THE BLOG

The Spread of Tolerance

If it bleeds, it leads.

That's the slogan in the newspaper business. War, crime, disaster: these are big sellers. East-Central Europe was on the front page of U.S. newspapers when there was a war going on in former Yugoslavia. If a politician or oligarch gets assassinated in one of the countries in the region, it will make an unhappy return to the headlines. And every time there's an outbreak of extremist violence -- attacks against Roma, a synagogue bombing -- the foreign desk will take note.

But the spread of tolerance is, for the most part, not newsworthy. "Serbs and Croats Now Get Along" might merit a short article in a U.S. media outlet, but it's not going to be a ten-part series in USA Today. Nor will it merit documentary treatment on PBS or engage a dozen Huffington Post columnists in furious counter-commentary.

European news media are more interested in the narrative of reconciliation. The European Union, after all, is all about burying hatchets and moving on. So, for instance, veteran reporter Tim Judah wrote a piece for BBC on improved Serb-Croat relations that cites residual tensions but points out that "in the last [Croatian] government a Serbian party was part of the ruling coalition, while today several Serbs are ministers or in prominent roles."

As of July 1, Croatia is now a member of the European Union. At the celebrations in Zagreb, Serbian Prime Minister Tomislav Nikolic was on hand to toast the new EU member. And Croatia has pledged to help Serbia with its own EU application. To make it into the Euroclub, it has been vitally important for Croatia to escape the image it had in the 1990s of an intolerant, war-torn country.

Ivo Goldstein, a historian and currently Croatian ambassador to France, believes that Croatia has essentially become a different country. Despite lingering signs of intolerance - such as some of the rhetoric surrounding the dismissal of war crimes charges against Croatian general Ante Gotovina -- the latest EU member has witnessed a veritable blossoming of tolerance.

"So, for instance, you see that Serbian pop singers are singing all over Croatia," Goldstein told me back in October, shortly after he'd learned of his ambassadorial appointment. "According to polls on Facebook, the most Facebook friends of Croats are Bosnians, Serbs, and Slovenes. Speaking about the relations of the Serbs and Croats in the 20th century and before, it's not only the history of hatred. It is the history of love and hatred. Some elements of love, or at least sympathy, have become visible once again. Recently we had the first piece in Zagreb of the great Serbian drama writer Branislav Nusic. And last year there was Miroslav Krieza, the most significant Croatian writer of the 20th century, and his piece Gospoda Glembajevi at a Belgrade theatre. The cultural connections are not as intensive as they were before the war in the 1990s, but something is going on. Nobody speaks about Serbian tourists coming to Croatia as a problem. There have been no attacks as there were some five or 10 years ago. And then it was 100,000 Serbian tourists, and one or two cars would be attacked with a piece of stone."

Goldstein, the author of an excellent history of Croatia, has also been a leader of the Jewish community in the country. Even when anti-Semitism has flared up, for instance around a book tour by Auschwitz survivor Branko Lustig, the response from government officials was quick. "Scandals of this kind can happen," Goldstein concludes. "But then there is a reaction that shows that we have passed certain tests in developing democracy."

We talked about why the EU represents the best option for Croatia, the renaming of the central square in Zagreb, the imperative of redesigning the Bosnian state, and what, if anything, has changed with his football team since the last time we talked four years ago.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I remember it very well because I became a father on November 4. Also, at that time (in spring 1989), I was among the first 40 or 50 co-founders of the Croatian Social Liberal Party. Initially the party had a core of 27 founders and then in the next couple of weeks more people were joining and I was among them. In October 1989, we organized a gathering at the main square here in Zagreb, which was called then the Square of the Republic but was renamed shortly after that the Square of Ban Jelačić. That was the name that it had before 1945. We were gathering in the square to ask the authorities to put back the statue of Ban Jelačić, which the Communist authorities removed after the war after 1945.

The statue was just sitting around in pieces, wasn't it?


Yes, it was hidden somewhere in the museum. Jelačić was an Austrian general, commander of the troops in the war of 1848/9 against the Hungarian revolution. Karl Marx in his day designated Jelačić as a counterrevolutionary. That is why in Zagreb the statue of Ban Jelačić was removed and throughout Croatia streets and squares named after Jelačić were renamed. Jelačić was a symbol of suppressed Croatian national feeling. But he was not a Croatian chauvinist, because his troops included Serbs as well as Croats. We were protesting against the general attitude of the socialistic authorities toward history, toward remaking the history according to their own biases.

I'm not ashamed of certain things I was doing. But taking into account that I'm 22 years older and I may be a little more intelligent than I was then and taking into account the things that happened in the 1990s and all that happened over the last 20 or so years, well maybe I would do some things differently. At least I wouldn't be so happy that communism has fallen and that a new era of democracy is coming, because we were confronted with numerous challenges. First of all, there is the challenge of social injustice, of poverty, a challenge that I thought we would overcome many years ago but which is going on not only here in Croatia but throughout the region - in Bosnia, Serbia, even Slovenia (where I didn't think it would be a problem, but it is) as well as in Hungary and Italy, not to mention Greece.

So, the whole region is stricken by the economic crisis, and it's not only linked with ex-communist problems or problems of transition. It is a much deeper crisis, and the public here in Croatia and elsewhere doesn't understand this. Generally speaking, there is a problem with the nature of capitalism on the one hand, and on the other hand it's the problem that Europe is losing the importance that it had over the last centuries.

Here in Croatia, we've been a member of NATO for several years. In few days, from July 1, 2013, Croatia will be a member of the European Union. But we also have unemployment of 19%. Many people are not satisfied with the situation here, and more than 50 percent of the young population would like to find a job and live outside Croatia. So these are the obvious problems.

Croatian intellectuals always have an explanation for the problems this country experienced. We were living together with Austrians and Hungarians for 800 years and the only thing we needed was to become independent, so in 1918 we got rid of Austria and Hungary. Then we got Belgrade and the attitude was: we need to get rid of the Serbs because Belgrade is creating all the problems. So, in 1991, we got rid of Belgrade and then we had four years of wars. That was four years of destruction and instability, but okay, it finished in 1995. So now we have 17 years without Belgrade or Budapest or Vienna, and now you can say that we are in the middle of nowhere.

Do you think that it's just a matter of time after accession to the EU that people will say they don't want to have Brussels either?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.