“I was absolutely adamant that people who were worse than me, and dumber than me, and crooks, unlike me, were not going to decide on my country and my life.”
In January 2011 and October 2011 Vesna Pusic gave two long interviews to ESI in Zagreb, which served as the basis for her ESI portrait. You can read more about Pusic in the sections below
- Political engagement during the dark 1990s (January 2011)
- Family background (January 2011)
- Croatian state building, the EU and Croatia’s first political consensus (January 2011)
- The National Committee for Monitoring the Accession Negotiations (January 2011)
- Judicial reform (January 2011)
- Corruption (January 2011)
- Finishing accession negotiations (October 2011)
- Croatia’s dream team and lessons for other accession countries (October 2011)
- The new nationalist discourse of the HDZ (October 2011)
1. Political engagement during the dark 1990s (January 2011)
1989 was probably the freest year of our lives here. Not because there was a good government, but because there was no government. It was extremely dangerous, but we did not realize it, really. I mean now when I look at it my hair stands on end but at that time you sort of thought: “Oh, you could do whatever you want, you could say whatever you want”. Basically it was the night before the storm. And then we thought – in 1990 we thought – that everything was possible. And so many people went into politics. And I never thought I would go into politics … but then in 1990 there was this feeling: “You could do anything!” It proved subsequently that you are so determined by your past that your options are pretty predefined for you in some ways. And I went like so many other people who went into … this democracy! You could do, you could have parties, you could have different ideas, you could have…everything is open. It was a fantastic experience and feeling.
Pretty soon it became clear that … Croatian politics was dominated by this one party and unfortunately the majority of people who have the right to vote in Croatia never voted for that party. Never. The highest, which is pretty high, ever got of the people who actually went out to vote was 43%. And this 43% was actually 34% of the entire population who had the right to vote. It’s big, no question, but it is still the minority of the entire Croatian population. But we were in some kind of shell shock at that time: the war came and everything … and no political party actually wanted to represent this majority that did not want to vote for this party. So all the political parties were in some ways imitating Tudjman and the HDZ, or somehow being a lighter version of that. Maybe a childhood disease of democracy … They all were competing for the same segment of Croatia’s electorate, instead of going for the others. Since I am a sociologist and a sociologist of politics I was arguing then that we should go and do all kind of things, but people mostly looked at me as if I had three heads.
So I saw that everything was going way too slowly. And then decided, with a few, actually two friends of mine, Slavko Goldstein and Ozren Žunec, to form this “Erasmus Gilde”. It was a strange oasis at a horrible time. It was the worst years of the wars in Croatia and later in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were in the dark tunnel: with Tudjman in full swing and all his aids who were, some of them, even worse, like Gojko Susak, the former minister of defence. Tragedies happening all over the country. In the end, the results of Tudjman’s politics, Croatia getting involved in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the war between Croats and Bosniaks. It was beyond words how horrible that was for everybody. And consequences still exist today of that and people are paying the price for that, today.
So we started this journal called “Erasmus” … We were selling 3.000 of this very high-brow political journal. We organized round tables, including the first round table in November 1993, I think, called “Serbs and Croats” which was the first time after the war or since the war begun that Serbs and Croats who were actually against the war … got together. Serbia and Croatia where at war and we had no diplomatic relations. These people were not recognized in Croatia. It was a big risk operation but they, academics, writers, 14 top intellectuals from Serbia, eventually walked across the Serbian border to get on to a bus to be driven to Zagreb. It was a very dramatic thing. We were attacked by some of the journalists, who yelled “aren’t you ashamed of yourself” and stuff like that. But it was a breakthrough. After that nobody who talked to the other side could be prescribed anymore. It was a great thing.
We also wrote an open letter to that time President Tudjman asking him to resign because of his policies in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was I think published in September 1993 in our journal …
We did politics, I would say, of a different kind in dark years here where party politics was not very productive … We preserved the existence of a dissenting opinion, of different opinions, of a different position through the dark years. So actually when this was drawing to the end, we had something to build on. You could say: “No, even in the worst of times there were different voices in Croatia, there were actually people who did think differently and spoke out”. And I think this was a great service and certainly a great way to survive some of the years that were otherwise intellectually and psychologically difficult to survive in Zagreb and in some parts of Croatia.
And then in 1996 I was offered a visiting professorship (throughout I was also teaching at the university in Zagreb). I was invited and given a guest professorship at the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University in Washington DC. This was a fantastic year where I taught a number of courses …
We decided that we were going to go back and I in that case I was going to go into politics because 1997 it became clear that gradually multi-party politics was going to become possible in Croatia. It wasn’t quite possible yet but there were signs that it was going to become possible. And I was absolutely adamant that people who were worse than me, and dummer than me and crooks unlike me are not going to decide on my country and my life. This was my very simple minded key motivation. And this is how I joined. I had my old party, I never left this party, I just wasn’t active at all …
Then we gradually started profiling and articulating our party as a liberal party. In modern politics in Europe People’s Parties are the conservative parties, but in Croatia’s political history, the People’s Party in the 19th century was actually the Croatian liberal party. The Croatian party that was based on the Enlightenment, like all the liberals parties of the 19th century, that had a lot of people who were sort of Croatia’s political Enlightenment.
2. Family background (January 2011)
We had this family that always had very lively discussions and everything and mostly everybody had a very strong opinion, if possible, different from everybody else. So from a very early stage you learned that you had to have your own opinion and you had to know why. Regardless of your age, you had the right to participate in every discussion and say whatever you want, but you better knew what you were talking about. I remember when I was a first year student or at the end of my high school years and we were discussing something at lunch and I had just discovered the Austrian socialists, the theorists, and I went on and on about how Karl Ka-Otsky did this, and Karl Ka-Otsky said that, and Karl Ka-Otsky … and my father was eating soup. And after a while he looked at me over his glasses and said: “Do you think that somebody who calls Karl Kautzky Karl Ka-Otsky could actually discuss his writings?”
3. Croatian state building, the EU and Croatia’s first political consensus (January 2011)
Croatia had no experience of having a State. I thought from the very beginning that we should embark on a dual process: a state building process which is also a Member State building process. I thought that we have this opportunity which is unique at the time of state building. We actually had a usable blueprint, a structured experience from at least 15 countries or maybe even 20 countries: how they went about building institutions; how they went about making them accountable and efficient. This was a great opportunity.
It didn’t work unfortunately for 10 years, and it took us 14 years to reach political consensus on the EU. But we started the process in the year 2000/2001 with the Stabilization and Association Agreement that was then ratified, against the opposition of that time who walked out of the Croatian Parliament, led by Ivo Sanader, who was the head of HDZ at that time. They left the Assembly, they did not even want to vote against, they did not want to be present.
At that time it looked such a long way … We, who we were very much in favour of that, did know that it would be impossible to achieve this goal if we were not able to reach a political consensus. But from that perspective it looked completely undoable. Political consensus with these guys who were at the first step leaving the Parliament looked like impossible.
Those of us that have been actively involved, and I think almost everybody else also in Croatia who has, in greater or less details, been following the whole process are quite frustrated by the whole process lasting so long and have this feeling that is going on forever, you know: 10, 11 years…
But actually if you look at Croatia the way it was 10, 11 years ago and the way it looks now, in every aspect, it is a different country. I think I can say that with absolute certainty that it is a different country precisely because of the EU accession process. Because if it wasn’t for the EU accession process, I think we wouldn’t have succeeded in all of the key turning points that we had. And we had quite a bit of them, you know.
Our first one was certainly, of course, ratifying the SAA and negotiating it and then taking the responsibility to implement it. But internally the key thing happened in 2004, after the HDZ who was in opposition from January 2000 to December 2003, led by Ivo Sanader, won the elections. They were in opposition and they were against the EU. They were very nationalistic, which in Croatia means very anti-Serb, and they were very much against Croatia’s cooperation with the ICTY, the Hague Tribunal; to the extent to which, when Mirko Norac – a war criminal who was subsequently in Croatian Courts convicted of war crimes – was on the run, they had a rally – some say 150,000, some say 200,000 people – in Split in 2001 I think, when Ivo Sanader gave the key speech: “We will not cooperate, we will not let our boys, etc., our generals stand trial”.
This was the atmosphere. And they won basically on that ticket. After they won, they turned around on these two, or I would say I think more precisely: Sanader turned around. And he had at that time enormous influence in his party for one reason: because he brought them back to power. And he turned around and turned his party around on three issues: they were against Croatia’s membership in the EU, now they were for Europe; they were against Serbs, now they were for Serbs – I mean in terms of having normal relations and respecting multi ethnicity and respecting the institutions of the other ethnicities; and they were against cooperation with the Hague, now they were for cooperation with the Hague.
Sanader has turned out to be an extremely suspicious character in the meantime; the whole Court procedure is in process so we will see how it turns out. What is proven, what is not proven, what is true, what is not true, but suspicions are there. But regardless of that, these three things were and always will be his contribution to Croatia’s development … The fact that it might be proven that he has done damage doesn’t eliminate the fact that these three things – turning his party around completely by 180 degrees on these three things – has helped us as a great deal. And that has enabled us to build, our first and so far only, political consensus. Since we are a young State, we don’t have much experience of having multi-party politics, let alone building political consensus across party lines. And our first political consensus is on the EU.
To illustrate the change along the way, and these are things that are very often not even noticed. We were supposed to start negotiations. We became a candidate country and then we were supposed to start negotiations in March of 2005. And this was postponed. We did not start negotiations because of the Gotovina case and we finally started negotiations in the night between the 3 and 4 October 2005. When Mirko Norac was on the run, there was this huge rally of 150,000-200,000 people in Split with key politicians of the opposition present there, calling for the overthrow the government … This was 2001.
When Gotovina in 2005 was finally caught and sent to The Hague, there were 19 people demonstrating in front of the Court House in Rijeka. One-nine! Because the society, the people, have moved on. This was not their Croatian society’s identity issue – so to speak – anymore. People realised that, you know, you can have war in which you defend yourself, in which basically you are in the right, in the sense of having the right to defend your country and your territory and your institutions, but it doesn’t mean that any kind of crimes or suspicion of crimes should be left unclear and unprocessed. This is no longer something that will make you win or loose elections in Croatia. Again this is something that I think the EU process helped.
4. The National Committee for Monitoring the Accession Negotiations (January 2011)
The National Committee was formed through a lucky coincidence. It was formed as the result of the overall euphoria in 2004, when we actually reached our first political consensus on the EU strategy. So the National Committee was agreed upon between then Prime Minister Sanader and the person who was leader of the Social Democrats and who was Prime Minister before that, Račan. Račan was basically on the sunset of his political career. In early 2005 they formed this National Committee and gave it considerable powers. Actually this was during the last year of Racan’s life, more or less. And during his mandate – he was the first head of the National Committee –we reached this consensus and it was called the “Alliance for Europe.” Our negotiation process hasn’t really started until the end of 2005 so, you know, back then we hadn’t much to do.
After the elections in 2007, when we were forming again the new Parliament, because of some bickering and competition, more within the opposition that within the Government, in the end I was elected the Chair of the National Committee. I was always seen as a very pro-EU person. I was in opposition and the Head of the National Committee, among other things (The chair is always – based on the rules and procedures – from an opposition party). Of course it is important that these people are basically in favour of the project. But in this euphoria, before we started negotiations, it wasn’t really clear how those things were going to look like.
Our parliamentary committees do not have real power, it is always whatever the committee majority decides and so the government side decides, as it has a majority in all the committees. But the National Committee was given this one rule, within the rules and procedures, that it had the obligation to approve each and every of our 33 negotiating positions. Any negotiating position or change of the negotiating position could not be sent to Brussels without the approval of the National Committee. And the National Committee had to approve it unanimously which meant that in practice every of the 15 parliamentary members of the Committee (the four outside members did not have voting rights) in effect has a veto over the entire EU accession process of Croatia. A single NO vote stops the process, a single NO vote. Not the majority, no: just one person voting no.
This was of course a big risk. In our case I think it paid off. It gave us real leverage in Parliament. The people who are members of National Committee are basically the most, let’s say, respected members of Parliament from respective parties. And then there are the Head of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Head of the EU Integration Committee and the Head of the Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, ex officio members.
In our case, luckily, this actually really great influence that Members of Parliament got through this, didn’t result in chaos and the blocking of the whole process which it easily could have. But it resulted in everybody starting to behave way more responsibly: both the Parliamentarians and the Government. And that meant that the Parliamentarians objected, unlike what we do in the General Assembly of our Parliament, were people fight, jump up and down … parliamentarians objected only when they absolutely could not live with the wording or the position or something which they thought that was absolutely unacceptable. And then amended the negotiating position. And the representatives of the government accepted every single amendment that came from the Committee and objection, and modified the position.
ESI: How frequent were they?
It depended on the chapter. On some chapters there were none, on some there were quite a few. Taxation for instance there were quite a few … let me see, consumer protection, environment … In this manner we have actually passed all the 33 negotiating positions through our Committee. We have also started something that did not exist before, because the National Committee sits in camera, in close sessions for different reasons. I am ambivalent about it. I think we would not have hurt if we would have open sessions but on some issues I have to have this agreement with the Government and I have to have this consensus so … you have to actually be a politician …
ESI: Are you sitting alone or actually did you have the chief negotiator or someone from the Government also present?
Always! The chief negotiator and negotiator for the given chapter with all their collaborators and staff: always there; members of the Government, depending on what we are discussing: always there. At least a State Secretary from the Foreign Ministry, a few times the Foreign Minister, a few times the Prime Minister.
Besides our main function of monitoring the entire accession process, in practice to pass and amend the negotiating positions, we are organizing round tables that are open for the general public and for the media on certain areas of negotiations or chapters or areas within certain chapters – like for instance environment. We had a round table on waste management and there we invite stakeholders, we invite the general public, we invite the media and everybody who was invited came. We had to keep a limited number, because we do not have that much space. But it is a very good thing. We have also decided that if we are to fulfill our key function, which is in the name of the Parliament overseeing the entire process, we need to have direct communication with everybody who is part of that process, which means the Croatian Government, the Croatian negotiators, but also the Commission side, the Commissioner and the Commissioners, certainly the Enlargement Commissioner but also all the others regarding the respective chapters, and also the Presidency of the Union and the Member States when need be…
The powers of the committee are crucial. And of course it is a risk; and to speak quite honestly you have to be careful: you have the Head of the Committee and the people who are in the Committee … they can disagree politically, but they have to agree on the fact that they want their country become a member of the EU. There cannot be all kind of mavericks that will use their position in the committee for scoring three political points here or there, playing short-term political games. If you have that you are dead. Then don’t have a National Committee. But if you have a sufficient number of people in opposition and Government who are seriously dedicated to this goal, [then it is very useful,] however much they might disagree, and we disagreed on a lot of things: we had the issue of Slovenia, Gotovina, of this ecological protection zone for fishing.
The whole process, I would say, also made us, politically, much more mature.
5. Judicial reform (January 2011)
We have also managed, and here implementation is a big issue, we have also managed to my great surprise and great joy, to put a lot of efforts to transform the foundations on which our is judiciary built. And this chapter – judiciary and basic rights – and I want to thank Romania here for actually, in some way, motivating the EU and Commission to introduce this chapter, because it has helped us as a great deal. It has helped us to push through certain changes which if you have a politically influenced and dysfunctional judiciary you can not change on your own as a political system. Because you have two pressures: you have the pressure from abroad and people who work on a very theoretical level saying “Ah politics can not get involved in judiciary”, so no meddling of politicians in the judiciary and everything you do or say is interfering with the independence of the judiciary and on the other hand you know that this entire judiciary was highly influenced by the processes in the ’90s. And we were all yelling against this judiciary because it was biased, because it was passing verdicts based on political pressure, because politicians brought in their relatives, their landsmen, their schoolmates. People were fired who were qualified, people who were not qualified were brought in. It was devastating. War is devastating for everything, but for fine tuned institutions like judiciary it’s murder. And then in the night between the 3 and 4 January 2000 when the coalition won and Croatia for the first time changed the parties in government, all these people were transformed into untouchable professionals. There was – and still is – enormous resistance within the judiciary in Croatia. Of course, there are some excellent people, first-class people in this judiciary, but there are some … ehm, ehm – it is hard to be at the same time polite and accurate – some pretty horrible characters; in some cases in really high places.
The irony is that today the issue is not or only to some extent between or among different parties in Croatia, parties of the government and parties of the opposition. To some extent we disagree on these things, but the main issue is between the people in politics from different parties who want these changes in the judiciary, and some people from within the judicial system who are fighting tooth and nail. Because they have enormous influence on the entire system and when I say system it is first the judiciary and second politics and everything else.
The key body that appoints and promotes all the judges was, and at the moment still, is called State Judicial Council. The one that we have at the moment has been elected by politics, which means parliamentary majority, which in effect means HDZ, which in effect means a few people in the HDZ who are interested in this topic. They actually could make completely arbitrary decisions, they were not accountable to anybody and they did not have to publish any kind of rank or list based on any kind of criteria of people who were candidates. We have changed all that actually. And, without the EU there was no way, even now and even while we were changing and there was: slanders in the newspapers, attacks, resistance to the point to be prepared to go into an open fight – politically – all kinds of things.
ESI: How is it functioning now?
The State Judicial Council consists of 7 judges, 2 law professors and 2 parliamentarians. Until now it has been elected by Parliament which means parliamentary majority and simple majority for that. Now the seven judges are being elected by secrete ballots by all the judges in Croatia in two rounds. The two law professors are being elected by all law professors in secrete ballots in Croatia. And the two parliamentarians, one from the opposition, one from the government majority side, are being elected by Parliament. They then constitute the State Judicial Committee. Nobody can be elected by the State Judicial Committee twice.
6. Corruption (January 2011)
Today the tolerance of Croatian citizens towards corruption is zero. People are so mad! … Now in high places I guarantee you that there is no corruption although I am in opposition; not because everybody has turned honest, but because everybody is scared to death. And this is the first step: that the politicians are scared to death of stealing because they do not know who might be next and how this is going to evolve. It is certainly unpleasant to live through and to watch and everything, but it is absolutely essential. The irony is that today we are way less corrupted than we were a year or two years ago … But the perception is different. Perception was better when Sanader was in power who is now suspected of stealing left, right and centre. We will see whether that is true, but he is suspected of that. Where, on the other hand, today, because this process had been opened in precisely high places, I think these guys do not steal. They are so scared! If we do not transform this into a regular, functioning system of checks and balances with time they will be less scared. But now we have a chance and the EU process again gives this chance to transform this into a legislation that would include checks and balances.
7. Finishing accession negotiations (October 2011)
We would have never finished negotiations by June with them, because in March, when the report came out, the word was that New Year’s is the earliest date when we can finish negotiations. And everybody in the enlargement commission knew this was how they were writing their report … And they [the HDZ government] never would have turned that around. They were already more or less resigned to this fact. So this has nothing to do with them, but it doesn’t matter.
ESI: What happened in your view? What turned this around?
Oh, this was done from here, from the Parliament and the national committee (monitoring the EU accession process). I first got everybody to come here, because nobody was talking to anybody at that time anymore, the president and the prime minister and especially the government and the opposition. And then I managed to get all of them, I shuttled among them, and managed to persuade them to come to a meeting here in parliament, which was then shown on television. They were actually sitting at the same table and we managed to agree on a few things: one is who’s going to what country and talking to people, the other is what, in great detail, will be done in basic rights and judiciary reforms, which, for me, were the key issues; I thought it was the most important thing.
So, the purpose of the meeting was to demonstrate that we are all behind the project, to get a detailed account of what’s being done in judiciary and fundamental rights and make sure that this is actually being pushed through, and deciding and dividing the tasks on going to EU member states presenting our case or explaining especially what’s being done with the judiciary chapter.
And then we discovered very interesting things. For example, the Dutch were always a very big problem, they were always very reserved (about Croatia joining the EU). In Holland, the government forms a position, but then it has to defend it in front of the parliament. I then pushed our ambassador to get us a meeting in the Dutch parliament and since we are a liberal party, and there are Dutch liberals, I used our party connections to persuade them, and we organized the meeting in very early June. This, it turned out, which I was not aware of, was the first visit of a Croatian parliamentary delegation to the Dutch parliament ever.
When I realized that, I couldn’t believe it, because if this is so important for you, if this is where supposedly all the obstacles are, that you don’t make an effort to actually go and talk to people so that they see you, that they see who you are, get a normal feeling about who you are. When you’re an abstract Balkan crazy people that is associated with killing each other with rusty spoons, this is one thing. When you come there and they see that you’re more or less borderline normal, you can be talked to, it’s another thing … So, there were a lot of this type of problems and things that in a way we mended in the last moment.
What this also did was creating a sense of urgency in the country, within the public opinion, but also within the government structures, the sense that this was extremely important and it was crucial and everybody’s working on it and kept the attention until the end.
But to go back to the government: They worked on it and some merits definitely have to go to them. Without them, their position, it certainly wouldn’t have been possible. But I would say it’s pretty clear and it’s pretty clear to the Croatian public also that it’s not just them, that without the national consensus and the opposition being responsible for keeping that consensus, which we did, it wouldn’t have worked. And we kept the consensus because originally, EU membership was our project to begin with. It’s just that they turned around through Sanader and that’s why this consensus worked. It’s just that we didn’t go back from that position when we went into the opposition.
ESI: They wouldn’t have done that if you were in the government in your view?
What happened in the process was that they got so involved and identified with all these decisions related to the European Union that for them now, to walk away from it, that would be completely impossible.
8. Croatia’s dream team and lessons for other accession countries (October 2011)
ESI: Did you go with the whole committee to the Dutch Parliament?
No, we had this team of four people: a Social Democrat deputy speaker who throughout his career has been involved in EU issues, a lady from HDZ who’s also associated throughout her career with EU issues, a very decent lady, Marija Pejcinovic, Milorad Pupovac (representing Croatia’s Serbs) and myself.
We went to Germany also in this combination, we went also to Finland … this was our team to go and do these things because these are all decent people, they’re from different parties, but normal to talk to.
If you’re asking what would be a lesson for other countries: It was important early on to put together a team of people from different political parties who personally are in favor of the project and who are more or less presentable. Not only because it’s important to talk to the people in different European capitals, but because then you can impose that thing on the domestic parliament. We never had, for instance, from what I can remember, throughout these four years, we never had any of this vulgar speech or rude attacks or rude confrontations when we were discussing EU topics, although some of them were quite sensitive, like subsidies, like the border issue … Because this was somehow kept under the control by people who have more or less influence within their parties and respect. I think this was also helpful in maintaining the consensus for such a long time.
The key thing here is trying to build a working consensus. But how you go about it, it’s much easier said than done. It’s important to distinguish between a declaratory consensus and a working consensus. And very often people try to trick you. They say ‘we’re in favor of the EU more than you etc.’
Somebody has to start. But it has to be an atmosphere where it’s clear that there are some key individuals that are from different parties, that have some influence over the political segment, that are genuinely in favor of that and then you go from there, basically. It’s very important to show, at least at the beginning, on some small things that you are prepared to give in on certain things or on scoring political points in order to achieve this goal. This builds personal trust among a small group of people. There is no personal trust between people in political parties. Most people in political parties had no clue what was going on. Not that something was hidden from them, but they weren’t interested in all the details. But they felt that somehow this was being taken care of, that this was in good hands and is being pushed through.
You have to have a pace. This argument is valid throughout. People will tell you – and it’s a real thing – that as you go along and if you stop for too long at one level then people get frustrated, turn against the whole process because they feel it’s unfair, so it’s true throughout the process. But being in the process is certainly much more motivating than not being in the process. Because waiting in the anteroom …
And this is another lesson: our experience is that it’s almost impossible for somebody to help you if you first cannot help yourself. You have to have something. Maybe you can’t resolve the whole thing, maybe you can’t get to the desired goal, but you have to have some initiative and some strength because then if somebody helps you, it has to fall on fertile ground. There has to be somebody at home who knows what to do with it.
9. The new nationalist discourse of the HDZ (October 2011)
I’m not happy about this public discourse at all, but on the other hand, looking from the broader, maybe analytical point of view, I think it’s going to be very useful to see them lose with this rhetoric because until now, they’ve always won with this rhetoric. They always went back to that before every elections … But it’s not working any more. All of these things used to work and this is, I think, what’s creating such a tension and nervousness, because they’re pressing all the old, tried-out buttons, and they’re not producing the results that they used to produce.
ESI: Does it have any effect on the referendum? On the EU debate? Is the HDZ capable of walking away from this? After all, that was one of their big successes in the last few years and the big consensus in Croatia.
Their only success. The only thing is that it is their success, but they feel uneasy. I mean they keep on mentioning this and also treating the end of the negotiations as exclusively the result of their efforts, which is not true, I can tell you first hand.