Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

C R O A T I A:
The Art of Playing Football

Saša Cvijetić

...The SDP is in counter-attack...the SDP's players are moving fast to the HDZ's half of the playing field....Bandić, Milan Bandić is leading the ball...a strong strike from the centre-left...gggggggoooooooaaaaaaaaallllllll...it is 1-1, dear listeners, SDP managed to stage a fast attack against the HDZ's exhausted team and score a goal at the eternal derby in Zagreb!...

No, dear readers, these are not excerpts from the radio broadcast from the Maksimir football stadium in Zagreb describing one of the matches of Dinamo/HAŠK-Građanski/Croatia/Dinamo or whatever the name of the Zagreb football team currently is. It is actually a short summary of political events in Croatia in the last couple of days.

A link or, if you like, a similarity between football and politics is not entirely metaphorical, however. In this case, there is one person representing a clear connection between the two: his name is Zlatko Canjuga or, as he likes to be called, Caesar. He was, until a few days ago, president of the Zagreb City Assembly, president of the Zagreb branch of the former ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and (was and still is) president of the assembly of the football club Dinamo/HAŠK-Građanski/Croatia/Dinamo. Needless to say, he was appointed to all these positions (and many more: he was also president of the Council of Croatian Radio and Television (HRT), vice president of the HDZ, advisor to the President on internal affairs, and all of them at the same time!) by late President Tuđman. He was undoubtedly one of his most loyal executors, one who was assigned the toughest and dirtiest jobs - which he, again needless to say, performed with enviable enthusiasm and effectiveness.

I am sure that you are already asking yourselves why the name of the Zagreb football team is so complicated... Well, it really is not; it is just that the team changed its name three times in the last ten years, and it is pretty difficult to trace which one it holds at the moment. So, to be on the safe side, it is perhaps not a bad idea to name them all... You might, however, not be happy with that answer and ask why then is Dinamo written twice?! It is not a mistake. Dinamo is now again called Dinamo. And guess who introduced all these changes, including this last one? Canjuga, Caesar, of course.

Just a couple of months ago, all those claiming that Dinamo should be called Dinamo were denounced by Canjuga (and his boss) as enemies of the Croatian state and its independence. "Dinamo is the name of football teams in Tirana, Kiev and Pančevo [a town near Belgrade, ed], and it cannot be the name of our team, which has always been a symbol of Croathood," Canjuga's boss argued. However, Canjuga knew something none of us could know... He revealed it to us, finally: his boss told him, only a couple of days before falling deathly ill, that the team should again be called Dinamo. For the sake of reconciliation of the Croatian people, that is. Of course, the boss's wish is Caesar's command. He changed the name back to Dinamo. It is the time of changes, after all.

Canjuga is not the only player of such calibre on the Croatian political (or should we say, football) scene. His alter ego, his inseparable shadow, his eternal adversary, is Milan Bandić. He performs the same duty as Canjuga, with only a slight difference: he is not president of the HDZ's Zagreb branch, but of that of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the party that won (albeit not alone) the last parliamentary elections in Croatia earlier this year [see this author's analysis].

And that seems to be the only difference. Why? It is a long and a very complicated story, one of those typically Croatian ones. It, interestingly enough, starts (and ends?) with the current President of the Republic Stipe Mesić.

When he and some of his colleagues decided to leave the HDZ in late 1994 and establish a new party, the Croatian Independent Democrats (HND), this caused the HDZ to lose its majority in the assembly of Zagreb county (the suburbs of Zagreb but not the city of Zagreb itself). The HDZ would not tolerate this and opted for the following solution: the Zagreb county and city of Zagreb were merged into a single administrative unit, and extraordinary elections to the assembly of this new unit, called City and County of Zagreb, were held. Of course, the HDZ believed it would win these elections. However, that was not the case. In the October 1995 elections, the alliance of seven opposition parties won 64 per cent of the seats in the Assembly, the HDZ and its allies only 36 per cent. This was the start of the so-called Zagreb crisis, which lasted nearly two years.

President Tuđman, (ab)using his constitutional powers, refused to confirm the Assembly's appointment for mayor (Goran Granić from the Croatian Social-Liberal Party, HSLS). What followed was a series of appointments (three other candidates from the HSLS, Jozo Radoš, Ivo Škrabalo and Dražen Budiša), all rejected by the President, and the President's appointment of special governors from the HDZ, who all received a vote of no confidence by the Assembly or whose appointments were declared null and void by the Constitutional Court.

The HDZ then decided to use a similar trick as it had before the 1995 elections: to separate the City of Zagreb from Zagreb county (suburbs) and thus instigate new elections. A referendum was called to that end, with a turnout of only 16.7 per cent. Those who did vote voted with a 51.3 per cent majority against the separation. However, the government declared the referendum not legally binding and went ahead and separated the new unit back into two smaller ones.

In the April 1997 elections in the City of Zagreb, the HDZ lost again but with a much smaller margin than before: 26 members of the Assembly were from the opposition and 24 from the HDZ. And then Caesar came on the scene. He was promised the position of president of the Assembly if he managed to organise the transfer of some opposition members to the HDZ, which he, of course, did. Two members of the Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) joined the HDZ which thereby acquired the necessary majority. Canjuga became the president of the Assembly, and the crisis finally ended. The HDZ thus resolved the "unnatural situation," as President Tuđman called it, claiming that it was unacceptable for different parties to rule the country's capital than the one that was ruling the country itself.

Well, the HDZ was like that, undemocratic and arrogant, I can already hear you saying, dear readers. Absolutely true, of course.

But let us take a look at what Canjuga's counterpart, Milan Bandić, did in the meantime. He was preparing for the second half-time. He sensed that the adversary was becoming weaker, and he became more and more self-confident. He was also using this time to explore his adversary's tactics and learn from them.

And then, finally, his time had come. Canjuga's boss was no longer there. Bandić used this opportunity to express his admiration by proposing that the main square in Zagreb, Jelačić square, be renamed after Franjo Tuđman, the greatest son of Croatian people. Canjuga, obviously offended and disappointed that it was not his own idea, rejected this, saying that his boss deserves more than just the main city square. Shortly after that, Bandić's team received strong support from the football fans - it won the parliamentary elections at the beginning of January 2000. And what did Bandić say first? "We will not wait for the local elections in 2001 to take over power in Zagreb. We will arrange this matter within months!"

Indeed, the matter was "arranged" very fast. In what was a nearly cinematic conspiracy, Bandić managed to collect the resignations of all 24 members of the Assembly from the coalition that was ruling the country but was still in opposition in Zagreb. He missed two - just as Canjuga had done some three years earlier. So what did he do? He proved that he had wasted no time in learning the tricks during those years. He put pressure on two HDZ members (famous writer Ranko Marinković and no less known painter Miroslav Šutej) to also sign their resignations. One of them (Marinković) even claimed the next day that he did not know what he was signing. In what was an impeccably co-ordinated action, the government immediately, at an unannounced session closed to the public, dismissed the Zagreb Assembly on grounds that the majority of its members had resigned. A special governor for Zagreb, Josip Kregar, was immediately appointed. The two HDZ members who had resigned withdrew their resignations as soon as they realised what happened. Too late, Kregar said.

Concerted actions and quick counter-attacks are crucial in football, I can hear you concluding, dear readers. Attacking the adversary by methods he does not expect (namely, your own) and when he is weak yields even better results.

But, I can hear some of you from the cheap seats in the back: is democracy...err...football not all about respecting the rules, fair play, well-defined procedure? Well, it was certainly not for the HDZ. It followed the rule of the stronger. But, what is democracy...err...football, for the SDP? The SDP entered the match by pronouncing new rules: fair play, democracy and rule of law. No one expected that anymore from the HDZ. But was the audience naive to expect it from the SDP? Was it stupid to offer this team its support?

And is there an arbiter on the playing field? There should be, as in every football match. It will now be very interesting to see what the reaction of President Mesić will be. His position is unquestionably an extremely delicate one. Any observer of the events of the last couple of weeks who paid attention to some seemingly unimportant details could draw very interesting conclusions about the future of the Croatian political scene.

President Mesić is, namely, a solo player. He has no significant support from any relevant political group in the country, from no party (including his own, the Croatian People's Party, HNS, which is not very strong anyway - it holds only two seats in Parliament). He received the support of the voters, but they will have a say again only in another four years. In the meantime, he is on his own. Constitutional changes are being prepared, and it was very interesting to notice that President Mesić and the government appointed two separate groups to work on formulating these changes. Mesić's consists of five reputable legal experts, the government's (which was announced very discreetly in the media) of six members from each party of the ruling coalition. Why are there two commissions? Why did the government not ask legal experts but, instead, appointed members only according to party affiliation?

Of course, there are several reasons for this. First, it is not the first such case of party affiliation taking precedence over legal expertise: the same method was used to appoint new members of the Constitutional Court only two months prior to the elections. At that time, the HDZ proposed three and the former opposition parties two new judges, who then left their parties on the day of becoming "non-partisan" members of the Court.

Second, the government seems to be prone to establishing extra-institutional bodies: the best example of this is the so-called co-ordinating body of six coalition parties.

Third, it is more convenient to have two different commissions and to separate the political debate on this issue from the expert-legal debate than to merge both in what would have certainly been a better solution: doing all of the work in parliamentary committees or in a special committee appointed by the Parliament. Whereas this way the debate stays outside of the Parliament and is thus more controllable.

Fourth, and possibly most important, it is expected that legal experts and the government's commission have quite different views on constitutional changes. Whereas the legal experts would probably advocate a relatively moderate approach (not stripping the President of absolutely all powers, for example), it is very likely that the government's commission will decide that President should be virtually fully disempowered. It is, not surprisingly, not able to realise that the Constitution is not a tool for achieving political goals (in the same way that electoral laws had been all these years) and that the same Constitution should be there even when Mesić is no longer President.

Mesić, of course, would support the experts' view. Not only on principle, but, obviously, because he would not like to be only a political puppet.

This is why his position now is so delicate. If he stands against the government and argues on the basis of democratic principles, he makes a very strong enemy, which will, eventually, be able to decide his future (although the ruling coalition does not have the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament to introduce the new Constitution by itself, it is almost certain that it would get the support of the HDZ, because Mesić is the HDZ's most hated figure). On the other hand, if Mesić remains fully silent, he risks losing some of his credibility. So far, he has been quite tactful. For example, he even refused to give a clear response to a journalist's question asking whether the Square of Victims of Fascism should again get this name (which was changed by the HDZ in 1990), although he was one of those physically injured by right-wing nationalists at the rally last year in support of the return of the old name to the square.

His position is even more delicate, because, as mentioned above, he has no power structure behind him. Paradoxically, the only power he has is that guaranteed by the (current) Constitution, which he refuses to use, since he considers some of its parts undemocratic. The government has now waved the red flag in front of his face by using exactly those powers to dismiss the Zagreb Assembly. It remains to be seen if Mesić will accept the challenge. Hopefully not.

His tactfulness may also be a sign of cleverness. If he finally gets a Constitution that does not reduce his powers fully, he might then really act as "corrective of the government," as he said on the eve of elections, and be a real (and fair) arbiter on the playing field. Without any powers, that would be impossible.

Let us take, however, a step down and see what is going on in the playing field.

The HDZ is fully exhausted. Its internal rifts have brought things to the point that absolutely no one can say with certainty who was and who was not dismissed. The most recent and the most ridiculous in the series of resignations and dismissals is the dismissal of Canjuga for "failing to maintain the majority in the Zagreb Assembly." Some of HDZ's leading politicians, including Mate Granić, have left the party and established a new one, the Croatian Democratic Centre (HDC). Many more are expected to join. HDZ will never be the same again. Canjuga is now a very weak adversary, an easy target.

But that provokes a logical question: why be such a rough player now, when the adversary is down? Why not stick to fair play? Why use exactly the same methods as those whom one had condemned earlier? Why break so many promises of only a few months ago (a 40 per cent cut in state officials' salaries, no cuts in salaries of state employees, and so on)? Because of dilettantism? Because the promises were unrealistic? Or rather because democracy (the rules) is one thing, and the practice of power (the game) is another? Democracy is a nice and appealing slogan, but when the going gets tough... Bandić gets going.

Have the players asked themselves how long the international community will sustain such an approach? Or do they know that the international community's mouth is full of democracy also only for pragmatic and not principled reasons...

Those who said that Croatia will follow the Central and East European model, just with a delay, seem to have been right. The first part of the prophecy is already fulfilled: the reformed Communists returned to power after the first period of rule of nationalist right-wing umbrella organisations and movements. However, the SDP should not forget the second part of the story. After one legislative period, former Communists were voted out. In Poland by a broad Solidarity-led coalition, in Hungary by Viktor Orbán's FIDESZ.

But who is the "third" force in Croatia? What is Croatia's alternative? The HDZ will obviously disintegrate. The SDP and HSLS act, for all intents and purposes, as one party. The Peasants' Party does not represent a force that could in the foreseeable future be able to take over power. The so-called Poreč group (consisting of the People's Party, the Liberal Party and the Istrian Democratic Assembly), if, as announced, unified under Vesna Pusić - a rather popular and modern type of politician - could represent an important force in the future. That would, however, require some kind of differentiation among the parties of the current ruling coalition, which is possible (and probably beneficial for the Poreč group) but not certain.

In a recent interview given to a Croatian journalist, Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and author of The Third Way, stated, somewhat jokingly, that Croatia's major role on the world stage is that it has good football. What Giddens probably did not realise is that the goals Croatia is most prone to score are, like the one at the beginning of this text, actually own-goals.

Saša Cvijetić, 11 March 2000


River Tisza
The Polluted River

Disaster to Debate

Once Is Not Enough!


Jan Čulík:
President Albright

Sam Vaknin:
Expat Experts

Catherine Lovatt:
Urbane Romanian



Crisis in Croatia

A Polish President

Ukrainian Elections

Rights for Macedonians

» Austria
» Bulgaria
» Croatia
» Czech
» Estonia
» Hungary
» Latvia
» Lithuania
» Poland
» Romania
» Serbia
» Slovakia
» Slovenia  New!
» Ukraine


Central European Cultural Events in:




Music Shop


Doris Dörrie's Erleuchtung Garantiert





CER book offer:
After the Rain: How the West Lost the East
By Sam Vaknin


Feature Essay
Haider & Europe

CER Icon

» Overview
» Working with us
» Internships
» Submit article
» Our readership
» Contact us
» CER via e-mail
» Donations

» 1999 archive
» 2000 archive
» By subject
» By author
» Book reviews
» Kinoeye: film
» Archive search


Copyright © 2000 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved