Croatia: On the EU train, but in second class

21 June 2013
Only in en
Former communist countries, whether in the EU or on its threshold, should remind themselves more often of what life was like for them only twenty years ago. For Croatia, peace and security should be more important than expected economic gains from EU membership, writes Slavenka Drakulic.

Croatia is finally entering the EU. Oh, when I remember how we envied the Bulgarians and Romanians for being admitted before us a few years ago. That, in our view, wasn’t justified, since Croats – as Franjo Tudjman used to say – were “Europeans before Europe”. And now, on 1 July, Croatia will become a member.

So, are we to celebrate? Or perhaps not? It isn’t so clear nowadays. The EU is different from what it was ten years ago, when Croatia started its accession process. Maybe this is one reason why the turnout in last year’s referendum was only 51 per cent. The majority, 66.27 per cent, were in favour of joining, but the joy was spoiled by low participation.

Arguments against membership included the EU’s disintegration, loss of sovereignty and national identity, opposition to the global economy and servitude to foreign capital. Interestingly enough, the arguments of the Left and Right converged on the issue of losses. Those in favour, especially politicians, spoke from the rather infantile position of the rewards we would get: foreign investment, jobs, funds, sounding almost like children waiting for Santa Claus. Stability and peace in the region were mentioned, but not among the top items on the wish list. Considering the wars that happened not so long ago, that is strange.

Needless to say, nobody spoke about what Croatia and its people could contribute to the Union.

Both those who advocated membership and those who were against were right. Yes, the country will lose some of its political sovereignty (though not necessarily national identity); 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 its riches through the privatization process. But the real dilemma behind the referendum was: would Croatia be able to survive outside the EU? Not being rich like Norway, that is. There are no arguments to support the notion that a small country of 4.5 million people, one that spends more than it earns and whose main “product” is tourism, can go it alone – Greece being a case in point. In the end, even the Catholic church supported the referendum! For the clergy, membership in the EU is final proof that we Croats (being Catholics) are Europeans – while they, the Serbs (being Orthodox), are not. Yet the Serbs, too, will be in as soon as they start solving the problem with Kosovo.

Well, in my view, all of that is peculiar, because only twenty years ago we in Yugoslavia were fighting 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, Croatia is still envied by Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo – all states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia – and by Albania and Ukraine, states that are outside the EU. Yet it is no longer obvious why our neighbours should consider us so lucky. What is awaiting us? After all, many EU citizens of former communist countries, be they from Poland or the Baltic republics, from Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria or the Czech Republic and Hungary – not to mention citizens of the former GDR – complain that the westerners treat them like “second class citizens”.

It’s not hard to imagine how they feel. When I was in primary school in Yugoslavia in the late 1950s, we often went on school excursions by train. At the time, trains were divided into three classes: in first class there were compartments with seats upholstered in plush, red velvet, like in the theatre; second class was, of course, less comfortable with seats made of beige plastic that would stick to your skin and smelled of – well, plastic. Third class didn’t even have compartments, much less seats, just rows of hard wooden benches. That’s where we schoolchildren travelled. There, you really felt like a third-class traveller. It was uncomfortable, dirty and smelly. No chance to cross over to second class just like that, there was a teacher keeping watch as well as a higher authority, a conductor who made sure the rules and regulations of transit were obeyed. Your only consolation was that you were on the same train.

In the EU parallel, the first class carriage is divided between the core, the luxury club that really decides, and the rest of the West. Then there is the second class, consisting of the former communist countries, though here too there are great 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 Animal Farm. Then there are the outsiders, the last part of the composition, travelling in third class with its wooden benches. And even they are divided between bad pupils and worse, between those who might pass the grade and make it 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 sit at the back, not paying attention and hoping that they will get there at some point, if only for strategic reasons, like Ukraine.

But is it justified to again bunch together the former communist countries from eastern Europe, whether outside the EU or in? Both the lucky and the less lucky? After all, when the communist bloc collapsed over twenty years ago these countries finally gained the right to emancipate themselves from the common political denominator and take advantage of their historical differences. They deserve 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 in Yugoslavia…

However I do think it’s justified to look at what was common to them all, 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 all had similar experiences of communism is, I believe, reflected in certain shared features even today. Many people still demonstrate similar habits, behaviours, world views, values, in other words 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 Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt at glasnost and perestroika was initially meant to improve the political system and keep it alive, not abolish it. It was abolished for all kinds of other reasons, but this was surely not his intention. Gorbachev’s biggest contribution to the events of 1989 was that he didn’t react once political change ran out of control.

Unlike in Poland, where the revolutionary movement of Solidarity was alive for years and yet on its own could not topple the communist government, 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 common denominator still influencing the mentality of eastern Europeans today.

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. When one’s background is communism it’s 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 assume 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. 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, didn’t automatically translate into a better life for everybody. 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 increased: not only were old dreams not fulfilled, but most of the new promises failed too. This was perceived as injustice.

What followed was widespread 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 markets and the crisis of the euro, it looks as if the locomotive pulling the EU train forward has slowed down. It has also become apparent that not every new member wholeheartedly supports the project, and the doubters are gaining strength. Czechs, Hungarians, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania – they all express it in various ways. Their dissatisfaction and distrust is visible in the government crisis in the Czech Republic, in the protests against austerity measures in Bucharest, and in Hungary’s maltreatment of the media and the constitution, regardless of warnings from the EU.

To complicate matters further, there suddenly appeared another divide to add to the one between East and West: Europe’s North versus its South. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal are all, to our and their utter surprise, judged to be bad pupils. The traditionally liberal North is now leading the way in rightwing populism as new nationalist parties emerge like the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats and the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands. 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 fall back on national identity. It’s easy to use immigrants as scapegoats, especially Muslims. Even if populists can’t promise security, at least they provide something to blame, be it immigrants, globalization, hedonism, decadence, capitalism, corruption, democracy, old communists, new oligarchs, the West, Gypsies. Insecurity breeds fear – and societies in fear have a tendency to close up.

The ultimate consequence of the current crisis – some experts say – might well be the decline of 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 thirty-four 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 their counterparts in the west of Europe.

It’s easy to see why: for them life is still better than it was before! Who in eastern Europe under thirty remembers that not so long ago toilet paper was a luxury? I guess that my generation is the last 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? But that’s simply impossible! How could you live without it?

Now we’ve got used to it all – but we’ve also developed a taste for much, much more. This makes us unhappy, because the fulfilment of the desire to have “much more” is likely to be delayed for a while in the lucky and less lucky countries, in the second and third class carriages, alike. In this, it seems, we are all pretty equal. Even if, for a few years, the “new” Europeans resisted 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 EU train seems to be slowing down, chances for those at the back are getting smaller. Democracy has its weaknesses; capitalism is in crisis. But what might be the alternative? Dropping out? Turning eastwards?

I think that former communist countries, whether in the EU or on its threshold, should remind themselves more often of what life was like for them only twenty years ago.

For Croatia, considering the recent war, peace and security should be more important than anticipated economic gains.

Published 21 June 2013

Original in English
First published in Eurozine (English version)

© Slavenka Drakulic Eurozine

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