The late Croatian historian and emeritus professor at Yale Ivo Banac writes that the “nucleus” of medieval Croatia was the Adriatic seaboard, but the Venetian expansion south along the Adriatic, coupled with the Ottoman conquest of adjacent Bosnia, “occasioned the slow migration of Croat nobility toward the north and effected a lasting change in the political map of Croatia,” distancing it from its Adriatic roots. With this, Zagreb, the nexus of old Slavonia, deep in the interior, emerged as the Croat capital.
The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia also had the effect of further pulling political and economic power inland. Yet, as in the case of Italy, where geography tells different stories depending on the age of technology under consideration, geography and geopolitics in Croatia are now actually quite different than during the 1990s war.
It used to take many long and uncomfortable hours in a bus, car, or train to journey between the deep interior of Croatia and the coast. But the building of several massive, graded, and multi-laned superhighways from Zagreb down the mountains to Rijeka, to Senj, to Zadar, and to Split along the Adriatic coast has cut the distance dramatically. From Zagreb to Rijeka now takes 90 minutes, to Senj two hours, and so forth. Because of the collapse of distance effected by civil engineering—to say nothing of the explosion of global tourism along the Dalmatian seaboard—Croatia has changed both economically and, to an extent, psychologically. Croatia has begun to move away from a more ethnically obsessed Balkan orientation in the direction of a more cosmopolitan Mediterranean one.
Or so I had thought before I began my trip. As is often the case, the situation is far more complicated upon further contact with the evidence.
From Rijeka I take one of the new superhighways inland, to Zagreb. It is nearly three decades since I was last at the Esplanade Hotel with its aura of fin-de-siècle Vienna. I vaguely recall from the 1980s, before the hotel was remodeled, a lobby of gold-framed mirrors, velvet curtains, and purplish carpets, with a dining hall resembling a cluttered art gallery: the universe of Freud, Klimt, and Kokoschka. The intent of the remodeling is to make the Esplanade more generically international. But the effect is mixed: the heavy browns, the dim brass and gold leaf, the white marble dripping in black veins all make for an intimate gloom: the signature of Central Europe not yet conquered by the edgy globalism of Austria and Germany.
Later on, after a rainfall, I leave the hotel and go for a walk. Zagreb means “behind the hill,” the hill being the site of the upper town, which dominates the lower one. In the lower town are the Esplanade and the turn-of-the-20th-century neo-Renaissance, art nouveau, and Secession-style buildings and pavilions, separated by leafy expanses. High on the hill, staring down at the lower town, is the fortified Gothic Cathedral of Zagreb, a veritable Catholic mini-Kremlin, consecrated in the 13th century and restored at the end of the 19th.
Just outside the cathedral, sometime in the mid-1980s, Monsignor Duro Kokša and Slavko Goldstein, both now deceased—and both of whom I knew back in those days—spent hours in a car late one night arguing about just how many thousands and tens of thousands and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Romani were killed at the concentration camp of Jasenovac by the Croatian fascist Ustashe during World War II: the Catholic church official claimed much lower numbers than the Jewish community leader.
The issue, as I would learn, has not gone away.
The first people I meet here are Nebojša Taraba and Ivana Ljubičić, a television producer and a philosophy student, who quickly inform me that “behind it all,” the public conversation in Croatia is still psychologically dominated by the local Roman Catholic Church, trapped as it is in the 1980s within a debilitating reactionary worldview, as if it were still fighting the old Communist regime by an appeal to tribe and little else.
It is an old story: a frontier church hard up against the borders of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam, feeling too insecure to shed its prejudices against—as it now happens—Jews and Muslims. I want to write about a new, global cosmopolitan and Mediterranean Croatia, to serve as a contrast to what I wrote about the country in Balkan Ghosts. But the people I meet in Zagreb will not wholly cooperate.
Like Ljubljana, Zagreb constitutes an exhausting feast of conversation against a backdrop of global consumerism. In 1989, during my last visit, the horrors of the 1940s still seemed close, as the Cold War was a postscript to World War II; now, my initial hope is that even the war of the 1990s will appear remote. For history, I tell myself, is less of a burden as wealth and technology obscure the past. But that, it turns out, is exactly the problem: among the most populist and reactionary elements of the population are not the old people with long memories but the young ones, with little sense of the past. And many of the young people who are, in fact, progressive have been emigrating en masse for jobs and new lives abroad, leaving the reactionary ones behind.
Alas, Croatia is, to some degree, an extension of the conservative populist rejoinder to liberal politics that is occurring in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere: fueled by economic anxiety and the failure of the European Union to establish a meaningful sense of identity and belonging.
Ivo Goldstein, the late Slavko Goldstein’s son, is a historian, like his father, as well as the former Croatian ambassador to France and UNESCO. His father died only two months before we meet. “When my father passed away,” he tells me, “a priest on the island of Hvar wrote on the Internet that he was so happy that an enemy of the nation of Croatia was dead. As is often the case with the Internet, the message spread.”
The government, so as not to offend the Church and the populist right wing, sent only a single, very low-level official to the funeral, even though the elder Goldstein was a locally famous historian, a journalist and publisher, the president of the first non-Communist political party in Croatia, and a pillar of the Jewish community.
I ask simply, “What is the problem with this place?”
The decades dissipate, and in Goldstein’s careful, complex, and hesitant answers—the mark of an academic who knows just how complicated the truth can often be—I am suddenly reminded of his father. “I am 59,” he tells me, “but only in the last two or three years have I become a pessimist. In 2009 [upon the worldwide Great Recession], the economy contracted by nine percent or something like that. It will take us some time to return to where we were then. But that is a side issue,” he says with a frustrated shrug that indicates more factors than he is able to articulate at the moment.
“When we were admitted to the European Union in 2013, they [the EU officials] told us in so many ways, without actually spelling it out, that we had homework to do: that because we were a big and sprawling country, because we were war-ravaged, and therefore a regional fulcrum, our success was key to the entire future of Central-Eastern Europe. So, what was that homework which went unspoken? At the heart of it all was that we had to be more inclusive, like all successful Western democracies, especially those with relatively small populations like ours: like Holland, for instance.” The degree to which minorities felt welcomed would in the end define Croatia, a country of 4 million, he explains.
“But what is happening instead?” he continues. “Revisionism is flourishing, helped by the same revisionism on the Serb side, with reactionaries in both countries feeding off each other, usually arguing over the Internet,” which provides an inter-communal ecosystem in basically the same language. The Internet, in the worst sort of way, is the last remnant of Yugoslavia, I am told. Thus, the debate his father had with Monsignor Kokša in the car that night over three decades ago “still goes on.”
“I had once thought that with the death of the perpetrators and the victims of the Ustashe crimes at Jasenovac this issue would be settled by dispassionate research. I was naive. I now know we in Croatia find it hard to normalize.”
“The long process of joining the EU was better than membership itself,” Vesna Pusić, a former Croatian foreign minister, tells me. “The process forced us to aspire to liberal democratic values. But once we were admitted to the EU, we put membership in our pocket, so to speak, and reverted to our old ways.” It didn’t help that by the time Croatia got accepted into the EU in 2013 “the EU itself was tired and troubled, with idealists like [Vaclav] Havel and [Adam] Michnik no longer the brand names of an emerging unified continent. Political development requires ideals, not just realism,” she emphasizes.
At the local level, “the problem is that Croatia is the only country in the former Yugoslav Federation that was both a victim and victor in the 1990s war,” explains Dejan Jović, a colleague of Goldstein’s at the University of Zagreb and the head of the International Relations Department there. “Yes, I know, Slovenia was also a victim of Serbian aggression, but Slovenia was only at war for a short time and had few casualties. We in Croatia, on the other hand, had many casualties and much destruction, but we also won in the end. So if you believe that you are both victim and victor, the result is that you become full of yourself—you become nasty. The world,” Jović continues, “is supposed to feel sorry for you while at the same time you feel dominant. We have had no truth and reconciliation commission. We are still anti-Serb.”
Ethnic cleansing has helped this sad development, with only 7.5 percent of the Croatian population listed as minorities, as opposed to 22 percent before the war. “Communism,” Jović says, “is now seen as equally reprehensible as fascism. But how can you compare the genocidal Ustashe regime with Tito’s relatively restrained version of Communism?” Jović, because of his mild face and commonsensical demeanor, is all the more devastating in his analysis. “Because national identity in Croatia is still built around the 1990s war, the populist right wing has the advantage. War itself has not been delegitimized here the way it was in Western Europe after World War II.”
It ultimately has to do, he explains, with the failure of Tito’s Yugoslavia to ever develop a demos, which Jović translates as a “meaningful sense of citizenship.” Yugoslavia, “like the EU in a way, for decades meant little except an impersonal bureaucracy.”
Could it all have been different?
Ivo Goldstein suggests that rather than a great ideal or a great horror, originally the very idea of Yugoslavia merely offered a practical solution to the Slavic western Balkans at the time of the collapse of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires following World War I. But interwar Yugoslavia with its Serbian kingship—and prime ministers who were generally Serb—proved unfair to the Croats and others. Of course, after World War II, Tito diminished the role of the Serbs, but because he did so in an authoritarian manner, as Jović says, no real demos ever emerged.
Ivana, the young philosophy student who is my guide, interjects with passion: “It is in fashion at my university nowadays to be pro-Tito, since the very word ‘Yugoslav,’ after so much war and ethnic cleansing, means simply to be a global cosmopolitan.”
“Tito was as bad as Stalin,” says Željko Tanjić, rector of the Catholic University here. “The problem of Western elites—the very same people who as university students manned the leftist barricades in 1968—is that they see the Fascists in World War II as absolutely evil, without contextualization. But they have all these contextualization’s, rationalizations, justifications, and explanations for Tito. To Western elites, Communism was a good idea that just happened to go wrong.
Meanwhile, Tito to them appears especially liberal compared to the other Communist leaders because he was independent of the Soviet Union,” Father Tanjić says, full of animation and excitement. “But Communism under Tito was still Communism. It still eliminated elites. Tito killed hundreds of priests and nuns. And Tito killed historical memory with his decades of repression, so that all these questions and all the problems of Communism continue unresolved in the former Yugoslavia—here in Croatia.”
Father Tanjić is exceedingly warm, with a friendly expression, sitting in a well-lit office with modern decor, his iPhone at the ready. Yet his positions on the concentration camp of Jasenovac, and on the controversial role of wartime Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac—a fascist collaborator in the view of the Serbs; a cleric who may have done too little, too late to help the victims of fascism, in the view of objective observers; and yet a martyr to the Croats—are the same positions as I heard three decades before in the last days of Yugoslavia from the austere and forbidding Monsignor Kokša in his office near the Cathedral. Like Kokša, Tanjić defends Stepinac and questions the statistics regarding the concentration camp of Jasenovac. Jasenovac was a tragedy but was Tito much better? he seems to suggest.
In crucial ways, Croatia remains unchanged: trapped in the issues surrounding national identity and war guilt that drain political energy and thus impede social and economic development.
The handsome, vaguely charismatic former center-left Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanović overflows with random knowledge about all the books he has read. Milanović, who would be elected Croatia’s president in 2020, tries hard to communicate complexity. He is intense and pedantic, a bit unusual for a politician. “It is important to realize,” he begins, “that we have not gone as far to the right as Poland and Hungary. Those governments convey the sheer desire to overwhelm institutions—the media, the courts—with a winner-take-all mentality. That has not happened here. We have only been flirting with the basest feelings of the electorate.”
Croatia, he continues, does have certain advantages, at least historically and geographically. “Remember, Croatia is the only Slavic polity in the world that is decisively maritime.” Poland and Bulgaria may have coastlines, but the sea does not define what they are. “Whereas Venice, without really colonizing us, opened us up to the world much more than any imperial power elsewhere in Europe.” Croatia’s potential is therefore still untapped, he implies. More accurately, Croatia, the academic historian Tvrtko Jakovina tells me, “is a country of distinct regions, that never functioned as a united entity under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.” The sea is only one, albeit a major, element in the Croatian historical experience. Because of this problematic identity—because of this very geographical unwieldiness—“there is a degree of insecurity here which expresses itself in right-wing, populist politics,” Jakovina explains.
I console myself with the hope that these conversations are period pieces only. The situation is bound to evolve, perhaps by the time the reader encounters these words on the page.
Excerpted from ADRIATIC copyright © 2022 by Robert D. Kaplan. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.