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Vol 2, No 19
15 May 2000
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Regionalism in Croatia:
Between tradiation and reality
Dragan Antulov

One of the more interesting political trends in contemporary Europe is regionalism. Virtually unknown - or at least forgotten - until the last quarter of the twentieth century, regionalism has recently gained popularity in many European countries. Political movements that embrace the idea have become a force to be reckoned with and, in many cases, have challenged or even replaced traditional established parties.

The success of regionalism in Europe can be explained by the decline of the nation state, particularly evident in countries that, inspired by the example of the French Revolution, had adopted more rigid and centralist models of national administration. For the last two hundred years, regions had been considered remnants of an older, feudal system - obstacles to the development of modern industrial society and contrary to the ideals of national unity. The political systems of such countries could tolerate divisions within the nation, but only on the basis of class, never territory.

The gradual decline of the European nation state became evident in the last few decades as the Keynesian mechanisms of the welfare state lost their ability to maintain high standards of living among their populations. National bureaucracies had become obstacles to the increased flow of commerce in the globalised world economy, and, finally, the idea of the nation state was attacked from above by the development of supranational European entities.

As the authority of the nation state declined, the old political establishments based on ideology and class divisions also began to fade away. Europeans had to find alternative means to express their political will and fight for their interests. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), interest groups and other grassroots movements were gradually filling the void. On the institutional level, an alternative to the old nation state was found in the idea of regionalism - national governments delegating their powers to new, smaller and autonomous entities, with administrations less estranged from the wishes and interests of their electorates.

Regionalism in Europe

At first, such developments were motivated by a desire to ease ethnic tensions in some West European democracies - a disturbing trend that erupted in the late 1960s and 1970s, especially in traditionally stable and supposedly homogeneous nation states like the United Kingdom, Spain and France. Regions whose cultures and identities had been suppressed for centuries were given new autonomy, requiring the reorganisation of existing administrative systems and the gradual abandonment of centralism. Soon even those regions without potential conflict saw the benefits of regionalism, and the movement for decentralisation became more popular. Economic interests became as powerful a rallying cry for regionalists as ethnic grievances, and the political clout of regionalist parties increased - sometimes becoming the essential element of governing coalitions.

But the slow rise of regionalism is still a phenomenon that hardly can be called "European." Some European countries - Germany, Austria and Switzerland, for example - avoided regionalist tendencies simply because their political systems were based on the federal model and had no need of administrative reorganisation. Countries beyond the former Iron Curtain were also unaffected by the trend. For their governments, the task of creating new economies out of the ruins of Communism became the priority, and there simply weren't time or resources for experimenting with new forms of administration. Another, more sinister reason East European countries frown upon regionalism is that some of them only recently became independent states and their still-dominant nationalisms view regionalist ideas as a dangerous threat to hard-earned national freedom and unity.

Croatia in the 1990s, on the other hand, represents quite a divergence from such trends. After winning independence in a bloody and complicated war and being ruled by a regime based on a rigid, virulent and semi-totalitarian form of nationalism, Croatia seemed the country least suited to a transplant of regionalist ideas from the West. Nevertheless, regionalism in Croatia managed not only to survive, but also to become a far more important political factor than in most post-Communist countries in the area.

But the success of Croatian regionalism actually shouldn't surprise us, since Croatia has a long regionalist tradition, influenced by such factors as its geography and history.

It is readily apparent on the map of Croatia that the country is not a compact geographical whole, but rather is made up of several distinct sections connected by narrow geographical links. Taking into account its different climates, topographies, natural resources and, finally, different economies and cultures, we understand that Croatia is a distinctly heterogeneous country.

From Austrian and Hungarian rule to Yugoslavia

Croatia's present-day regionalism stems also from its history. Even the official name of the country in the last century - "The Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia" - and its traditional insignia indicate its heterogeneous nature. When other European countries began to form homogeneous nation states in the nineteenth century, Croatia was divided into four distinct administrative territories within the Habsburg Empire: semi-autonomous Croatia proper, areas under the direct control of the Hungarian government, Dalmatia and Istria under Vienna's direct control and, finally, Vojna Krajina, under a separate military regime. The struggle to bring the four lands under one administration was as important a task for Croatian nationalists as was the struggle for national independence. But the attempt was nearly fruitless - not until 1881 was Vojna Krajina incorporated back into Croatia, and only after local Orthodox Christians embraced Serb nationalism, allowing the Habsburg rulers to play the divide et impera card against the emerging independence movements within their Empire.

The fall of the Habsburg Empire and the creation of the Yugoslav state in 1918 didn't mark the end of the Croatian struggle to unite all their lands under one administrative system, however. The new Belgrade regime was as inimical towards Croatian territorial unity as were the Habsburgs. Croatian territory was divided into two banates (Savska Banate in the north, and Primorska Banate in the south), and many Croatian territories on the Adriatic Coast were taken by Italy, whose Fascist regime would suppress Croatian national identity for the next quarter century. Croatian nationalists again came near their goal of national unification with the Cvetkovic-Macek Compromise of 1939, which put most of Croatia under the semi-autonomous government of Banate of Croatia - and was soon swept away by World War II.

Ironically, Tito's victorious Communists - not Croatian nationalists - were the force that finished the historical task of building the Croatian nation state. Under the federal system of post-war Yugoslavia, Croatia was finally territorially complete and (at least theoretically) under its own centralised administration. In the first decades of Tito's regime, there was little place for any such ideas as regionalism. Within the rigid Communist system, regionalism and regionalist concepts were thrown into the same basket as nationalism, capitalism and other "reactionary ideologies."

After Tito's break with Stalin, however, Yugoslavia's Communist system gradually began to evolve. The federation started to decentralise, and every new constitution gave more powers to the republics. Decentralisation followed the official ideology of self-management socialism, as Marxist scholars of ex-Yugoslavia, especially in the later years, began to abandon Marxist-Leninist dogma and embrace non-Marxist thinkers like Proudhon and Blanc. In their vision, the new Yugoslav society was to be constructed as a loose federation of small, self-sufficient communes. In the real world, the closest thing to those communes was the municipality - an administrative unit that was to be built like a mini-state, with its own army (Territorial Defence), police and other autonomous governmental and para-governmental services. In 1990, the last year of the Yugoslav regime, Croatia was divided into 100 such municipalities, each based on a sub-regional urban centre.

Like many of the social experiments under Communism, the system was a failure. Instead of being composed of thriving autonomous and self-sufficient entities, Croatia, like other former Yugoslav republics, was burdened with hundreds of small and inefficient bureaucracies. In some cases, the noble ideals of intercommunal cooperation clashed with the short-sighted, selfish interests of local clans, perpetuated by the Party organisation that mirrored administration, and vice versa. The municipality system became unpopular, not only because of its inefficiency, but also because it was obstructing the aims of a resurrected Croatian nationalism. That was especially the case in the eleven Croatian municipalities whose populations had an absolute majority of ethnic Serbs.

Even in such an atmosphere, ideas of regionalism found ways to manifest itself in the administrative organisation of Croatia. Many municipalities were eventually gathered into so-called "commonwealths of municipalities" based on regional principles - one commonwealth covered Dalmatia, a second, Slavonia, a third, Istria and the northern maritime regions Lika and Gorski Kotar, a fourth, the rest of Croatia. Another commonwealth was established for the city of Zagreb. But these institutions were mere formalities, nothing more than advisory committees with neither clear jurisdiction nor the power to enforce their decisions. When Communism collapsed in Croatia, the old administrative structure was hardly fertile ground for regionalist tendencies.

Post-independence regionalism

Naturally, with the important task of national independence on the agenda, those voices demanding a regionalist reorganisation of Croatia fell on deaf ears. In the first democratic elections in 1990, some nominally regionalist organisations or parties did appear on the ballot. Soon after the victory of Croatian nationalists led by Franjo Tudjman, however, it turned out that most of those lists had been created with the sole purpose of defeating local Communists in the absence of Tudjman's or any other non-Communist Party infrastructure. The only exception was the Istrian Democratic Alliance (IDS), the first truly regionalist party in Croatia, which was founded few months before the elections. But IDS leaders were well aware that they couldn't compete in the passionate, referendum-like atmosphere of the first elections. Regionalism had to wait a few more years before becoming an electoral force in Croatia.

In the meantime, the new rulers of Croatia ran into difficulties in their administrative reorganisation of the country. First, the newly independent nation got itself embroiled in the war. But even in such desperate times, the seeds of future regionalism were sown. In the initial stages of the conflict, the new country lacked a centralised defence infrastructure, and soon vital communications between various parts of Croatia came under the control of enemy forces. In many areas, the government had very weak contacts with the central authorities in Zagreb, and entire regions had to rely only on themselves, even in military matters. During this period, many local politicians - especially those belonging to the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) - used the opportunity not only to wage their own private wars but also to build their own personal power bases. Later, when Croatia started to build a coherent and centralised defence system, those power bases remained intact. In fact, the war, instead of unifying the nation, did quite the opposite. People in many areas affected by the conflict began to resent the central authorities in Zagreb, convinced that they had neglected the defence of their particular region or had sent precious military resources elsewhere. This was especially the case with Slavonia and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Dalmatia.

The next elections, held in 1992, marked the emergence of regionalism as an important political factor. Contrary to most expectations, the coalition of IDS and two smaller regionalist parties - Dalmatian Action (DA) and Rijeka Democratic Alliance (RiDS) - managed to win enough votes to send their representatives to the national parliament. This unexpected victory was repeated IDS's even better results in the individual electoral districts of Istria, where the party managed to win 40 to 50 per cent of the votes and became the dominant factor in regional politics. The triumph of the regionalists was complete with RiDS's winning of another individual district in the city of Rijeka. The regionalist trend continued to rise a few months later, when all three parties had good results in the local elections of February 1993.

Until that time, Tudjman's ruling party was still building its power structure and didn't view regionalism as a threat to its grip on Croatia. The cause of national independence and the resulting war were supposed to unify the nation, not create opposition towards the regime based on regional grievances. In the newly written history books, all regionalist tendencies in Croatia were attributed to foreign oppressors and their desire to quash national unity. To eradicate all reminders of that unfortunate past, some absurd measures were proposed, including changing the name "Dalmatia" to "Southern Croatia."

When Tudjman's regime began to take note of emerging regionalism, its reaction was multilayered. Government-controlled media began branding regionalists as remnants of the old regime - Yugonostalgics or traitors, whose divisive politics threatened the national war effort. In some cases, regionalist parties and their members were subjected to various forms of intimidation, including police and judicial repression and covert activities by various intelligence and security services. The latter succeeded in the case of Dalmatian Action; the party failed to withstand the pressure and by 1995 had receded to the margins of national, regional and even local politics.

But the most obvious measure directed against regionalists, and the one that had the most lasting effects, the new administrative organisation of Croatia. Instead of the 100 old municipalities, the country was divided into 22 counties. Each county was supposed to represent a mid-level between the central government and the local, more autonomous entities of towns and rural municipalities. In theory, counties were accountable and depended on their own democratically elected assemblies. In reality, they became nothing more than local branches of the central government, stripped of their own finances. Counties were also gerrymandered to give the HDZ the advantage in local elections and to satisfy the desires of powerful local HDZ politicians -without regard to tradition, history or economic sense. Regions were divided among various counties, and territorial divisions were intended to guarantee quarrels and political divisions between regionalist forces. The tactic was successful in the case of Istria, where IDS confronted its RiDS ally over the boundaries of Istrian and Primorje-Rijeka Counties, which ultimately led to the dissolution of the 1992 coalition between the two parties.

Although regionalist parties, even IDS, failed to repeat their initial successes in the years to come, regionalism was hardly extinguished as a political force in Croatia. Soon another phenomenon became evident - the "mainstream" opposition in Croatia, at first very sceptical, was beginning to adopt regionalism as part of its political programme. In some cases, this was the product of the political situation on the ground - some opposition parties won their first important victories in regions where the populace felt resentment towards the Zagreb government or where charismatic local politicians were able to use such sentiments. This happened first with the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) in Rijeka and the city of Osijek, and later with former Communists (SDP) in the city of Rijeka.

After the war

The end of the war in 1995 not only erased nation-building from the Croatian political agenda but also allowed regionalism to become a legitimate part of Croatian politics. Even in Slavonia, the area most ravaged by the war and home to virulent forms of Croatian nationalism, the regionalist idea emerged through the Slavonija-Baranja Croatian Party (SBHS). In 1995, SBHS managed to send its representative to Parliament through a coalition with other more mainstream opposition parties belonging to moderate nationalists of the Croatian centre-right. The coalition also included IDS, while Primorsko-Goranska Alliance, the former RiDS, got its representative in Sabor through coalition with the SDP.

The 1995 elections also marked a turning point in Croatian politics of the 1990s. The unexpected defeat of the HDZ in local elections in Zagreb showed for the first time that resentment against Tudjman's regime wasn't limited to areas outside the capital. The elections also indicated that the HDZ had lost support in the cities and had increasingly to rely on its rural electoral base for its survival. Since some of those rural voters lived in distinct Croatian regions (especially Lika), the HDZ began to embrace regionalism after many years of merciless anti-regionalist rhetoric. One reason was the need for "pork barrel" politics as a way for buying those valuable votes. But HDZ-style regionalism manifested in another form. One of the very effective techniques the HDZ had used against various opposition parties was the creation of pro-Tudjman factions and, later, pro-Tudjman parties, that had similar names. Some of those new parties were, at least nominally, regionalist in nature.

Such measures could only postpone, but not prevent, the inevitable downfall of the HDZ. After the death of its charismatic leader, the HDZ lost the 2000 elections in a landslide. This event, the most important in recent Croatian history, could be viewed as a victory for the regionalists. The IDS is now part of the Croatian governing coalition, and Stipe Mesic, the candidate officially endorsed by the IDS, later won the presidential elections. In this new, more democratic and more open-minded atmosphere, regionalist ideas became not only legitimate, but also part of national policy. A regional reorganisation of Croatia was among the pre-electoral promises made by most of the parties of the current government.

Unfortunately, such promises are unlikely to be kept - at least in the near future. Croatia's new government is faced with the difficult situation of a national economy ravaged by war and by the even more destructive effects of Tudjman's policies. Solving those problems and improving the living standard of the impoverished population is the new Croatian rulers' top priority. Administrative reorganisation is hardly part of their agenda.

Another impediment to a radical restructuring of Croatia on regionalist principles is the nature of the new government. Created by six different parties (grouped in two different blocs), and troubled by an escalating conflict between the Cabinet and the Presidency, it is destined to be unstable. Under such conditions, governments rarely carry out truly radical policies with far-reaching consequences; they prefer the status quo for the sake of stability. The government of Prime Minister Racan is no exception, and the only changes in the new government are changes of personnel. Croatia's administrative system is the same as in Tudjman's era and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

A final obstacle to the institutional regionalisation of Croatia resides in current political and economic realities. The idea of self-government is absurd without economic self-sufficiency. Many Croatian regions are so ravaged and impoverished by the war that they will need years, if not decades, of outside help before they will be able to compete in a global economy. The divisive legacy of Tudjman's administrative system haunts the new government. The long-standing feud between the IDS and SDP, caused in part by the county boundaries dispute, didn't end when the two parties became part of the same government. Just a few weeks ago, the feud escalated again, ignited by a financial crisis in a local Istrian bank. This minor crisis nearly turned into high drama when many Istrians accused the new SDP-dominated government of animosity towards Istria, some even adopting extremely radical regionalist rhetoric verging on separatism. Such artificially created divisions are mirrored all over Croatia. Some parties have their political strongholds in HDZ-created administrative institutions and, although nominally part of the anti-Tudjman coalition, are unwilling to risk their political position by regionalisation the country.

Despite everything, however, regionalism has good prospects in Croatia. As the economic situation improves and governments become more stable, reforms will become inevitable. The regionalist idea that has managed to survive throughout recent years in Croatia will finally have the opportunity to show its practical value.

Dragan Antulov, 14 May 2000

Moving on:



Focus: Croatia
Dejan Jović
Tuđman's Convenient Death

Dragan Antulov

Sharon Fisher
EU Hopes

Đurđa Knežević
Gender Politics

Mirjana Domini

Zoran Ferić
New Literature

Jurica Pavičić

Sue Bagust

Borko Špoljarić
Music Days

Ivo Goldstein
The Yugoslav Conflicts

Zoran Pusić

Igor Nobilo

Mladen Vedriš
The Economy

William A Everett
Contemporary Music

Anna Maria Gruenfelder
The Church

President of Croatia
Stipe Mesić

Croatian Deputy PM
Goran Granić

Vesna Pusić, Croatian People's Party leader

Vlado Gotovac, Liberal Party leader

Brian J Požun
Tito Revival

Oliver Craske
UK Looks East

Jan Čulík
Roma and TV

Mel Huang
Latvian Victory

Elke de Wit
Klaus Krämer

Culture Calendar:

Ustaša Legacy

PR and Extremism

Czech Republic