism and Trumpist-Orbanist style of politics and communication. However, I am glad that the Slovenian government recognizes that blocking Croatia’s accession wouldn’t be useful, not even to Slovenia itself. There is a perception, especially in the Slovenian public opinion, that Plenković’s political and personal closeness to Juncker, could help Croatia achieving its international goals. Croatian and Slovenian territory was a part of the same state for four centuries. Than, in 2015, Croatia left the arbitration as it was compromised by a Slovenian representative (the so-called “Piran gate scandal’’).

As for the border dispute itself, I believe that a border in the Piran Bay, following the stream of the river Dragonja, would be fair. Of course, the outcome of the disput is likely to influence the daily lives of the fishermen on both sides of the border… So, I hope a favourable solution for them is going to be found within the common EU fisheries policies.

The September 30 th the fist “Rule of Law Report” was published by will of the Commission to promote a concrete initiative focused on the promotion of the rule of law and the prevention of – or effective response to – possible violations. The Report was based on four essential pillars:

  1. the independence of the legal system
  2. the fight against corruption
  3. the independence of the media
  4. the balance of powers

As for the Croatian situation, the report highlighted a quite low level for the legal system independence, while the results in the area of press and media freedom are alarming: journalists are often victims of defamation, death threats and physical attacks, in addition to being the daily target of online hate-speech…

How these obstacles to the freedom of expression are perceived by the people? Have protests been organised? In what way were they carried out and what was the response from the police?

It would be important to note that Croatian people are generally not prone to major protests. Even when protests occur, they are mostly about a specific issue and their attendance is relatively small compared to the population of Croatia. The most recent major protest occured in 2016, in Zagreb, where about 40.000 people asked for a reform of the educational system. A similar protest was repeated a year later, with the attendance of about 20.000 people.

As for the issues mentioned in the report about the Rule of law… It is true that the independence of Croatian judicial system is doubtful. This is especially visible in many processes involving corrupt former politicians, which took about 10 years of trial before the final verdicts. There are also many cases of hit-and-run car accidents with lethal consequences in which the perpetrators were either acquited or sentenced to unusually short prison time, due to the fact that they’re from wealthy and influential families. Last but not least, we have politicians who are still in office, even though their criminal activites are known, such as the mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić.

Freedom of media in Croatia is a very complex issue. I don’t see Croatia as a country of organised media repression. If you go further then mainstream media, you can find something close to every political view, from the far-right to the far-left, with most of the press supporting moderate beliefs. That separates Croatia from its neighbours, de facto dictatorships Hungary and Serbia. There’s, however, another problem: mainstream media are privately owned by people who have some kind of relationship with the power. The most appropriate example would be Hanza media, the news company owned by the Hanžeković’s, owning a major law firm. That law firm earned millions for the services they provided for the state. So, it’s hard to expect that the media they own, would be strongly critical of the government, which enabled them to gain such wealth.

Regarding the death threats and abuse of journalists, I would say that they come from ordinary citizens of extreme political opinions, rather than from the government. I don’t think that the government needs death threats and terror as a sledge hammer to pound on journalists – it already has crony capitalism, which it uses like a scalpel, influencing the media in exchange for enriching media owners. I would conclude that our problem isn’t a lack of pluralism, but a surplus of corruption.

At the general election of 5 July, the conservative party HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) scored a surprising victory, winning 66 seats out of the 150 available. Unlike the odds, which predicted a head-to-head with the Social Democrats, Plenkovic now has the opportunity to carry on a path no longer dependent on the extreme right that, in the new parliament, is relevant but not politically decisive. The next 4 years will, therefore, be characterized by a stable centre-right government, with a moderate and pro-European leadership.

What are the reasons that led Plenkovic to the government? Do you believe that the handling of the pandemic – especially, the maneuver of anticipation of the vote -, support from minorities and socio-economic proposals, have played a decisive role?

Even though the polls said that SDP (Social Democratic Party) was slightly ahead, the victory of HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) is not actually surprising. There are several reasons for thaat…

First of all, SDP didn’t spend the last few years offering convincing public policies and alternatives to what HDZ-led government was doing. On the other hand, Bernardić himself was an uncovincing party leader, and his public appereances were marked by a series of gaffes. HDZ succesfully exploited this. Their campaign was all about Plenković and his personal leadership, as they predicted Bernardić won’t be able to compete… and that’s exactly what happened. Moreover, HDZ choose a good moment for the elections – two months earlier then expected – also for what concerns the handling of the pandemic. However, mistakes and inconsistencies in the management of the virus emerged after the elections, but they went unpunished by the voters. Plenković supressed HDZ’s darkest elements, nationalism and chauvinism. He formed a coalition with the minority represenatives, leaving the hard-right and pro-Orbanist “Domovinski Pokret’’ (Homeland movement) in the opposition. On the other hand, his government failed to tackle Croatia’s true problems: corruption and nepotism.

It is virtually impossible to find a public sector job without direct connections. And not all of the blame is on the politicians – who are a mirror image of the people. To quote George Bernard Shaw: Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.

Until a significant mass of people moves to end nepotism, our political system won’t change. Meanwhile, we have, at least, avoided authoritarianism, opression and institutionalized hatred. The dream of prosperous and decent Croatian society isn’t quite achieved yet, but it lives on. And I remain an optimist.

Three years ago, in the midst of my beautiful Erasmus experience in Ljubljana, I spent an unforgettable day in Zagreb with Maria Elena, who you also know well 🙂

As soon as I arrived, I immediately fell in love with the city. It was like taking a leap into the past, in a harmonious union of different eras. The relaxed and lively vibe instilled great serenity. The Botanical Gardens are certainly a place of great charm for those who love nature, like me… With more than 10,000 species of indigenous and exotic plants, step by step I was embraced by a riot of perfumes and colors that smelled like happiness.

Marin, what is happiness for you?

I’ve been asking myself that for years… If we ask this question to the generation of my grandparents (born in the 1930’s and early 1940’s), they would probablysay that hapiness is the absence of major problems – due to the material struggles of their youth and the wars they lived throught. I like this definition, as it is very modest and allows us to see any ordinary day as a happy day.

The things I appreciate the most are being surrounded by good people and being able to respect myself. Don’t drink every day, don’t smoke weed every day. Don’t lie to your girlfriend or boyfriend, and to other people who truly love you. Don’t do heavy drugs. Don’t succumb to crime. Don’t watch reality shows on TV. Honesty, integrity, and self-respect could be the only things a person is left with… Situations turn around and sometimes the only problems you can’t fix are the ones which you created yourself.

Tommorow is behind the corner and it’s important to stay well enough to enjoy it. From that, I’ll extract my answer… to be happy, for me, is to have a tommorow.

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