Review: Democratic Transition in Croatia: Value Transformation, Education, and Media

This review was co-authored with Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik and originally appeared in Europe-Asia Studies 60:7 (2008): 1279-80.

Sabrina P. Ramet & Davorka Matic (eds), Democratic Transition in Croatia: Value Transformation, Education, and Media. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2007, xviiþ411 pp., £22.95 h/b.

This collection of essays by 16 authors explores various social and political aspects of Croatia’s transition towards democracy, with particular emphasis on how values have been transformed since Croatia achieved independence. The advertised focus on education and the media hardly does justice to the range of topics the collection actually contains: the changing role of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the experiences of women under a system of kinship-based ethnic nationalism, the theoretical basis of nationalism and the quantifiable expression of tolerance are all up for examination too. The ongoing myths and memorial practices surrounding the Homeland War are illustrated by an analysis of how Croatian society remembers the key site of Vukovar, and the equally thorny issue of remembering the turbulent Yugoslav past surfaces in contributions dealing with history textbooks and films.

The primary theoretical engagement of the book is with concepts of liberal and civic nationalism, which recur in Sabrina Ramet’s introduction and Davorka Matic’s chapter arguing that nationalism need not always be (as the title goes) ‘really that bad’. The introduction provides a chronology of Croatian history, from the ‘early–late Pleistocene’ (p. xi) onwards (even though ‘Croatia’ as a recognisable entity only came into being centuries later) and a literature review of the liberal and civic approaches to nationalism. Only two pages of the theoretical section are specifically related to Croatia, although this is perhaps because Matic covers this ground in her own article later on. In fact, the introduction’s tone might raise expectations that the collection would devote more attention to nationalism than to its actual titular rationale, the process of transition and value transformation. Yet the theoretical focus on nationalism is justified by Ramet’s observation that ‘the dilemma about nationalism has lain at the heart of Croatia’s efforts to build a liberal democracy’ (p. 19). For ‘democracy’ to mean more than ‘an opposite of Communism’, Croatian politicians have needed to reconcile the foundational idea of a Croatian nation-state with principles of democratic freedoms and minority rights—although even in longer-established democracies there is hardly a consensus about what those principles mean.

Valuably, Ramet’s introduction also poses the question of what this ‘dilemma about nationalism’ means in policy terms. The problem becomes all the more pertinent given Croatia’s recent history and the ways in which the past infringes upon many aspects of daily life. It is therefore high time to ask, as Ramet does, ‘what attitude toward history is most conducive to a healthy orientation for the future’, ‘[w]hich aspects of national culture’ deserve most emphasis in the school curriculum, how best to approach the portrayal of Serbs, and finally how to promote ‘tolerance . . . without doing injury to the pleasure taken in one’s national culture’ (p. 19). Some contributors have responded to these questions by providing policy recommendations, drawing on their academic insights to come up with much richer insights into the problems of transition than are often available to policy makers.

As it turns out, most authors pay attention to the practical goal of furthering tolerance rather than the theoretical goal of rethinking nationalism. The background to these contemporary challenges is provided by Marius Søberg’s chapter on HDZ, which argues that the party’s ‘dominant role’ produced ‘several negative consequences’ for transition, such as the concentration of power in the executive branch, the focus on statehood rather than democracy, the blurring of the church–state relationship and the pursuit of a narrowly ethnic agenda. Moreover, in the 1990s the party ended up holding back democratisation because any such moves would have reduced the influence of the state and the party.

Ramet’s themes of history and memory are also taken up by several contributors, including Wolfgang Hoepken, Magdalena Najbar-Agicic and Damir Agicic (on history teaching) and Kruno Kardov (on Vukovar). Hoepken’s chapter offers an overview of trends in textbook production after the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe, with a final section relating his conclusions to Croatia. Najbar-Agicic and Agicic, meanwhile, maintain a tight focus on Croatia throughout, with an in-depth case study of textbook content and the results of a survey of students’ historical consciousness. In the process, they identify a tension between what might appear as the normative goals of history teaching—enabling students to ‘acquire the least distorted image of the past’ and gain skills to understand various interpretations of history in later life—and the tendency of states ‘to create a collective consciousness favoring current politics’ through the history curriculum (p. 194). Kardov’s chapter draws (notably) on the author’s own field research to highlight the key role of Vukovar in the construction of a post-war identity for Croatia. The state, the culture industry and the media have given Vukovar ‘an exalted place in the symbolic repertoire of the Croatian state’ (p. 65) as the central site of Croatian wartime suffering—at the expense, Kardov argues, of erasing the individuality of present and former residents.

Memory matters, too, in Gordana Crnkovic’s discussion of three post-war films which encourage ‘liberating—but also uncomfortable—ways of seeing’ (p. 248) towards the past, and thus also help democratisation. In fact, this excursion into film studies could easily have inspired an entire section on how other segments of culture have reflected or contributed to value transformation. Crnkovic shows clearly that the films of Vinko Bresan are a visible manifestation of this process—but what of the novels of Ivo Bresan (or Ante Tomic, Jurica Pavicic and Vlado Bulic)? How are values and democracy being rethought in drama, or (since several previous chapters have introduced the problematic of youth) in popular music? Ramet’s introductory definition of the nation’s ‘common cultural heritage’ extends to ‘shared musical and culinary traditions’ (p. 4) as well as mainstays like language or religion—so there would have been ample scope to pursue these directions.

Taken as a whole, the collection occupies what is sometimes an uneasy crossroads between theoretical intervention and policy relevance. If the editors’ priority was the latter criterion, then a more concise volume with a less theoretical bent might have capitalised on its obvious policy relevance more successfully. If the aim was to argue for a usable idea of liberal nationalism—based perhaps on the ‘ethnic particularism’ theory of David Miller, which appears in both the Ramet and Matic chapters—then other contributors too might have been encouraged to relate their particular case studies to this central theme. Nonetheless, the book remains a comprehensive volume which covers many aspects of the democratic transition. Like the similar volume on Slovenia edited by Ramet and Danica Fink-Hafner, it would make a worthy addition to libraries and reading lists which deal with the transitional politics of Central and South-Eastern Europe.


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