A Narrative from Croatia.

Josip Miličević (Zagreb) and Dorotea Streelc (Varaždin).

Josip Miličević, political activist from Zagreb, talks about Croatia’s recent political history and the growing importance of the municipalist movements.
Dorotea Strelec, political activist from Varaždin, talks about the origins of the municipalist movement at her city.

Municipalism in ex-Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Josip Miličević (Zagreb).

Citizen participation in decision-making processes has an unusual history in countries of the former Yugoslavia. Nowadays it is at a relatively low level in all of them, especially when compared with most other European countries. Although Yugoslavia cannot be considered to have been a democracy, it still had strong participation mechanisms that engaged citizens. This was best seen in examples of workers’ management, an exciting idea of not just workplace democratisation but also a tool for strengthening capacities and involvement of workers in decision-making processes.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, most of the countries went through a fast and merciless transition: not just of an economic system that was intertwined with privatisation, theft and corruption but also of a political system. Although all countries presented themselves as transformed and democratic, in reality, all of them experienced years of leaders and/or political parties that had more in common with authoritarian rulers than democratic leaders.

Spoils systems were developed in most of the former Yugoslavian countries. In just a few decades this usually led to one or two strong parties controlling most of the country. With control came money and power. In most cases, this went hand-in-hand with corruption and nepotism, which in turn deterred many citizens from participating not just in decision-making processes but in elections in general and resulted in local sheriffs running cities or municipalities for many years. In an environment with low political participation, little space for independent movements and most importantly, that was often under the influence or control of autocratic leaders, it is no wonder it took decades for citizens’ movements to surface. Today municipalist movements are becoming more present, although so far mostly in capitals or other big cities (Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Dubrovnik, Novi Sad, Sarajevo, Skopje).

The rest of this report focuses specifically on Croatia and the success of Zagreb je Naš! (Zagreb is Ours!), a municipalist platform that won a majority and the mayoral office in the May 2021 elections in the capital.

In Croatia as well as in other countries, it took several decades for municipalist ideas to enter the political arena and they initially came mostly from academia or the NGO sector. The war in the 90s gave rise to nationalist parties, but also created chaos which was used as a cover for brutal privatisation and undemocratic procedures. Like in most of the countries of former Yugoslavia, Croatian local government is usually just a playground for larger parties to grab spoils. With more than 8,000 elected local representatives, large parties used those positions as a reward for faithful service to the party. Criticism towards the system came from academia but also from social actors: civil society organisations that grew from the anti-war movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s soon turned focus to protecting public resources and tackling nepotism and corruption. Over the years there were some attempts to introduce municipalism, especially elements of citizen participation, in local communities in Croatia. However, most of these ideas were coming from the Social Democratic Party or other centre-left parties and involved only certain elements like partial participatory budgeting without a radical change in policy-making and citizen participation. Lack of civic education in formal education, as well as general political apathy, resulted in continually lower voter turnout and a sense of stale politics.

Several larger citizens’ initiatives showed that people had had enough of self-centred local politics. These movements were connected to preserving public spaces (the centre of Zagreb being turned into a parking lot and shopping mall or a park above Dubrovnik being turned into a golf course) and managed to engage and involve thousands of people. Riding on that wave, but also with support from several NGOs, activists in Zagreb developed alternative ways to implement change instead of just criticism of prevailing policies. This shift from a reactionary and defensive stance to a proactive one that sought a change in how policies were created helped platforms like Zagreb je Naš! to be considered relevant and trustworthy. Bottom-up approaches alongside people-led platforms are still rare in Croatia and are much more present in social movements rather than in political platforms. However, the success of Zagreb je Naš! shows that there is enough space and interest among citizens for doing politics differently.

Electoral success has brought new opportunities but also a challenge for municipalism in Zagreb as well as in Croatia in general and the wider region, as Zagreb je Naš! can serve as an example for similar movements such as Ne davimo Beograd in Serbia. Some of the challenges are how to run by far the largest city in the country on a horizontal platform, how to implement all the proposed changes and not to let down members, supporters and voters. On the other side, if Zagreb je Naš! succeeds, it will show to other cities and municipalities in Croatia and the wider region that this is possible. This would once and for all destroy the image of municipalist actors as just activists who are not grounded in reality.

In Croatia, the process of bringing change on the national level is happening in parallel with change on the local level. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, different local municipalist movements formed a loosely connected platform called Možemo! (We can!) which aims to take what connects these movements and promote it on a national level. In a coalition with some Left and Green parties, they managed to win seats in the national parliament. According to the research from June 2021, Možemo! is considered to be the third most popular political party in the country.

Whilst it is great to see change on all levels, this popularity puts even more pressure on success locally, especially in the context of developing municipalist ideas in Croatia. Engaging on a national level gives more space and resources to push for changes but it also stretches the organisation thin and puts to test the dedication of ordinary citizens who joined the platform to support changes. The May 2021 elections in Croatia can definitely be considered a focal point in the development of municipalism in Croatia, but it is not yet clear whether they will be a high point or just the beginning of changes in favour of municipalism. Our aim is to make sure it is only the beginning.