Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zagreb Seeks Regional Revival

Croatia's long-suffering provinces are hoping the new government will lift them out of the doldrums.
By Goran Vezic

The historic Adriatic region of Dalmatia was dubbed "the cradle of Croatia" by the country's nationalist leaders. But this did not stop them forcibly renaming it Southern Croatia when Franjo Tudjman came to power in the early nineties.


It was a linguistic facade, barely masking a process under which regions were stripped of their political, economic and cultural autonomy in the name of unity and resistance to "centuries of Croatian division at the hands of Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade."


Centralisation of Croatia enabled President Tudjman and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) to tighten their grip on the country. At the same time, Zagreb developed into a metropolis where wealth was concentrated, while the provinces became impoverished.


The new ruling coalition plans to tackle the legacy of centralisation by granting the Croatia's provinces more autonomy. That two of the four governing parties in the new coalition have a strong regional emphasis suggests the issue will be a priority.


Indeed, the authorities have already pledged to spread economic development more equally across the country and to grant the regions a bigger share of tax revenues.


This new approach has been welcomed in Dalmatia which along with Istria have been some of the most vocal critics of centralisation.


Istrians expressed their resistance to the policy in recent elections by voting en masse for their regional party, The Istrian Democratic Parliament. Zagreb's response was to denounce the local government as irredentist, and pro-Italian.


The authorities cracked down even harder on Dalmatia's regional party, Dalmatian Action, in the early 1990s. Members were accused of blowing up their own head office in Split. They were eventually acquitted by a Military Court, after a long legal farce. But the damage had been done. The party had been marginalised.


Economic inequalities were some of the most damaging consequences of centralisation.


Dalmatia used to be a wealthy region. But unemployment has steadily risen over the past decade, particularly in the once thriving port of Split. "It is catastrophic that statistically every third student will be unable to find a job when they complete their studies," says Dr Srdjan Vrcan, a professor at the University of Split.


Towns of exceptional beauty and tradition, such as Dubrovnik, Sibenik and Zadar, which were badly damaged during the Croatian war, did not receive sufficient investment after the conflict. They suffered depopulation and economic downturn as a result.


Dalmatian towns are "coming apart at the seams" and are turning into centres of poverty in which black-marketeering has become the foundation of the economy and life, a recent study on the region reported.


The former HDZ government had planned to build a motorway from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, via Bosnia, bypassing Dalmatia. The regional authorities opposed this without success. The HDZ's obsession with connecting Bosnia to Croatia was, it seems, outweighed by any concern for a part of its own country.


Privatisation in Croatia served to reinforce geographic inequality. Officials in Zagreb enriched themselves by buying up regional commercial concerns on the cheap.


In Dalmatia, many of the firms purchased in this period are now derelict, their workers on the streets. The state's potential has ended up in the hands, not of the workers but the political elite in Zagreb.


The new Croatian authorities have pledged to make a break with the past. But given the damage suffered by Croatia regions over the last ten years, the task of reviving them may prove to be one of the government's greatest challenges.


Goran Vezic is a new contributor to IWPR from Split.


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