Thursday, June 12, 2014

Croatia Marks First Anniversary As European Union Member

I asked a longtime friend and fellow journalist from Zagreb, Željko Žutelija, to give me his thoughts on how Croatia has fared in this past year.  Here is his account:

A Letter From Croatia

 By Željko Žutelija
Croatia became a European Union member on July 1, 2013.   In this past year, has it become a true member of the European club?  Has it adhered to its standards both in legal terms, as agreed during the long and arduous accession process, and in terms of securing a European standard of living for its citizens? I don’t think so.

Željko Žutelija
Croatia struggled hard to overcome many of the hurdles on its EU accession path - more than any of the other 27 members.  Some of the less developed and less westernized ones (think Bulgaria, Romania) were admitted into the European club much earlier and much quicker than Croatia.  In addition to regular EU requirements, Croatia had to clear its wartime record,  prove that no crimes were committed in its fight to liberate a part of its territory taken by ethnic Serb rebels.  It also had to deal with Slovenian and Italian blackmail over the Adriatic Sea.

Despite numerous misgivings, the majority of Croatian citizens voted to join the union.  Some thought of it as a return to its Austro-Hungarian roots, others as a clear cut from former Yugoslavia.   But EU’s youngest member is not doing as well as the rest of Europe, and not only the “Old Europe” -- France, Germany, Britain – but also its nations "in transition", such as Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.

It is true that Croatia suffered devastation and huge economic losses during the 1990s war, but it has been an independent democratic country for almost 20 years now.   This land of a thousand islands along the gorgeous Adriatic coast, with major rivers flowing through it, with picturesque mountains and lakes, fertile soil and well educated population has profited relatively poorly from all these resources.   The economy has not recovered since the 20008 global crisis, the unemployment rate is high -- staggeringly so among the young people -- and the rich-poor gap is growing to the point that some people struggle to survive, while "the elite" wallows in gross opulence.  

The government makes decisions in every relevant sector, from economy to industry, to education, to culture, so it is clearly the main culprit for this stagnation.  No matter which political party takes over, it disappoints.  The leaders turn out to be incompetent, or corrupt, or both.   So far none has envisioned a feasible way out of our growing socio-economic crisis.   The huge governmental apparatus is costly and unproductive.   The judiciary system remains heavily backlogged.  The bureaucracy stifles entrepreneurship and blocks new investments.  The situation has prompted a new exodus of the most talented young people, similar to an earlier one at the turn of the last century when a grape blithe destroyed coastal vineyards and many cultivators moved to California.   There are now as many Croats living abroad as there are in Croatia. 

While the rest of Europe moves on, albeit slowly, Croatia continues to drown in recession.  The coveted freedom from the Yugoslav shackles has not ensured the anticipated sense of well being. The EU membership probably will not either  (think Greece).
But a tourist would not sense any of these darker undercurrents during a short visit to the country.  Central Zagreb has more cafés than any other European city of its size, and they are always full of fashionably-dressed young people.  There is a general feeling of lethargy, as if no one ever needs to work. It is not much different in other Croatian cities.  Getting together “for coffee” is an essential part of the Croatian lifestyle, perhaps born during the era of Austrian coffeehouses, but widely expanded under Communism, when one was proud to be able to “always work less than one is paid for.”

It is time for Croats to wake up from the Utopian dream in which a “brighter future” always beckons, but is never reached.  The youngest EU member needs a concerted effort of its most talented and most dedicated people to pull it out of the bog.  If you see empty cafés on your next visit to Zagreb, you’ll know the country is on the road to real prosperity.

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