Statesmen who visit Zagreb and are being driven from the airport to the center always take the Ulica hrvatske bratske zajednice, the Croatian Brotherhood Society Street or something. Croats have a talent for abbreviating lengthy names of streets and squares, but unfortunately there seems to be no alternative for Ulica hrvatke bratske zajednice. Any suggestions?
Traditionally, at the end (or beginning) of Ulica hrvatske bratske zajednice the flag of the visiting country's guest is hoisted. So it was when Chinese president Hu Jintao came to Zagreb, and so it was for someone from some country. By the moon I could tell the visitor represents an Islamic country, but which? After bit of googling I found the answer: Turkmenistan. The always informative website of the Croatian government provides pictures for media use, so I felt free to show Sanader and the gentleman from Turkmenistan shaking hands.
I bet we will read later that Turkmenistan supports Croatia's bid for EU membership. It's good to have some friends left. This article from Jutarnji list paints a gloomy picture of Croatia's international position. The essence: EU diplomats recommend Sanader not to blame Slovenia for everything but to finally get some serious work done (the over and over again mentioned corruption, crime, Tribunal, state run firms, violent and racist football fans...).
Traditional allies like Germany, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Slovakia (new to me) have turned their back on Croatia or pay lip service at best. Croatia is a country without friends.

Buy one, get more

Enough about politics, it's time for a culinary event: cleaning fish. Don't read or scroll down if you can't stand bloody pictures.
First a general observation. Buy one, get two. Buy two, get three. Supermarkets in Western Europe try to attract customers that way, but it is unheard of in Croatia. Only recently supermarkets started to discount certain products. In pubs it is not uncommon to see on the menu:

Karlovačko 15 kuna (0,5 liter)
Karlovačko 30 kuna (1 liter)

I thought the capitalist mentality is inborn, but some nations apparently don't have a knack for trade. Perhaps half a century of communism is enough to damage the fragment of DNA that is responsible for commerce. Karlovačko, by the way, is a beer.
I went to Dolac, Zagreb's central market, this morning to get fish. In the ribarnica (an indoor fish market that unfortunately lacks any Mediterranean ambiance) I bought this well size mackerel (40 centimeters) for only 18 kuna.

When home, I sliced it open and saw I got more fish than I had expected. The mackerel, when caught, was actually half way swallowing a smaller fish, so I could tell from the little fish tail sticking out of the mackerel's mouth. In it stomach I found remains of an earlier meal. A bit gross, but the mackerel itself was, in a word, super fresh. I could have made sashimi with it. Bit of soy sauce, bit of wasabi.... delicious!

Air space

When Chinese president Hu Jintao left Croatia, his presidential plane was escorted by two Croatian fighter jets. These two jets seems to have violated Slovenian air space. Hardly surprising, I thought. You almost need a helicopter to take off from Zagreb airport if you don't want to enter Slovenian air space, as Zagreb is very close to the Slovenian border.
Some Slovenes are very angry about the violation. I am not going to dwell on it, as I have no idea how normal or exceptional such violations are. I just want to show you the language that was used by a Slovenian member of European Parliament. It is exemplary of the sour relations between Croatia and Slovenia.
"The theatrical incursion into our airspace that Croatia permitted itself, by abusing the military escort of a Chinese protocol state aircraft, is an abuse of that state and, at the same time, a display of arrogance that cannot be practice either in the EU or NATO," said Jelko Kacin.
I don't think Croatia will enter the EU in 2011, even if Slovenia lifted the blockade right now. I suspect the Sanader government uses the blockade to turn attention away from other pressing problems in Croatia: corruption, organized crime and lack of cooperation with the Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague. The EU, meanwhile, has given up on trying to find a solution for the border conflict, after its numerous proposals were blocked by either Zagreb or Ljubljana.
Sanader uses big words in complaining about the Slovenian attitude. He said that if the EU negotiations with Croatia fail, also the idea of Europe (that is: uniting nations) fails. I can understand Sanader's frustration over Slovenia, but his words show a chronic overestimation of Croatia's importance to the Europe. Even if Croatia never joins the EU, the EU is and will be a uniquely successful project. (Although I sincerely hope Croatia will join the EU). Secondly, Croatia's entry into the EU hinges upon many more things, as I mentioned above. As soon as Slovenia lifts it unfair blockade these things will come to the fore once again.

Croatian diaspora

"The term diaspora refers to the movement of any population sharing common ethnic identity who were either forced to leave or voluntarily left their settled territory, and became residents in areas often far remote from the former." Thus says Wikipedia and so I've always thought. Therefore, it strikes me as unusual to describe Croats living in Bosnia as "diaspora". Yet, this is very common in Croatia. Most of these Croats have lived in Bosnia for generations, for hundreds of years, very close to the Croatian border. Mostar is their unofficial capital.
Bosnian Croats find themselves in a difficult and complicated situation. With the Muslims they form the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one half of Bosnia (the other half being the Republika Srpska). It is a loveless marriage, arranged by the "international community". Bosnian Croats number half a million, which is much less than both Serbs and Muslims. However, unlike the Muslims they have a fatherland outside Bosnia, so if Bosnia breaks up in the future (which seems rather likely) they have some place to go. Or Croatia will simply attach the Croatian part of Bosnia.
The Croatian homeland (diaspora Croats, be it in Bosnia or Australia, are often called "Hrvati izvan domovine", Croats out of the homeland), or rather the Sanader administration, has decided upon a new strategy towards Bosnian Croats. A Council for Croats outside of Croatia will be founded, presided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a law to strengthen ties with Bosnian Croats will be send to parliament.
"Children are Croatia's blessing", says the rundown facade of the Croatian Population Movement. One of the strategy's aims is to stop the downward demographic trend. Many countries face the problem of aging populations, but Croatia is in a particularly difficult situation. This country has an enormous number of pensioners, mostly laid-off people who got early retirement. Although a firmly catholic country, Croatia has a very low birthrate, despite financial support for parents and a generous pregnancy leave. Result: an annual population growth of minus 10.000.

Bird's view

A service to the poor bastards who are so unlucky to live anywhere but on the Croatian coast. Croatia Airlines lowered the prices of selected domestic flights. If you choose an early or late flight, you can fly from Zagreb to Split, Zadar or Dubrovnik for a price much lower than if you go by car. Zagreb-Dubrovnik by car is a lengthy (at least 9 hours of driving) and expensive trip: 187 kuna toll for the highway up to Ravča/Vrgorac, not to mention fuel costs.
Google Maps incorrectly still thinks the highway doesn't go further south than Šestanovac. A 45 minute flight Zagreb-Dubrovnik should cost no more than 300 kuna if you book a last minute or far in advance. Dubrovnik's famous city walls welcomed 9 percent less visitors in the first five months of 2009 than in the same period last year, so hajde!.
Annually 800.000 tourists walk on the thick walls, resisting the temptation to jump in the Adriatic. Some dare devils do jump, though from the rocks right below the walls.

Hop o' My Thumb

Last week China's president Hu Jintao visited Croatia. It was only for 24 hours, but Croats were understandably proud. A man who represents a nation of 1,3 billion people takes the time to come to a country with a population that's smaller than Jinan, China's 15th largest city. Hu Jintao spoke friendly words to his Croatian colleague Mesić: "Croatia is China's biggest trading partner in South Eastern Europe". Partner is a peculiar word in this, as Croatia imports 53 times more from China than China imports from Croatia. Damn it! If only those Chinese would like Cedevita or Napolitanke... Croatia would experience an incredible economic boom.
Mesić apparently didn't have the Chinese much to offer. He invited them to invest in Pleso airport and Ploče harbour, both equally moribund, desolate and unwelcoming to visitors or cargo. I think efforts to attract more Chinese tourists to Croatia are smarter. Of the 12 million Chinese that visit Europe per year only 6.000 come to Croatia, 0,05 percent. That is not much.
It was interesting to see how this visit is different from Hu Jintao's visits to Western European countries. In Croatia not a word was said about Tibet, the Dalai Lama or human rights in general. Instead, Taiwanese were classified as "separatists". Unusual language if you know that Croatia separated itself from Yugoslavia (with justification, I must add) and recognized Kosovo as an independent country. (I see know that Firefox doesn't know Kosovo yet. It wants me to choose between Kosher, Kossuth, Oxford, Kosygin and Kovacs. Obviously a pro-Hungarian spell checker.)
The minimalism of Croatian-Chinese relations was aptly summarized by the Chinese ambassador to Croatia, when he spoke the already legendary words: "The relation between China and Croatia is an example of a relation between a big and a small country".

Frightening numbers

Browse the morning papers and news sites for a week and you will find numbers about anything. A short selection of this week's offer:
Every single day 65 Croats find out they have cancer. Daily 35 die from malignant diseases.
Annually 1000 qualified scientists leave Croatia to continue their career abroad. Almost 9000 Croats a year migrate to an EU country to seek a better life. 1 on every 14 Croats lives in an EU country.
In 2008 127 motorcyclists lost their lives in traffic accidents. Nearly half of them did not wear a helmet. The total number of people killed in traffic in 2008 is 664. In the UK less than 3000 died per year in traffic, although the UK's population is 13 times larger than Croatia's.
The minimum wage in Croatia is 2.814 kuna. That is some 380 euro per month. Pensioners need to survive with even less. The average pension is 2.169 (slightly less than 300 euro). However, 1 out of 3 pensioners receive only 120 euro or less per month.
The average Croat eats only 8 kilo of fish per year. Only Irish, Germans and Hungarians eat less fish. Other Mediterranean nations eat a lot more: 44 kilo in Spain, 33 in France and 24 in Italy.

Old Europe, New Europe

Train travelers in the Balkans are used to waiting at borders. Officials check your passport and ask: "Nešto za prijaviti?". Something to declare? No one ever declares anything, last of all the Croatian women who smuggle cheap textile from Italy to Zagreb.
When Slovenia joined the Schengen area I expected the endless waiting to be over. But no. Villa Opicina, at the Slovenian-Italian border is one of those notorious places where you stare out of the window and think: "Are we really in the EU?" After an hour or so the train finally starts moving to Venice.
I had to think of this as I read an article in Die Tageszeitung, published on Presseurope. Presseurope translates articles from several European newspapers into the main EU languages. Something like the International Herald Tribune, but than online and very limited in scope.
The fall of the Iron Curtain should have united two towns, but Italian Gorizia and Slovenia's Nova Gorica continue to snub one another with great distinction. While Nova enjoys an economic boom, old Gorizia tearily remembers the rare old times.
The enormous car park is almost completely deserted. It has enough space for hundreds of cars, but only a few stray vehicles are parked under the pale light of the street lamps. And save a handful of guests at the nearby pizzeria, there isn’t a soul in sight.
A cab? The waiter frowns as though he’d been asked an utterly absurd question. “After eight you can’t get a taxi anywhere in Gorizia.” Gorizia has called it a day...
We'll consider the phrase Iron Curtain a slip of the tongue.

Dubrovnik last minute

Yesterday I wrote about the competition Dubrovnik faces from Montenegro. The bigger problem, of course, is the world wide economic crisis. Dubrovnik's tourist sector saw a 20 to 30 percent fall in business. To counter this downward trend, Dubrovnik mayor Andro Vlahušić said two million kuna would be set apart to finance a management body that will deal with Dubrovnik as a tourist destination. Let's hope this awkward management new speak will deliver.
Vlahušić added: "We have to see whether Dubrovnik can collectively organize a last minute offer. We are not talking about low cost, but about last minute". That would be a revolution in economics. Where's the financial reward for the tourist who books a last minute trip to Dubrovnik?

Money talks

When the government strikes a deal with the Catholic Church you can be sure our liberty is in danger. And so were denied the pleasure of shopping on a Sunday afternoon. For the sake of a handful of childless priests and nuns, many hard working shop owners and parents lost income or even their job as they suddenly had to close their business on Sundays. According to Večernji list already 1152 shops went out of business.
Some smart local guys found a way to defeat the unholy alliance between the national government and the universal church. Towns simply organize a fair, week after week. During fairs, shops are allowed to work all Sunday long. That is, after all, the essence of a fair: buying and selling.
Especially in Dubrovnik, tourists were unpleasantly surprised to find the doors of souvenirs shops closed. Often they arrive with huge cruise ships and spend one day in Dubrovnik. If that day is a Sunday, they won't be able to buy Dubrovnik's best selling souvenir: Babushka dolls (Matryoshka dolls), mostly made in China. Inventive entrepreneurs from Dubrovnik started organizing trips to nearby Montenegro (Herceg Novi, Kotor, Budva), with its beautiful beaches, lower prices, liberal opening hours and night clubs.

Oh, and with its euro, which is really convenient.


When the Croatian government gave in to the demands of protesting farmers, the minister of Economic Affairs said that he would forbid the import of cheese. Long live Croatian cheese, down with Gorgonzola and Roquefort. I could also say: long live paški sir, but then few of you would know what I meant. That's the problem with Croatian products: even the handful of products that are worth exporting (and that does NOT included Cedevita) are hardly know outside of the country.
I was seriously thinking of going to Billa (an Italian supermarket chain with branches in Croatia) to stock up cheese. But, as expected, the Croatian government had to break the promise it would forbid the import of cheese, as that is against all EU and World Trade Organization rules. Instead, it will try to raise the price of imported cheese. Same old protectionist story again: unproductive farmers receive help at the expense of ordinary citizens. Same goes for shipbuilding.
The Croatian government accuses other countries of dumping cheese (damping in Croatian) and unfair competition. Sure. The grass in Western Europe in greener, people work harder and the technology is more advanced. That is why the cheese is cheaper. If we follow the government's line of argument, holidays in Croatia should be made more expensive. Croatia has a lot of sunshine and a beautiful coastline and neither of them exists because of Croatian efforts, yet Croats reap the fruits. How unfair! Camping owners in Britain, Germany and The Netherlands can't compete with the Croatian sun, so booking a holiday in Dubrovnik should be taxed.

Border blockade

A group of thirty Croatian farmers have blocked a border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia at the village of Slavonski Šamac. They will keep blocking the border until "Zagreb" produces an agreement that makes "farming profitable again".

In Zagreb, meanwhile, vice prime minister Jadranka Kosor and Economics minister Damir Polančec are negotiating with the farmers. They refuse to talk to Božidar Pankretić, the minister of Agriculure, whom they seem to regard more a problem than part of a solution.

I went to the Ministry of Agriculture this morning to see what's happening. Well, not so much. People were sitting on the grass, having a drink, chatting and waiting. Police was massively present, but everything looked relaxed. The times of Matija Gubec, the legendary leader of a famous peasant revolt, are long gone.
Update: Famers and the government made a deal. They agreed upon a purchase price of 2,20 kuna (30 eurocents) for a liter of milk. Also the import of milk in milk products will be forbidden. I am not sure how that works in practice, but I doubt Milka chocolate will disappear from the shelves.

Peasants against farmers

Hundreds of farmers from Istria, Slavonia and Baranje drove their tractors to Zagreb yesterday and gathered at the Ministry of Agriculture, demanding higher guaranteed prices and financial support. They want to talk to prime minister Sanader and threaten to block Zagreb if their demands are not met. So far the traffic wasn't hindered too much. Today is a national holiday, many took a day off tomorrow, so there is no traffic to speak off.
Former boxer and current president of Croatian Farmers Union (Hrvatski seljački savez) Željko Mavrović distanced himself from the protesters and their rival peasant organizations. "Do something, don't just scream 'give me money'," he said. He accuses them of representing "private interests" only. (In conservative, half-socialist Croatia "private interest" still is a term of abuse.) In turn the peasants accuse Mavrović of representing only big farmers, as the members of his Croatian Farmers Union have on average much more land.
Croatian agriculture is dominated by peasants whose produce often can't compete with Western Europe. The prices of vegetables, fruit and dairy products in supermarkets aren't exactly low though. A liter of yogurts costs around 1,50 euro, milk 75 cents, cheese (of the worst possible quality) 7 euro per kilo. GDP, both nominal and per capita, in neighboring Slovenia is twice as high as Croatia's, yet almost everything is cheaper there: food, wine, rent-a-car, mineral water... Revealing if you know that the average Croatian family spends 40 percent of its income on food. The slogan on the tractor says "Protect domestic production". If the government listens to such demands, Croats will soon be spending half of their income on food.

Gay bashing in Zagreb

If you are gay and want to visit Zagreb, it might be good to know which spots in town you'd better avoid. Unfortunately, you'll need to go hiking in Medvednica or take a swim in Jarun as the center of Zagreb is crawling with people who might, in the best case, insult you.
Zagreb Pride published a map (click to enlarge) that shows the most dangerous locations in town for gays. Not surprisingly, the most dangerous street is Draškovićeva, and not because of the cinema complex, the Sheraton, a Chinese restaurant, a hospital and a ministry in that street. The threat comes from the headquarters of the Bad Blue Boys, Dinamo Zagreb's "fan club". The Bad Blue Boys have a terrifying record of violence against "others" - supporters of rival football clubs, homosexuals, foreigners...
The most severe punishment for anti-gay violence (14 months) was given to Bad Blue Boy Josip Šitum. He tried to attack participants of the Zagreb Pride 2007 with Molotov cocktails, on Zagreb's main square (Trg bana Josipa Jelačića). First thing he said after he was released: "I did what 70 percent of the Croats would do, if only they had the courage."
Orange dot: location of reported attack.
Red dot: particularly dangerous location.

8.000 dead men and a few logs

Serge Brammertz is probably the best know Belgian in Croatia. As the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia he is a key judge on Croatia's progress towards EU membership. Brammertz is often bracketed together with "artillery logs", or "topnički dnevnici" in Croatian. The Tribunal thinks to find evidence of excessive shelling of Knin (the Serbian stronghold and "capital" of the so called Republic of Serbian Krajina). The Croatian army led by Ante Gotovina, who's spending his time in The Hague waiting for evidence against him, conquered Knin in 1995 as part of Operation Storm. Croats regard this as a tremendous military success, but the international community (a nickname for the powerful) suspects the army of having committed war crimes against the Serbian population of Knin. The logs Brammertz is looking for did never exist, were stolen or disappeared - each side sticks to its own version. More about the logs here and here.
What annoys Croats in particular is the tough stance of The Netherlands on this issue. The Dutch consider Croatia's cooperation with the Tribunal insufficient. I have heard several prominent Croats say the Dutch attitude is related with Srebrenica. "Dutch soldiers stood idle when 8.000 Muslim men from Srebrenica were murdered and now they are blocking our EU accession over a few artillery logs," a commentator sneered earlier this week.

Croatia as dangerous as Laos and Bosnia

There is no end to anti-Croatian propaganda from the Brits. This time Croatia ranks pretty low on the 2009 Peace Index, whatever that might be. The safest country is New Zealand, the least peaceful is Iraq. Croatia ranks 49, in the good company of mostly African nations.
Croatia scores especially bad on "Perceptions of criminality in society", "Number of internal security officers and police 100,000 people" and surprisingly "Likelihood of violent demonstrations". The Peace Index maybe anticipated on the upcoming pro- and anti-gay demonstrations (13 June) or else I have no idea whereupon this is based. It's pretty peaceful here, if you ask me. If it gets ugly on the 13th, you'll read it here.

Anti-gay demonstration

In 1861 a man called Ante Starčević founded the political party Hrvatska Stranka Prava (Party of Croatian Rights). The HSP's virulent nationalism was not only directed against Vienna and Budapest, but also against the Slav brothers of the Croats - Serbs. Starčević considered Serbs at best as a lower and dirty race. By the end of the nineteenth century, some considered the HSP not radical enough and founded the HČSP. "Č" stands for "čista", pure. Starčević died in 1895 and was proclaimed "father of the nation". His statue stands right opposite of Zagreb's main railway station (Glavni kolodvor).
After the genocidal campaign against Serbs and Jews (in which some HSP members eagerly participated) during World War II and the subsequent victory of the communists, political parties were forbidden. In the 1990s many parties reappeared on the political scene, and so did HSP and HČSP.
Fortunately, HČSP is a marginal political phenomenon, but modern technology enables them to spread their hatred against others via the internet. Through Facebook, for example, they invite people to come to Trg bana Josipa Jelačića (Zagreb's main square) to demonstrate against gays, on 13 June at 15.00 hours. Josip Miljak, HČSP president, said: "It is intolerable that a handful of disoriented and immoral people terrorize and impose their deformed way of life on others". He referred to the Zagreb Gay Pride which will be held on the same day.
I find it quite sad that Miljak and his gang of purists will occupy Zagreb's main square. On the other hand, it's good to know which people here prevent Croatia from becoming a normal country.