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Why does Croatia neglect its emigrants?

why does croatia neglect its emigrants diaspora

(Photo: Davor Denkovski/Unsplash)

The election law degrades them into second-class citizens. The diaspora is still perceived as a hotbed of extreme right-wingers.

By Wollfy Krašić 
Professor at the Department of Demography and Croatian Emigration at the Faculty of Croatian Studies, University of Zagreb.

The draft proposal of the Croatian National Development Strategy until 2030 was presented recently by the government. The document provoked a number of reactions from experts, primarily sections on demographic and economic issues. 

Within the demographic field, the issue of emigration is unjustifiably neglected, ie the issue of relations with Croats outside Croatia. Without a quality immigration policy, it is not possible to stop and then reverse the extremely negative demographic trends. In other words, even the best pro-natality measures in the country will not be enough for that.

Likewise, while various European Union funds are given almost sacrosanct significance and are the only salvation for Croatia, Croats outside Croatia are neglected as a natural and desirable economic partner. The draft proposal is a strategic document and cannot go into many details of the issue of relations with Croats living abroad. However, this is not an excuse to be extremely general and full of phrases and beautiful wishes that have been repeated for 30 years, almost without touching reality. The fact that this is not a final version of the document, but a draft proposal that must pass a public debate, also does not justify the low professional and scientific level of the document.

Amendments to the Election Law 

Therefore, the following text offers several guidelines for defining a strategic relationship with Croats outside Croatia, based on many years of scientific work with Croatian emigrants and contacts with a number of Croatian activists abroad and returnees. 

After the initial enthusiasm for the creation and defence of Croatia as an independent state, a process in which Croats abroad played a particularly important role, the volume of relations with Croatia and their satisfaction with them, primarily from Croatian emigrants in Western Europe and overseas, are rapidly declining. 

Today, many Croatian emigrants, especially those who have tried to achieve some cooperation with Croatia, are disappointed and indignant. 

The item that provokes perhaps the most such negative feelings is the current Election Law of Croatia, which ghettoises representatives of the diaspora into three fixed MPs in the Croatian Parliament, regardless of the turnout. 

Likewise, due to the enormous distances, they have to travel in order to exercise their right to vote, and the constant reduction in the number of places where they can exercise it further violates their fundamental rights in practice. This situation results in declining turnout in parliamentary elections (in the latter it was less than 16%). 

An additional problem is a fact that all three MPs reserved for Croats outside the Republic of Croatia are elected by Croatian citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that Croats who are an indigenous minority in neighbouring countries, especially Croatian emigrants, do not actually have their representatives in Parliament. 

A necessary step in improving relations with, again primarily Croatian emigrants, is a fundamental amendment to the Election Law, in which the votes of Croatian citizens in Argentina, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Australia will have the same weight as the votes of Croatian citizens in Croatia. Also, in order to solve the problem of long distances to polling stations and their small number, it is necessary to introduce electronic and correspondence voting. The election law currently in force degrades Croatian emigrants into second-class citizens and sends them a very clear message about how they are perceived by the Croatian authorities.

(Photo: HINA/ Velimir ILIĆ)

In the draft proposal, one of the sentences explaining how to work on stronger links with Croatian emigrants says: “Therefore, public policies will focus on accelerating economic growth, increasing social inclusion and justice, and creating a favourable environment for a stronger contribution of the diaspora to the demographic and economic potential of Croatia.” 

Such an approach does not give emigrants hope that they will really work on “increasing social inclusion and justice”.  The latter should be replaced by a clear statement that corruption and nepotism, as well as inefficient administration and a cumbersome state apparatus, are some of the main obstacles to co-operation and immigration. A number of recent scientific studies confirm this. 

Moreover, for a significant number of people from the latest wave of emigration, which began with Croatia’s accession to the EU, these items were the main drivers of emigration, rather than lower living standards and lower incomes compared to Ireland and Germany. The current Election Law and the lack of freedom of the individual in relation to the state, which is manifested in the field of relations between the Croatian authorities and Croatian emigrants and Croats abroad in general, puts the latter factor in a subordinate position. 

The vast majority of Croatian citizens outside Croatia, not counting those in Bosnia and Herzegovina, live in countries where there is a much higher degree of freedom between the individual and the state and where phenomena such as corruption and nepotism are less prevalent. Therefore, they refuse to implement the intended or initiated forms of cooperation with Croatia. The draft proposal talks about attracting successful Croats abroad, either in the form of cooperation in various fields or as a returnee. But this will not begin until the necessary preconditions are created – a radical reduction in the elements of the socialist way of functioning and thinking, as well as that associated with a system called savage capitalism, primarily in the fields of administration, judiciary and economy. 

As long as Croatian emigrants are forced to accept “playing by the rules” which are conditioned by the above-mentioned factors, which are unacceptable to them as residents of organised, western countries, to “bow their heads”, give bribes and “push” to get some permission or solve some administrative procedure or to wage a Kafka-esque struggle with the Croatian bureaucratic apparatus, their return is a mere illusion. 

The superior attitude towards emigrants is also evident from the part of the sentence that speaks of creating a favourable environment “for a stronger contribution of the diaspora to the economic and demographic potential of Croatia.” Where are the interests and needs of emigrants? Not a word about that. What’s in it for us, practical Americans of Croatian descent ask?

Establishing mutual trust

A number of indicators suggest that the gaps between Croats outside and inside Croatia have not been bridged with the creation of an independent Croatian state, as expected, but have even deepened. That is why it is necessary for the Croatian authorities, in addition to structural changes in the functioning of the Croatian state, to make a series of symbolic gestures towards Croats outside Croatia, primarily emigrants, in order to try to bridge these deep abysses. 

What we definitely need to work on is breaking down the prevailing prejudices about Croatian emigrants, most of whom date back to communist Yugoslavia, when some emigrants who left the country were demonised and persecuted for political reasons and collectively declared Ustaša, ​​fascists and terrorists. However, people who emigrated primarily for economic reasons, for which the term guest workers became common, also became victims of stereotyping, for example as allegedly unsuccessful people, who had to emigrate because they were unable to become a productive part of Yugoslav communist society. 

Even today, part of the political elites and the public view a good part of the Croatian diaspora as radical right-wingers and extremists. In fact, the minority that still idealistically, despite all obstacles, still tries to nurture different ties with the homeland, is primarily interested in removing various and numerous obstacles that seriously hinder their path to achieving this goal, and not some of the ideological and worldview topics. which occupy Croatian society.

The reasons that prevent stronger cooperation between Croatians abroad and Croatia are the same reasons that cause new waves of emigrants. What prevents some emigrated Croats and their descendants from returning is identical to what force some Croats in the homeland to emigrate. 

Therefore, the liberalisation of the state-individual relationship and the fight against corruption and nepotism is a common goal of all Croats outside Croatia who want to establish any cooperation with Croatia, and especially to return back, and also of the majority of the Croatian people, or those that do not enjoy the fruits of participation in the functioning of the current system in which elements of late socialism and savage capitalism of the 1990s are strongly represented.

As in the Homeland War, today the basic goal of Croats in and outside Croatia is the same. In the early 1990s, this was the freedom of the Croatian state, and today what was also to be achieved at that time was the freedom of the individual in relation to the state. 

Croatian political emigrants, in an effort to draw their attention to the unresolved Croatian issue in Yugoslavia during the second half of the 1970s and 1980s, warned foreign politicians and the public of examples of human rights violations and political persecution of Croats at home. They tried to overcome the West’s misunderstanding of the position of the Croatian people in communist Yugoslavia by linking the Croatian question to a topic that has been at the centre of world politics since the mid-1970s – human rights. They connected the right of the individual to fundamental rights and freedoms with the right of the people to freedom, to self-determination. The conclusion was – the freedom of the people (in the form of a nation-state) is inextricably linked to the freedom of the individual. Although a sovereign and free Croatian state were established, a significant part of its citizens remained in the shackles of the failed Yugoslav communist regime, as well as the new ones, which were forged during the 1990s. And that is why – the struggle for a free Croatia continues today – in the form of a struggle for the freedom of all its citizens, in Croatia and in the world. 

Some believe that Croatian citizens living abroad should not have the right to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections, so the first paragraph of this text can be seen as a narrow interest of Croats outside Croatia, with which Croatian citizens in Croatia have nothing to do with. However, the current Election Law is unfair for many of them, and changing it would contribute to the growth of the level of democracy in Croatia. 

Correspondence and electronic voting would increase voter turnout, which would increase the legitimacy of elected members of Parliament and the President of the Republic. The current division into constituencies is unfair not only to the diaspora, which is limited to the 11th constituency but also to the residents of some other constituencies, as there has been a significant imbalance in the number of votes needed to elect a member of parliament among constituencies. More freedom and democracy – is the common interest of Croats abroad and a large number of Croats in Croatia.

Clear immigration policy 

Although a strategic document, the Draft Proposal had to speak more specifically about the ways in which the Republic of Croatia intends to establish stronger cooperation with Croats abroad and encourage some Croatian emigrants and their descendants to return. 

While the change of the Election Law and liberalisation are necessary preconditions for initiating these processes, moves such as various forms of tax relief for those who want to open businesses in the Republic of Croatia, giving land in concession and real estate at affordable prices in demographically devastated areas are measures to build the immigration policy. 

Potential immigrants must have at their disposal, in one place, all the basic information on how to start living, studying and working in Croatia. Various state institutions must be at their service in solving numerous administrative problems.

Croats outside Croatia are an extremely heterogeneous category. The approach of government already at the strategic level must be differentiated; one cannot approach, offer cooperation in different fields and possibly encourage immigration to Croatia in the same way to a fifth-generation Croat in Chile whose grandfather did not use the Croatian language, as to someone who went to Germany during the 1960s to work, or an indigenous Burgenland Croat in Austria or a member of the latest emigration wave to Ireland. Equal access to these so different members of the Croatian nation and the descendants of Croats cannot bring much success.

The different positions, and then the needs of Croats, are also visible among Croats living in the surrounding countries. Croats in Bosnian and Herzegovina are a constituent people, but due to the increasingly difficult political situation, they are on the way to being turned into a national minority by the political elites of the other two nations. Croats in Serbia as a national minority are also subject to various forms of political pressure. Of these, the far smaller Croatian community in Montenegro may find itself in a similar position. Croats in Slovenia do not even have a recognised status as a national minority. Molise Croats in Italy and Karasev Croats in Romania have other problems, easily facing complete assimilation in a few decades. Such a fate with much greater prospects threatens the few Croats in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Draft Proposal highlights the higher standard of living of the countries in which they currently live as an obstacle to the return of Croats from abroad.

This statement is incorrect and is a consequence of the undifferentiated view of Croats outside Croatia. By more concrete actions and clear attention to Croats in some South American countries, the Croatian authorities have so far undoubtedly been able to attract some Croats there, ie descendants of Croats to schooling, various specialisations and training, and then some to remain permanently in Croatia. 

An elaborate immigration policy, even without a significant increase in standards in the Republic of Croatia, would certainly attract at least some descendants of Croats in, for example, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador or Paraguay. The grave omission of the Croatian authorities is the lack of a concrete approach towards Venezuelan Croats at the time when the severe political and economic crisis in that country began. It is very likely that some of them would be at least temporarily ready to seek refuge in the land of their ancestors.

A significant number of Croats in South Africa are also affected by various forms of instability in that country and it is possible that some of them would react positively to the Croatian authorities’ offer to immigrate, offering various benefits. Some Croats in the more developed countries of South America – Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, might be interested in cooperating with the Republic of Croatia and obtaining Croatian citizenship, due to Croatia’s membership in the EU. 

Even without a significant increase in living standards, but with a promising immigration policy and fairer treatment of emigrants and society in general, Croatia could be attractive to Croats and their descendants from the most developed Western European countries or the United States, whose cities are affected by high crime and violence, pollution or have recently been targeted by terrorists. In addition to the mentioned policies, security and the possibility of leading a healthier life in Croatia, the issue of lower incomes compared to the West could be pushed into the background.

In the Draft Proposal, only one sentence is dedicated to this issue: “The design and implementation of new targeted programs and measures will be encouraged in accordance with the needs, specifics and position of Croats in the countries in which they live.” Given the current practice, insufficient attention in the document, and not very decisive choice of words (the state “encourages” various things, and few really “encourages”), one should not be optimistic about the differentiated approach of the Croatian authorities to Croats outside Croatia in this decade. 

Croatia must invest more money in the education of Croats abroad who have an affinity for the fields of science and activity. Croatia encourages the study of Croats abroad in Croatia and in this sense awards scholarships. However, the process of obtaining a scholarship is too bureaucratic and time-consuming, and many Croatian communities have not even heard about the possibilities of studying in Croatia. It is in the strategic interest of the Croatian state to educate and educate new generations of the Croatian intellectual elite abroad, which will be a leader in preserving the Croatian identity among Croats scattered around the world.

In the last few years, Croatian emigrants have come into the focus of a number of Croatian scientists from the humanities and social sciences. Scientific conferences and congresses are held, proceedings, scientific monographs, scientific and professional articles are published. However, in this part of the scientific community, there is a belief that state structures do not listen to the achievements of scientific research. Senior officials, or those of any level of executive and legislative power, can hardly be seen at scientific gatherings on emigration or when presenting collections of papers and books on the subject. 

There is often a statement from the authorities, which has already become a stepping stone, about the need for a stronger connection between education, science and the economy, referring to the natural and technical sciences and health. Therefore, it is worth asking why the government does not want to apply the same principle to the humanities and social sciences, in this context regarding the results of scientific research on Croats outside Croatia. Such behaviour is not only detrimental to the vital interests of Croatia but also humiliates the mentioned scientists, diminishing the scope of their work. 

Scientific papers are not published just so that they can be read by a narrow circle of scientists, ie so that students have more exam literature. They are also published in order to provide a scientific basis for the formation of state policies, in this case towards Croats outside Croatia.

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