Letter from Zagreb: Croatia is us

  • Published: September 16th, 2009
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I spent four magical days in the avant-garde heart of the new Croatia — speaking about the “Ten Steps” to a closed society, and about what a citizens’ democracy movement can do to reopen such a society, in the perfect test case for this thesis — Zagreb, the magical, medieval-hearted, yet avant-garde capital of Croatia. I have seldom been to a more interesting place at a more interesting moment — Croatia was, of course, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; was under a socialist government as part of the former Yugoslavia — experiencing “socialism with a human face”; was ravaged by a bloody civil war in the 1990′s; gained its independence as a new Republic very recently — and is experiencing the exhilarations and cynicisms endemic to the transitional republics in this region.

I confess, I love this nation and its eccentric, in-your-face, dreamy, cynical people. We were invited to present — I with a speech, my producer (and, disclosure, significant other) Avram Ludwig with a screening of the film of The End of America — at the Zagrebi! Festival, a four-day celebration of liberty — artistic, political and civil. The mastermind of the event and our mischievous and brilliant host was Emil Matesic, a master provocateur, a choreographer, and someone who revived our own sense of hope by his insistence on bringing together events and discussions that could push the envelope toward more real democracy (and free speech) in Croatia — even as he, like his fellows, view the hurdles with utmost clearhededness.

We arrived in the midst of a political crisis: the Prime Minister, who was reasonably well regarded, abruptly stepped down — with no explanation to the people, or to Parliament, whatsoever. Rumors are flying: corruption? Threats? Scandal? His second-in-command, a woman, was appointed in the interim and is doing, apparently, adequately. But the breathtaking reality — that a head of state simply LEFT with no accountability to his people or to the process — shows glaringly how unstable and sort of hopeless daily life can be in a weak democracy in which civil ociety institutions are at the whim of leaders and at the mercy, it became clear, of the extremely corrupt interests that have a direct hand in governance.

This was a general impression, not one proven in any way by the Prime Ministerial abdication: jorunalists we met, civil society leaders such as the pioneering Second Wave feminists at the women’s organization Babe, human rights lawyers, and artists all confirmed that the corruption in Croatia is so intense that it is not a matter of politicians beholden to special interests — politicians are actually being pushed around by a nexus of corporate interest and frank criminality. This is a lesson for us in the US since Croatia, really, is our future if we keep going down the path of lawlessness, weakening civil society institutions and deregulation: all the structures are there, but they are not powerful. Judges pass rulings — but a case can take ten to fifteen YEARS to get through the courts. Journalists are publishing in many media — but they face corporate pressures not to look too deeply into corporate control of the legislature (multinationals are buying up public utilities, urban space, etc with an assist from corrupted politicians) — and they even face physical violence.

We were introduced to the heroic Hrvoje Appelt, a crazy-brave journalist (and former ice hockey star) who had gotten scoop after scoop about corruption — running an expose that showed 108 students and professors engaged in buying and selling grades, for instance, that resulted in arrests — but when he did a major scoop on corruption in government — he was rewarded by the loss of his job — he can’t get another job, because all employers are afraid to hire him — and he now needs 24 hour police protection. We met his police guards — big tough guys who kept a sharp eye on the doors and windows in the bar where we were drinking at the Festival, and who carried their pistols in casual student-y pouches. They sweep the bottom of every car Apelt gets into; they watch his window while he is sleeping. They go everywhere with him. Appelt is a handsome, wild-eyed young man, aglitter with recklessness; rather than retreat now that he has received many death threats (and a week into the threats’ arriving, the police force, because of political pressure, actually tried to withdraw his protection) — rather than backing down he is ramping UP: he is holding a massive free concert in the biggest stadium in Zagreb, asking rappers to perform for free — to raise money and awareness for independent journalism and for journalists who have been hurt or threatened. He showed me terrifying photos on his website of other journalists who were suddenly beaten by unnamed assailants (link to come). And he has a photo exhibit of such journalists — from around the Balkans. And his organization invites Balkan journalists to register threats to them or to others — gaining strength in numbers and visibility (these are journalists working together from nations that were violently at war recently). I was awed at what he was doing. I wish him safety and money. Please ask your community to invite him and his exhibit to create a show in your town and to do fundraising for independent journalism in the Balkans.

Apart from that riveting meeting — and another exciting conversation/round table with Vesna Pusic, a progressive Parliamentarian who is the first woman in Croatia to run for the Presidency — the election is in November, and she took is courageously taking on the issue of corruption as part of her platform — Emil put together a mind-bending celebration of artistic freedom. It did not always look comfortable — I must say I was sometimes shocked, as with the performance artist, Marko, who sat at a formal dining table, awaited the entry of a young female nurse who cut a small piece of flesh out of his arm and put it on the plate, and who then ingested it — as a metaphor for the self-consuming nature of contemporary angst; I was also provoked, as with the performance of a lovely young Western woman who trained in Japan for ten years as a geisha, and whose performance art involved the ancient Japanese art of erotic bondage (as well as calligraphy, dance and surrealist video). But with the shock and the provocation came a great deal of respect for Emil and his colleagues, since we were among people who had a recent historical memory of real artistic silencing, and who were taking extremely seriously the notion of freedom of expression. It didn’t feel like empty gestures, as “shocking” performance art so often does in the West: it felt like a battle for something truly alive.

My talk was humbling too: the audience’s first response was absolute cynicism that citizen action could make any kind of difference in Croatia; then two young female students, who had helped to lead a year-long student protest against high college fees, stood up and slowly realized what they had learned and accomplished — though their stated goals were not met; en a Parliamentarian stood up and confessed that their protests HAD made a difference, HAD been discussed re what to do at the level of Parliament; then others engaged with their own goals… we organized… it turned into a fantastic, spontaneous session of citizen leadership in the organizing stage. And we are meeting again in a year for an intensive citizen democracy training workshop — right on, beautiful, edgy Croatia. Croatia at its worst is where we are going if we don’t defend our liberty and rule of law… the citizens of Zagreb, who showed me Croatia at its best,  are where we are going if we treat freedom as a living thing.

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