03/29/2013 08:50 am ET Updated May 29, 2013

Democracy Is Not Enough

It has not been easy for the countries of East-Central Europe to establish stable, functioning democracies. Strong-arm leaders -- like Victor Orban in Hungary or, until recently, Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic -- have persistent appeal. Corruption has claimed any number of political victims, from Adrian Nastase in Romania to Janez Jansa in Slovenia. And the continuing economic crisis has undermined even otherwise popular governments, as Boyko Borisov recently discovered in Bulgaria when his government was forced to resign after days of massive protests over energy prices and deteriorating living standards.

Croatia has suffered from all three of these jolts to the political system. It was led by a former Communist-era general with an authoritarian bent, Franjo Tudjman, until his death in 1999. Former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, along with other members of his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party went on trial last April on charges of stealing millions of dollars from state-owned enterprises, which ended with a 10-year jail sentence for Sanader.

And after the financial crisis hit, the Croatian economy entered one of the worst slumps in its short history. In 2012, the economy contracted by 2 percent after three years of earlier stagnation and contraction. The unemployment rate is hovering near 22 percent. The center-left Kukuriku ruling coalition of four parties, led by the Social Democratic Party, is struggling to keep Croatia above water even as it imposes austerity measures to meet the demands of the EU and the IMF.
Political analyst, philosopher, and human rights activist Zarko Puhovski has been a consistent critic of nationalism, authoritarianism, and economic folly in Croatia. He's relieved that the country has weathered the worst of it, but he remains particularly concerned about the failure of the political system to address social problems.

"We have something quite like a functioning democracy," he told me in an interview in Zagreb in October. "But after 2007-8, we had to learn the hard way that this is not enough. We have to take care of society, not just community. Democracy cannot support the exploitation of people, massive fraud, a system in which people cannot survive. They have the right to vote. They don't vote for fascist or crypto-fascists any more. But they have nothing to eat. Almost eight percent of the whole population is unemployed. This is the tragedy. This democracy we were fighting so much for, when we have more or less achieved it, many people think of it as just bourgeois democracy that doesn't solve social problems. It's criminally disinterested in social problems."

He doesn't see much on the political horizon in Croatia that will address these social problems. The opposition Labor Party remains small; the "direct democracy" movement didn't translate its message into a concrete program. Worse perhaps have been the democratic deficits that persist on the regional and global level. The EU, he confessed, is looking more and more like the former Yugoslavia in terms of its governance structure while economically it has begun to favor banks over people. At the international level, only Americans can vote for the U.S. president, even though the White House ends up having a profound effect on the lives of people all around the world. Only global politics, for instance a global parliament, can rectify this imbalance.

Puhovski has revised his thinking over the years: on Yugoslavia, on nationalism, on liberal politics. This is my third interview with him over the last 23 years. I've included the previous two from 1990 and 2008 to show the evolution in his thinking.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Zagreb coming back from my lecture, and a friend of mine from Berlin telephoned to tell me. She was absolutely thrilled. I said, "It's about time, but we'll see what the costs will be." Years after that, she told me that she was shocked because my response was far from enthusiastic. But I'm very proud of this reaction. I've always been discussing these costs, talking about who is in the rubble of the Berlin Wall, literally and symbolically.

Eight years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was in Poland, because my family on my father's side is Polish and I could speak some Polish. I came back and published an article in December 1981. After this socialist-communist system, I wrote, we might see something worse. At the time, I was shocked to see young people in Gdansk and Warsaw discussing the percentage of Jewish blood in Politburo members and Jews controlling the Politburo. You could see the same thing in Croatia, people talking about the number of Serbs in the Politburo controlling things.

In late 1988, I spoke to Franjo Tudjman. I knew him privately. His son was in high school with me for four years. I slept over his house several times. So, in late 1988, at that time we organized the first Yugoslav alternative organization. Tudjman was about to start the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). I was talking to him and his son Miro and two other guys, and I thought to myself that Tudjman's talking about the future of Croatia but he's an old guy. And then he said, "Within a year, I will be president." I thought he was a lunatic. But I was the lunatic! By spring 1989, Tudjman had really become someone who would play an important role. Since I knew him as a totalitarian person, not as a nationalist, I thought that this new period would not be better.

You know the old Jewish formulation: what comes after this moment can only be worse than this moment. I had this feeling already in spring 1989 that nationalism was flourishing. I spent my whole activist life since the 1960s acting against the ethno-nationalist point of view. At the same time, from my own intellectual, personal, and political point of view, I saw that the liberal position we used against the old system, which was the only position we had at that time, might become a source of trouble.

So, basically I was happy about the fall of the Berlin Wall. But I had some worries about the future without knowing really what would happen.

What was the moment in the 1960s that you began to act against ethno-nationalism?

Basically it started in 1966 when I first went to Germany as a student, and I found out what a lousy position a small nation like Croatia had even within a group of leftist internationalists. I was sitting with people like Rudi Dutschke, and they were all making jokes about Yugoslavia.

At the same time, I knew what was going on inside Yugoslavia. At that time, Yugoslavia didn't have diplomatic relations with West Germany, so the Swedish embassy was acting on behalf of Yugoslavia. Every other Saturday, their office was open for Yugoslav citizens. The guest workers were perplexed because all the documents they had to sign coming from Belgrade were printed in Cyrillic script. I sometimes spent hours sometimes translating for them. They'd offer me 10 German marks, which was a lot of money back then and which I refused.

But the point is that the Yugoslav state was acting on behalf of one group while the attitude of the other group was suddenly stuck in 1941. The Croats were saying that Belgrade had been doing this since 1945, since 1928! No one mentioned the simple fact that the state was doing something wrong through the state apparatus. Instead, they talked about a conspiracy against the Croats going back to 1928 at least. This put me in a very unpleasant position: to argue against this position without justifying this stupid practice of the Yugoslav ministry. That's when I understood how deep this all was going and how important it was for me to try to deny the logic behind this ethno-nationalist point of view.

Were you here in Zagreb during the Croatian Spring?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.