Opinion

Importing a more ‘civilized’ Europe isn’t a solution for the Balkans

Boris Postnikov responds to Paul Mason colonialist analysis of the situation in the Balkans, and Croatia in particular, which recently appeared in the Guardian.
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Paul Mason’s recent visit to Croatia calls to mind a similar visit made by Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate and internationally recognized intellectual leader, four years ago as part of his grand Eastern European tour. Krugman was sponsored by a major tobacco corporation and, for a lavish fee, he gave a routine lecture in the tourist town of Rovinj. The local media concentrated on Krugman’s visit for days, fascinated by the brief visit of the biggest Keynesian star of the economic mainstream. It is a shame that none of the local commentators and reporters remembered to drop by Krugman’s popular blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal”, updated daily in the New York Times. In this blog they may have found the value that this visit to Croatia actually held for their beloved guest. In two days Krugman published seven posts. Four of these posts dealt thoroughly with the last United States election campaign and two analysed current movements of the British economy. Croatia was only mentioned in the last post just before Krugman’s departure, which consisted of a single sentence and an accompanying link: “Hey, it’s night where I am, which is sort of the point of this video — it’s ‘pack up the suitcase, la la la’ time.” Krugman included a link to a YouTube clip of the song, “Glamorous Life”, from Stephen Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music “. The self-irony in Krugman’s choice of this song, about a once popular actress who, at the end of her career, has to perform in remote provincial towns, cashing in on her old glory, might have seemed cute if you hadn’t stumbled upon it while surfing the internet in Croatia. Implicit in this choice was cynicism towards the small, peripheral country that was in those days – with the journalists’ naive enthusiasm and the sponsor’s generous fee – setting the media stage for the new provincial performance of the famed intellectual’s glamorous life.

In his text Mason served a spectacular course of nonsense, mistaken assumptions, uninformed speculation and partial information.

Three weeks ago Croatia welcomed the journalist, Paul Mason, another renowned star of the intellectual left. After only a couple of days at ‘FALIŠ – Festival of the Alternative and the Left’, in the seaside town Šibenik, Mason, whose book ‘PostCapitalism’ was recently translated into Croatian, attempted to explain to the world the dynamics of Croatia’s freshly held parliamentary election from the pages of the influential Guardian. If nothing else, at least he devoted more attention to Croatia than Krugman had done, offering analysis instead of wisecracks and songs. After reading his text, however, it is difficult to decide which approach is better. Under the headline, ‘Croatia’s election is a warning about the return of nationalism to the Balkans’, Mason served a spectacular course of nonsense, mistaken assumptions, uninformed speculation and partial information, introducing readers to Croatia seen from an ignorant, colonial perspective, making up for its lack of understanding of the local context by perpetuating an abundance of shabby Balkanist stereotypes.

Mason opens his commentary with a striking moment from the FALIŠ festival when the audience was addressed by ‘the last of the city’s partisans’, a former member of the national resistance movement that organized the opposition to Fascist and Nazi occupiers and domestic collaborators in WWII. The old man recalled that, after the victory in 1945, people had been willing to build factories, roads, and buildings voluntarily, and without payment. However, he declared, today such collective projects would be completely unimaginable. The words of this man, at the beginning of the article, may be the last unproblematic lines of Mason’s text. Rather than listing the many mistakes that follow, it is enough to simply review Mason’s misguided interpretation of the election in order to illustrate his ignorance about the environment he chose to write about.

It also becomes clear in Mason’s article that the headline is almost a year out of date and completely misses the mark.

In the parliamentary elections which took place in September 2016, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) unexpectedly, although closely, defeated the favoured Social Democratic Party. Mason has declared that the most likely outcome of the parliamentary election is the ‘great coalition’ of two of Croatia’s most powerful political parties, the nationalists and the social democrats. However, almost three weeks after the election, although the negotiations to form a new government are still ongoing and various coalitions have been discussed, Mason’s ‘great coalition’ appeared only once, and very briefly. After the announcement of the first election results, and the SDP’s unexpected election defeat, Zoran Milanović, president of the SDP, suggested such a coalition indirectly in a last-ditch attempt to save his position in the party. Nobody took it seriously. Suffice it to say that Milanović did not mention it the following day, when he resigned instead.

A superficial glance at the balance of power on the Croatian political scene allows insight into why such a coalition would not be possible. In the past year, the conservative HDZ ran the least successful coalition government in the country’s short history; a coalition which promoted radical nationalism, historical rehabilitation of the country’s WWII quisling movement, hysterical anti-communism and hate speech against minorities. That coalition fell apart due to its own incompetence and the corruption scandals of HDZ’s President Tomislav Karamarko. After Karamarko’s recent resignation the HDZ installed the sleek Brussels MEP Andrej Plenković at the head of the party. The party’s radical faction tactically retreated and its aggressive rhetoric was softened. These manoeuvres won back the HDZ’s lost popularity in just a couple of months, while the SDP’s attempt to respond with a tactical move to the right and “harder”, almost nationalist, postures ended in disaster. It is clear that the unexpected election winner would have no interest in allying itself to the obvious loser, especially while they might choose to form a coalition with several smaller parties of different profiles, allowing them to assemble a parliamentary majority. However, it also becomes clear in Mason’s article that the headline is almost a year out of date and completely misses the mark. The return of nationalism was actually a feature of the previous Croatian election.  We have witnessed precisely the opposite during the latest election. Despite the undeniable influence of radical right-wing currents in Croatian society, this election has proved that a government based on such values does not have the capacity to govern the country. Instead, a ‘Europeanized’ version of the right seems to be the winning card and voters have shown that they reject the attempts of liberals to move towards nationalism.

Despite the undeniable influence of radical right-wing currents in Croatian society, this election has proved that a government based on such values does not have the capacity to govern the country.

Why should Mason need to read the parliamentary election as a symptom of ‘the return of nationalism to the Balkans’, even though all these facts suggest otherwise? Mason’s interpretation links the events in Croatia with the recent rise in nationalist tendencies in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to reach the triumphant conclusion: ‘If Europe wants to make the Balkans work, it needs to understand the limits of its current approach. It has lowered accession standards for countries in east and southeast Europe, in order to bring them into its enlargement project. (…) [I]n the short term, what is vital is for western European democracies to engage with the Balkans and promote democratic culture and institutions. It was, ultimately, US diplomacy that imposed the peace of 1995. Today it is squarely the EU’s task to maintain it.’ The problem, according to Mason, is that Europe has been too lenient towards the Balkans, and should instead discipline the democratically-ignorant post-socialist children in the manner of a strict tutor.

This belief is quite widespread among liberal intellectual circles in Croatia too. These circles also draw another conclusion from Mason’s article: before the accession to the EU in 2013, Croatia was better, more regulated and more civilized than it is now, and that, after the end of pre-accession control of Brussels, Croatia let its chauvinist genies out of the bottle. The problem with these (auto)colonialist interpretations, based as they are on the dichotomy between a developed and civilized Europe and an inherently backward Balkans, is that they overlook the extent to which an underdeveloped Balkans is systemically dependent on, and complemented by, a ‘developed’ Europe.

Clinging to this myth of a developed, civilized, advanced Europe cannot offer Croatia (or the Balkans) the coveted solution for its problems for the simple reason that it created, and continues to reproduce, many of these problems.

The radical right, nationalism, and xenophobia are thriving right now across ‘developed’ Europe, from the Scandinavian model of ‘capitalism with the human face’, across France and Germany, all the way to Mason’s Britain. Croatian nationalism, since its establishment in the late eighties and early nineties, has legitimized itself, primarily, through Croatia’s alleged, centuries-old attachment to ‘Western European civilization’, thus clearly distinguishing itself from easternmost ex-Yugoslav republics. This ‘pro-European’ line, legitimising radical right-wing positions, has continued, with certain variations, throughout the final, recently-completed mandate of local historical revisionists. While tacitly reaffirming the local pro-fascist, and pro-Nazi, movement, in response to criticism from the left, these revisionists invoked the ‘European Parliament resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism’, which condemns both Nazism and Communism, and accused their critics of being communist totalitarians in disguise.

Parallel to the government’s sharp ideological turn to the right, it has obediently followed Brussels’s economic guidelines, preparing the sale of state property and new attacks on workers’ rights. In part this is the reason why, to Mason’s surprise, HDZ didn’t get a slap on the wrist from European institutions, despite flirting with a pro-fascist legacy. Mason’s tear-jerking description of Croatia as a country with 40 percent youth unemployment and 90 percent public debt has less to do with the Balkans than it does with the broader structure of economic conditions on the European periphery. It is impossible to understand this peripheral economic structure without accounting for processes such as the privatization of the local banking sector; the banking sector is sold to German, French and Austrian owners, who then introduce consumer loans in order to help locals buy German and French cars, and, by borrowing money, contribute to the development of the centre. Mason’s remarks about the Croatian coast’s ‘dependence on tourism’ (i.e. the well-off European guests), and his lamentations of the workforce leaving the country to go and work in the West, may be similarly interpreted. We could go on listing such examples, but the conclusion is plain. Clinging to this myth of a developed, civilized, advanced Europe cannot offer Croatia (or the Balkans) the coveted solution for its problems for the simple reason that it created, and continues to reproduce, many of these problems.

Local socialism was  an autonomous emancipatory movement with no historical precedent in the Balkans, an epochal project rooted in faith in the people’s knowledge and ability, without a need for the interference of an external guide.

When the story of Europe’s salvific role is auto-colonialistically proclaimed by Croatian intellectual, liberal elite, the public figures who generally receive symbolic and material profit from Europe, it is, for the most part, ridiculous. However, it is irritating to hear the same discourse from the mouth of a ‘European’, an activist-tourist who needs only a few days on the Adriatic coast to form clear-cut opinions. In this regard, Krugman’s disinterested link to an entertaining song may be the more decent approach. But there is another, significant, difference between Krugman and Mason. Krugman came to Croatia four years ago, at the expense of a powerful and wealthy corporation. Mason attended a marginal leftist gathering, invited by people who are trying – albeit in the politically impotent form of a festival – to preserve some kind of leftist political tradition, a tradition which has been abandoned and forgotten by the political scene since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The socialist tradition can, of course, be blamed for many things, but one aspect of its legacy remains extremely important today. The old partisan of Mason’s text was a member of the national resistance movement that defeated Nazism and refused Western European capitalism, after which Yugoslavia also rejected Soviet Stalinism, choosing to establish the world association of non-aligned countries and an openly anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist state policy. Local socialism was, therefore, in its basic form, an autonomous emancipatory movement with no historical precedent in the Balkans, an epochal project rooted in faith in the people’s knowledge and ability, without a need for the interference of an external guide. For this reason, attending an event that preserves and restores the tradition of that movement should not culminate in this kind of intellectual escapade. It is a question of basic political hygiene, but also – to end with a taste of typical Balkan sentimentality and pathos – simply a question of respect for the old partisans.

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Boris Postnikov is a publicist, essayist and literary critic. He lives in Zagreb.

Translated by Lana Pukanić.

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