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Vol 2, No 19
15 May 2000
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Vesna PusićAbandoning the War Mentality
Interview with President of the Croatian People's Party Vesna Pusić

Central Europe Review: Let us start with your activities that are not entirely linked with politics: you were the editor of the journal Erasmus; what happened to it in the end?

Vesna Pusić: Erasmus is not published any more. Politics is, however, not entirely to blame. I spent the 1996-1997 academic year as a lecturer at Georgetown University in Washington DC. As often happens, every project needs a person who will be the initiator and sustainer of the majority of its activities. So, during my year in the States, Erasmus slowly lost its momentum. Very soon upon my return, I formed a very clear idea that one can either leave the country or do something to change the power. It was my existential issue, important for myself and my family, and dependent on my character. I opted for the latter alternative and entered politics with that idea.

CER: You have been a member of the Croatian People's Party (HNS) for a long time, however...

Pusić: Yes, I am one of the 28 founding members of the HNS; thus I have been a member since 1990. We were all members of the Coalition of People's Agreement (KNS), and prior to that I personally was never a member of any party. I was active in the HNS for a year and a half, maybe two, and then I lost motivation and inspiration for party politics. It seemed too slow to me. The HDZ dominated everything, and it all seemed pretty hopeless. Since it was clear that there was no chance for electoral victory, the parties were not at all efficient in the areas where various civil initiatives were, namely, in raising important topics and introducing them into the political arena and protecting a space for different political thinking and attitudes. In such a situation, it seemed to me that this was easier to achieve through something like Erasmus.

CER: Together with you in Erasmus were Slavko Goldstein and Ozren Žunec...

Pusić: Ivo Žanić joined us later. But the three of us - Goldstein, Žunec and I - were the founders of Erasmus.

CER: You were also among those who signed an open letter to President Tuđman asking him to resign...

Pusić: Yes, there were six of us: Chris Cviić, Ivo Banac, Vlado Gotovac, Slavko Goldstein, Ozren Žunec and I. We invited the then President to resign, because of his policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

CER: What was his reaction?

Pusić: He never replied to us in written form, but he kept mentioning our names for years after that in his speeches, calling us enemies. I do not think that is something horrible: if you take part in politics and you do not agree with someone, you have to expect that he will fiercely disagree with you as well. Of course, if they put you in prison or mistreat you in other ways, that is something else. Verbal conflicts are an instrument of politics; you cannot always agree with everyone. That is actually a danger of party politics: it tends to create too great a harmony. One should maintain his or her ability to defend some viewpoint, even if it represents a minority.

CER: You are one of those who introduced the notion of a second transition into Croatian political discourse. You included Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Albania in this group of countries that follow the so-called Mediterranean model of transition. Can you explain this model and how you evaluate the practise of Croatian transition?

Pusić: What is now happening in Croatia can be called a second transition. I was writing about a second transition as a model that is necessary not only for Croatia but for all countries of Eastern Europe that did not manage to establish democracy in 1989 and 1990, in the first round. They managed to establish multi-party systems but not fundamental democratic institutions, procedures and behaviour. Even the Visegrad countries had problems with that in the beginning but still managed to achieve it. The difference is that in these countries the achievements of the first transition were stabilised, and the only concern was not to destabilise them again. This was not our case.

During our first transition, as well as in some other countries of South-Eastern Europe, we did not move from a one-party system to democracy, we moved from a one-party system to an authoritarian system. I used to call our system before 1990 a "benign totalitarianism," that is, a system which
the HDZ dominated everything, and it all seemed pretty hopeless
formally had the potential to enter anyone's life and private sphere but was not doing that anymore, more because of entropy than on account of formal obstacles. After that, we moved to an authoritarian regime that had more parties but actually had limited pluralism, or "democratura" as Adam Michnik called it. In one of my texts I called it "dictatorship with democratic legitimacy." One had a party state and party power, led by a party that was very authoritarian, but that formally had more parties on the scene. Some democratic institutions were present but not all. For instance, institutions which would protect individuals from illegal tapping of their phones and interference of the state in everyday life: for example, it was possible to tap journalists' phones based only on the oral decision of the Minister of Internal Affairs.

On the other hand, we were facing not only institutional gaps in the system, but some institutions did not exist at all. They were not created, because it was expected that the President would intervene in case of problems. For example, formal financial control and internal reviews within ministries did not exist but are something that has to exist, especially in the period of establishment of the state. Another example is that there was never an obligation to report to the Parliament on the budget of the ministries of internal affairs and defence. Under the current mandate of the Parliament will be the first time that this is discussed. Croatian citizens had thus far not obtained formal information, not even false, about, for instance, the financing of Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite the fact that it came from our taxes. I was the one who recently asked the Minister of Finance about this, and it was the first time that a formal report was provided. Such things should be self-explanatory.

CER: In his interview for Jutarnji list some days ago, chairman of the Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) Dražen Budiša said that "elements of political chaos are expanding in Croatia." Do you share that view, and if so, where would you place these "elements" and what future do they have in Croatia?

Pusić: I do not share that opinion. I do not think that political chaos has started to dominate Croatia. However, I think that precisely at this moment we are at the turning point. It is necessary to move from an authoritarian regime to democracy. I think that we, who emerged from the 1990s having authoritarian regimes, will need another step. Then we will have formal institutions, and the only problem will be to stabilise them and not to change them again. I believe that the recent parliamentary and presidential elections represent this second, peaceful transition. Chaos was avoided, and power was transferred in a peaceful way. Only six months ago, the first question of all foreign journalists was whether power would be transferred peacefully. We witnessed that the transfer was peaceful, under the given circumstances. We can only speculate what would have happened if the circumstances had been different, but this is what happened.

Of course, there are no two identical countries, but one can nevertheless learn from other countries' experiences. For instance, in Spain, they also had a peaceful transition, but they needed six or seven years to stabilise the political system. A good sign is the declaration on relations between Croatia and the Hague Tribunal. It did not bring anything new, since it only confirms statements already written in the law. However, the declaration is extremely important since it represents a collective statement of the new authorities that they will respect their own laws. That is a huge step for this country, since we have a tradition under which many laws were adopted with the idea that they would not be implemented.

Another example is the new Law on Reconstruction. It presumes that in the reconstruction [of houses and buidlings damaged in the war, ed] ethnic origin will not be relevant. All citizens of Croatia will have the same status and treatment, except suspected war criminals and those already accused of war crimes, whereby those who are suspects can apply for reconstruction, but the decision will be postponed until the court verdicts are reached. This
we are at the turning point: we have to abandon the war mentality
provoked a very hefty debate in Parliament, when some people said that this means that family members of war criminals will be able to apply for reconstruction, which shows that some people believe that families of criminals should be punished as well. That is, in my view, monstrous and Stalinist. That is why I am saying that we are at the turning point: we have to abandon the war mentality, and adopt a normal, civilised, peacetime mentality and the rule of law. You simply must have laws that are equally valid for everyone; a law which is not equally valid for everyone is not a law.

This is our main and most difficult task, although 99 per cent of the people would say that the most complex task is the economy. I think, taking into account Croatian infrastructure, potential, experience and tradition of communication with the outside world, that the main economic problem is politics. A vast majority of our current economic problems are consequences of political decisions. Once the politics is changed, foreign investments can be attracted. We can already see the first symptoms of an economic recovery in one year, especially if this tourist season goes well.

CER: What about the 200,000 new jobs that the HNS was promising during the election campaign?

Pusić: 200,000 new jobs should be our minimum, considering the unemployment rate we have now. In that case, we would decrease it from the current 21 per cent to some 13 to 14 per cent, which is still high. In our view, we have two years to clear up the situation and then two years to improve it. So, in four years, this goal should be achieved, unless we make some catastrophically wrong moves.

CER: In his recent interview for Nacional, president of the Liberal Party Vlado Gotovac [see CER's own interview with Mr Gotovac] said that "the role of politics in Croatia does not correspond to its role in democratic societies." Do you agree with that and what is your view of the role of politics in Croatian society?

Pusić: I did not read that interview and I do not know what he meant by that. What is certainly inadequate, however, is the omnipresence of politics. That is a consequence of the period that we just stepped out from. Politics was so decisive in all fields of life: it decided whether you will have flat, job, to what school your children will go, what you will read in newspapers or watch on TV, etc. I think Croatia is a unique case in that politicians are equally visible and popular as show business stars. That is, of course, not normal. Politics should serve to enable people to do their business.

For example, I entered politics in my older age, with a carreer in a different field that is more respected and interesting. It is more reputable to be a university professor than to be a minister or member of Parliament. We are too small a country, with too small an elite to be able to afford to wait and see what will happen. Nothing can happen if you do not make it happen with your own hands. This feeling in which you either make something out of this country or there is simply no place for you in it provoked a politicisation of the community, and we have to slowly return things to normality (where they, nota bene, never were). We have never had the experience of a normal democratic state.

CER: You said recently that the government was "not sufficiently decisive about things that it wanted to achieve." Does this government have a vision?

Pusić: This government set two tasks for itself. First, to change the style of ruling. This is extremely important for us, simply because the former government had a very arrogant style of ruling that alienated people almost as much as the economic catastrophe. It despised its own citizens and never thought it was obliged to account for what it was doing. I thought that we should be more open and transparent now. I believed that could be changed immediately and that it could actually prolong our honeymoon, that is, buy time until the economic results are visible, which always requires more time.

The second task was to improve the economy. After these hundred days, I somehow think that we were more successful in improving economy than in changing the style [of ruling]. The style indeed changed, but not in the direction I thought it would, and still think should, change. Of course, arrogance is not present anymore, but the government is still not sufficiently open in the sense that people would know what is currently on
the time has come when people are those who count
the agenda, what is the objective. To some extent, that is a consequence of the fact that this is a coalition government, which makes the situation more complex. The main problem is, in my view, communication with the public, and on the other hand, co-ordination and communication within the government and between different institutions (government, Parliament, President). Partly this may be the consequence of the fact that we do not have an opposition. The HDZ is strongest opposition in Parliament, as a result of former times. If the elections were today, they would get some four to seven per cent. They are very fierce in defending some attitudes which actually cost them votes. But they obviously believe that they have to stick to them.

The absence of a credible opposition contributes to the weakness of our co-ordination. If you have a clear adversary, it homogenises the coalition... We also have to get accustomed to the fact that there is no personality who is the ultimate judge of everything and that politics is not a choir singing in unison. Conflicts should not take place in the implementation but in the decision-making phase. That is the normal model, and we still have to work to achieve it. Economically, two very important decisions were made: to settle internal debts and to decrease the annual budget. This, I think, is functioning well, and had a very good start.

CER: The Croatian People's Party's popularity is growing. What is the key of the HNS success? Is it only the "President effect" or is it because the HNS, with you as its leader, is seen as having clear positions?

Pusić: It is true that the HNS is growing, both in membership and popularity. Several factors are responsible for that. An important factor is that "our time has come," so to speak. We were perhaps, both as people and as a party, "cocks before the dawn." We started with an alternative way when that was yet not acceptable for the majority of people. We are a typical peacetime party: non-ideological, more oriented towards projects than ideologies... We have always stood for politics that is not of the "heroic type." We value accountability. At one time, that seemed too abstract, or too weak or too unrecognisable. Now, the time has come for us.

People are no longer oriented towards great ideological projects. The time has come when people are those who count, because the party programs are so similar. Everyone is in the political centre. However, it is not irrelevant who implements the political program, and that is why I think that it is good that now people count. That is why we are becoming stronger. Stipe Mesić's success in the presidential elections definitely contributed to getting us into this "winning mood"... Mesić's victory helped us in the sense that people who previously did not vote for us, by voting for Mesić, feel that they also voted for us and now do not hesitate to vote for us. That helped, of course. But if we did not have people, infrastructure and political consistency, we could not achieve anything with that.

CER: I asked all my interviewees how they see Croatia in four years. For you, the question is different: How do you see Vesna Pusić in four years?

Pusić: I think we will accomplish an important job. I have never been in Parliament before. I am one of the rare people who really respect Parliament. I believe that it should be the most important institution. During the HDZ's rule, Parliament was degraded. It is important to ensure its dignity and ensure that it becomes a central institution. It is much more demanding than I expected, I must admit. I am glad that I am a member of Parliament, and I will surely not leave it during these four years. What I will do after those four years depends on what we manage to achieve in the meantime, both within the party and in Parliament. So far, I have had very good communication with my colleagues in the ruling coalition. Most important, of course, will be the achievement of the party. Although I would personally prefer to return to teaching, if the situation requires it, I would be ready to take over further duties as well.

Interview conducted on 27 April 2000 by
Saša Cvijetić

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