On June 1 2016, protests all over Croatia gathered more than 50,000 citizens in support of the curricular reform. Even though school education in Croatia is an intimidating system that does not encourage its users to become informed, the amount of children, young people, high school students and undergraduates that flooded the streets of Zagreb showed that something in that system worked.
Recent political developments
Instinct is something that transcends knowledge, Nikola Tesla said. If there was something indicating that the new government would try to stop the first comprehensive reform of the educational system in Croatia, then the instinct would most surely point to the activities of the conservative movement rolling down the Kaptol hill, seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Zagreb. One of the first eruptions of voices that had not been dominant in the public sphere in the last fifteen years, was the people’s referendum on the definition of marriage to be included in the Republic’s Constitution, held in 2013.
During the process of accession to the European Union, Croatian political elites had set up an alliance and changed the quota needed for the legitimacy of the referendum, saying that the decision is adopted by the majority of those voting and not the majority of those eligible to vote. Six months later this constitutional change enabled the first referendum initiated by 700 000 signatures to take place. Unfortunately, it was used to divest a certain group of citizens of their right to conclude marriage.
Even though marriage was defined as a union between man and woman only, six months after the referendum the (former) government passed a law on same-sex partnership that provided partners with equal rights as married couples, apart from adoption. It would seem as a victory had the parliament not passed a new Labour law on the same day, designed to favor employers, allowing them maximum flexibility and lowering workers protection indicators. That was also the moment when liberal leftist tendencies departed from progressive social left movements, a move adequately depicting the current state of affairs in Croatian civil society.
Legal personalities that constitute this conservative ideological field include a number of informal initiatives and associations, all types of media – printed and electronic – even a journalists’ association, political parties and religious organisations. Very often, political parties and religious organisations form associations that use designated media outlets that promote their views. The most known case is the initiative U ime obitelji (In the name of the family) that set the stage for the aforementioned referendum, after which the initiative became an association.
Having received funding for the referendum from private donations and a strong logistical support from the Catholic Church, now U ime obitelji is eligible to apply for public funding for their activities. Most responsive was the mayor of Zagreb who provided necessary infrastructure (an apartment in the centre of the city and all amenities paid) without a public procedure. The next step was launching a web site that now has more than 45 000 followers on Facebook.
National funds for media outlets, civil society development and development of culture programmes did not acknowledge U ime obitelji and objected their non-transparent way of working. Soon, however, U ime obitelji registered as a political party and even participated in the parliamentary elections in 2015. They did not win any seats in the Parliament but it only took a couple of months for the new government to act upon their vision of society.
At this moment, the conservative front is directly and indirectly supported by the Catholic Church and is represented in most governmental institutions. The Deputy Prime Minister and numerous ministers, deputies and secretaries in the current government all come from Church’s ranks, while the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister are benevolent towards the Church. They were all elected in the past year.
Parliamentary elections were held in early November 2015. None of the parties or coalitions received the majority of votes. The elections were followed by two months of negotiations between three actors who received the most votes: the former government – the liberal coalition whose title but not its deeds refer to social democracy (SDP), a nationalist-oriented coalition whose leading party (HDZ) has been in power for 18 out of 25 years of country’s independence, and a coalition of independent lists of city mayors and officials (MOST), set up shortly before elections.
The latter received enough votes to decide with which of the two major parties they would want to form a government. After two months of feigned negotiations, they established a coalition government with HDZ, a party charged with accusations for corruption, alongside its former president and Croatian PM Ivo Sanader. Both major parties, SDP and HDZ, in some way derived from the Communist Party, the only party in former Yugoslavia; both ruled regardless of domestic economic interests and according to the dictates of IMF, credit agencies and Troika. They had developed the “godfather capitalism” supported by networks of private interests and clientelism, at the expense of the most vulnerable sections of society, media freedom and environmental justice. Legislation regulating those fields in Croatia is neither systematically implemented nor regularly monitored.
An assault on civil society
With the new government came new tendencies. The nationalist-oriented coalition in power is comprised of eight right-wing parties, some of them being apologists of Second World War’s ustasha regime, and the others closely connected, business and family-wise, with the conservative front gaining power during the past three years. The latter platform insists on only one legitimate perception of society – that of one nation, one religion, one colour, one sexual orientation. It mobilises a certain part of society (polls say one-third) by denouncing prominent civil society actors as supporters of the former government and those who impose minority values on the majority, at the same time taking on their discourse on volunteering, activism, protection of civil rights and the community interests.
Their trademark is the new minister of culture – Zlatko Hasanbegović: a mixture of both extremes in the coalition in power, politically pertaining with the biggest party, HDZ, as their man on the job. And the job is to shut down all opposition – media, NGO’s, students, progressive culture – with all their liberal tendencies, acquired rights and pursue of common goods.
As soon as Zlatko Hasanbegović was appointed as minister of culture, a group of cultural workers naming themselves Kulturnjaci2016 launched protests against his appointment, declaring that his political views and CV make him unsuitable for the job. One of Hasanbegović’s controversial comments was that anti-fascism is an empty phrase and not a crucial factor in the establishment of the Croatian state, even though this fact is written in the preamble of the Croatian constitution.
The situation of the Croatian media has worsened since the new government took power, largely due to the activities of the minister of culture, responsible for the media sector. Apart from eliminating funding for non-profit media and cutting the ministry’s support for government-critical media, Hasanbegović also played a role in the resignation of Mirjana Rakić, head of the state’s regulatory body Agency for Electronic Media. In March, the government majority in the parliament removed the director of the Croatian Radio-Television organisation, HRT and replaced him with the president of a conservative journalistic association. In less than two months, more than 70 journalists, editors, directors, managers, cameramen and others have been removed from their positions or laid off from HRT.
The front needed to fight against these developments is not well aligned, acquainted or even on the same page regarding the history textbooks. Alignment, networking and collaborations between different civil society actors started gaining visibility and concrete support only in the last two years. Protests in Varšavska Street in Zagreb, initiated by Zelena Akcija and Pravo na Grad against privatization of public space and commercialization of cultural heritage, begun in 2008. In the summer of 2012, these culminated into a permanent protest of dedicated activists joined by large numbers of ordinary citizens.
Varšavska Street protests were followed by protests elsewhere in Croatia, most notably in Dubrovnik against the manipulation of public interest through real estate development, but also in smaller local communities. After succeeding in mobilizing broad popular concerns over corruption and lack of civic participation in the public sector, a campaign for ban on monetization and concession of Croatian highways begun. The biggest accomplishment of the campaign in 2014 was the mobilization of a wider platform of civil society actors: two trade unions, two networks of civil society organisations and five associations, five union confederations and more than two thousand volunteers.
In 2015, the National Foundation for Civil Society Development (Nacionalna zaklada) implemented a new model of support for civil society organisations, initiatives, active citizens and interested public. This new model consisted of an open call for proposals to establish and/or maintain various platforms in the field of participatory governance of infrastructure, institutions and public goods, cross-sectoral collaboration, sustainable development, cooperation on regional and European level. Through this model funds were invested in platform’s development after implementing an activity or a campaign thereby moving further from project planning and allowing organisations to respond promptly and effectively to urgencies.
In this year’s regulation on the distribution of lottery funds, the National Foundation received only half the funds compared to 2015 which pushed its activities to the edge of viability. Adopting such a regulation means cutting the platform support for 50 percent and shutting down numerous programmes of civil society organisations dealing with the most vulnerable groups – the disadvantaged, the poor, elderly, disabled – as well as those engaged in cultural activities, amateur sport, voluntary societies, informal education, environmental justice, volunteering, civic organisation or the protection of rights.
On the other hand, issues like professionalization and bureaucratization, project-oriented logic, sectorial enclosure, initiatives questioning and endangering human rights, forced de-politicization and political illiteracy, are breaking up initiatives and movements throughout civil society sector without any hope of finding a common ground and alignment.
During the first decade of the new millennium, Croatian NGOs were mostly devoted to achieving an organisational and financial stability that allowed them to build a stronger infrastructure, solid resources and specific knowledge, while institutions, academia, trade unions and religious organisations have not gone through any development. They’ve failed to acknowledge and act upon the phenomena of the post-Yugoslav war, e.g. the convergence of socially owned companies and privatization, destruction of industrial production, re-traditionalisation of social values and the establishment of a national paradigm of culture and education.
Cultural and civil society sector in Croatia has been paralyzed since Hasanbegović’s instalment – the executive boards of independent public foundations (Nacionalna zaklada and Kultura nova) have been dissolved, both will soon have appointed rather than elected directors, the allocation of public funds in the cultural sector took place for the first time without taking into account the independent cultural council’s opinion, the small structural support of non-profit community media was shut down, new regulations and laws that centralises decision-making in the hands of the minister are being passed. Here, it should be noted that in 2015 a number of procedural regulations, decrees were imposed, on civil society organisations, mainly non-profit organisations, placing them closer to – in terms of legal requirements and status – the private, for-profit sector.
The public is being amused by the minister himself: a right-wing hero that fights back “those budget parasites” and followers of the former government or, a Croatian walking shame in the ministry of culture – a revisionist of the past, an apologist of a fascist regime and a highlighted representative of the conservative front. After forming the new government, a petition for Hasabegović’s removal was initiated by Kulturnjaci2016. It gathered more than 5000 signatures of cultural workers from Croatia and abroad and became a symbol of permanent resistance to political retraditionalization and the national paradigm of culture.
Unfortunately, Hasanbegović remained interesting for the mainstream media only in terms of his interpretations of the past, but not his moves in the field of culture. The question at hand is utterly important in times when right-wing parties and movements, nationalistic, chauvinistic and xenophobic rhetoric are taking over public discourse across Europe. But in the Croatian context, questions of cultural policies are undoubtedly connected to questions of the past. Culture anticipates almost every part of human life that society agreed on protecting through public mechanisms controlled by the state – its health, education and social care system, its public goods.
The reform of schooling system
On June 1, 2016 protests all over Croatia gathered more than 50 000 citizens in support of reform of the educational system. Protests were initiated by the resignation of national expert group working on curricular reform, due to the political pressures coming from the new government to reverse the reforms. The reform of the curriculum is just a small part of the reform of the schooling system which is, at its turn, just a part of a comprehensive strategy on education, science and technology, adopted by the Parliament in 2014.
The strategy in general is being implemented slowly, while the curricular reform in particular has gone through the biggest progress, but also protests. The main reason for objection is the fact that the experts implementing the reforms – elementary and high schools teachers, professors and researchers – were appointed by the previous centre-left government, and are thus considered too liberal i.e. not committed enough to homeland-loving.
On one hand, that is where school subjects like history and Croatian language were caught in censorship scissors, and on the other, previous discrepancies between the Ministry of Science, Education and Sport and civil society organisations concerning health, sexual and civic education were only augmented. Curriculums suggested by teachers from all over Croatia aimed to modernise schools that will keep pupils to open up to the possibility of changing and improving their skills, attitudes and values and reorganize every day school in a more flexible and autonomous direction. More than 400 practitioners, closely connected to their working collectives, decided to reform Croatian school education system based on the needs of students, teachers and parents.
Also, curricular reform is the place where “liberal” and “radical” left tendencies confronted. For some, the curriculums suggested that educational system serves as a field for obtaining skills for the labour market and students were perceived as labour force, without taking into account their unequal starting points. Without questioning religious dogmas, neoliberal market and the form of capitalism developed in Croatia, without developing the pupils’ perception of workers’ rights and alternative forms of democracy, curricular reform could not gain support. Especially, the idea carried out by the leader of the expert working group and accepted by many, that politics has nothing to do with education, triggered negative remarks for being naive and impotent.
After the appointment of the new government, the Ministry only nominally supported the curricular reform. Guidelines of the newly formed government implicated a plan to stop the reform – later it was called a „slip“, followed by minister Predrag Šustar’s statement that it is possible to postpone the reform – but „there is no need for that“. Consequently, the budget guidelines for 2016 were published, from which the curricular reform disappeared – „we have European funds“, it was claimed as a response, And finally, the official statement of the Ministry was issued that withdrawal of money from the European funds will not happen until the testing implementation of the curriculum starts – for which the Ministry itself is responsible.
Disputes erupted after the parliamentary committee on Science and Education concluded that the national expert group in charge of the reform should be expanded with ten new members specialized in other fields. The problem with such a decision is that the curriculums are being altered by teachers that have written them after the process of public consultation have taken place, and the expert group is supposed to be there only to organize and support the process, not to intervene in the content. That conclusion revealed the government’s absolute ignorance of the curricular reform process, on one hand, and on the other, the fact that the conservative movement, now seated in the Parliament, gained too much power in a secular society.
For the last five months, the Ministry of Education has also been giving general support to providing a State Pedagogical Standard, organized and paid transport for high school students, student standard and grants, professional development of teachers or the autonomy of the University and its constituents. But no actual support to infrastructure, financing, organizing work or allocation of public money for public good has occurred. The members of the expert groups responsible for drafting 52 curricular documents have not yet seen their contracts, let alone fees, while often having had to finance travelling to teachers’ conferences where the documents were represented and discussed from their own pockets.
So they have rebelled. Teachers, pupils, students, parents, citizens took the streets in 13 Croatian cities and said that they have had enough of any government experimenting with the schooling system and that they believe their teachers more than they believe their politicians.
No cultural base
If instinct is something that transcends knowledge, one could argue that it implies that formal education is not necessary to survive. Many texts about instrumentalization of knowledge and the idea of a knowledge society have been written, so we do not need to repeat them here. From another perspective, only systematic and on-going education can make one understand that formal education is not necessary in that aspect and that it can be different. Educational system in Croatia is often an obstacle for a mind interested in everything living and breathing, an intimidating system that tolerates but does not encourage its users to become informed.
That is why the amount of children, young people, high school students and undergraduates that flooded the streets of Zagreb on June 1 was a real surprise, a victory in itself. It showed that something in that system worked. It didn’t take long to find out what that was – 50 thousand people cheered and applauded every time the word „teacher“ was mentioned. The base. The more the politicians offended them, as the minister of culture did, calling them ‘instrumentalised by the opposition’, the more the public anger grew.
Cultural theorist, writer and professor at comparative literature department at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, Dean Duda once suggested that it is absurd that we have a Ministry of Science, Education and Sport as if education should not have a sector of its own, dedicated to its growth as a precondition for higher education and scientific development, and that if there is a sector with which it could be merged with, it should most surely be culture. Because culture, and this is now my interpretation, does not have a base. Its base grows out of the educational system – pupils and students are thought to seek impulses from the outer world, to find recognition of what teaching materials they learn from in everyday life, to question what is seen and heard and to find alternative sources of information. Or they should be.
If they are not, they depend on the institutional support that will impose those imperatives on teachers but also introduce and implement such practices, from assuring that pupils attend and participate in cultural activities by financing their learning, to supporting every local initiative that upgrades the learning process. Unfortunately, it is not just that the Ministry of Education does not provide that kind of support, the Ministry in many cases resists its own educational policies.
The fact that non-institutional culture in Croatia, part of a larger organised civil society, does not enjoy protection of their own base, easily leads us to a conclusion that there is no cultural base. Why was public anger not unleashed after minister Hasanbegović shut down of non-profit media, after the state’s regulatory body for digital media was solicited rather than protected, after undemocratic practices in the redistribution of public money for cultural programmes became obvious, after paralysing Foundation Kultura Nova, after the intention to ignore expert councils’ suggestions and accuse them of shaming the good reputation of Ministry of Culture was declared, as suggested by the new Law on Culture Councils now in public consultation? There is a direct link between the two processes and the sectoral policies that have not yet been implemented much.
The former government introduced a pilot programme of cultural activities performed by associations and artistic organisations from independent cultural scene, directed towards elementary and high schools, but the programme was not well implemented, guided or monitored so there are no analyses about its benefits. The new minister decided to announce a call for the same programme under the European Social Fund, and not the national budget, but the call has not yet been published. The Ministry of Education has recently released a call for civil society organisations’ educational programmes in schools, and that is the furthest the relationship between culture and education has gone in institutional context.
That is why, among other reasons, Croatian society needs a curricular reform. From the inside it relies on individual teacher’s enthusiasm and that is not sustainable, especially given the fact that teachers are themselves educated in the same system that does not link the two sectors, two life spheres, and prevents aforementioned instinct to appear through cultural education. In Croatian context, cultural policies are undoubtedly connected to questions of past, questions of education and questions of public interest and public goods.
Society agreed on protecting public goods through public mechanisms controlled by the state because it understood that collective protection of rights is stronger than individual and that these goods must be accessible and available for everyone. This is the case for education, just as it is for culture. But the educational system provides its users only with institutionalized, retrograde culture and art, and its users are not formally informed about the existence and relevance of contemporary cultural practices. Society’s needs, in Croatian context, were fulfilled in 1991, by gaining an independent state, and everything after this period is insignificant. Independent cultural scene grew despite it.
The task for the Independent Cultural Scene
So the emergence of Zlatko Hasanbegović is a not at all a surprising event as it might look like. Keeping the public in the period of Homeland war, symbolically but also verbally, conditions the public view of the illiberal and autocratic tendencies that the coalition in power has sought to carry out. Fortunately, the independent cultural scene only grew stronger in their demands for a transparent, useful and cooperative state during the past decade. There are numerous organisations dispersed throughout Croatia, connected by Clubture network since the beginning of 2000s and Foundation Kultura Nova since 2011.
Clubture Network is a unique example of a national platform of independent cultural organisations whose activities are directed towards decentralisation of cultural production and the democratisation of culture. The innovative and inclusive model of cooperation and decision-making pushed Clubture to initiate gathering of the independent cultural organisations from the region into a collaborative platform Kooperativa. In various cities in Croatia (Rijeka, Pula, Zagreb, Split, Karlovac, Dubrovnik) Clubture’s organizations co-established cultural institutions and at a national level successfully advocated for the establishment of the foundation for independent culture. The process of founding Kultura Nova extended over several years and included representatives of civil society organisations, different state administration bodies, public government bodies and experts. The Law on Foundation Kultura Nova was passed in 2011. Since its new Managing body has to be confirmed by Ministry Of Culture, Zlatko Hasanbegović has yet to show what he considers civic culture.
In the context of civil society organisations, civic culture has been a large part of it, active in local communities where organisations for protection of rights, gathering of youth, women or ecology, educational or health services, were just forming. At this point, there is a civil society organisation in almost every local community that can work from the inside.
An important episode in Croatian past relates to the situation evolving at present day. The government’s irresponsibility has been triggering mass discontent until the end of the 1990s and the removal of the government was initiated by a broad civic mobilization. As sociologist and activist Srđan Dvornik writes, on one side there was a regime that had everything under control, but no base to hold power, on the other – mass discontent, and in the middle hundreds of civil society organisations who themselves would never have been able to run such a crowd, but were capable of organisational support.
The exact same thing happened behind the scenes of massive protests that have marked 1 June. Anger, the first step towards articulation of the problem, has to be organised in order not to become self-pleasing but productive. Mobilisation, channelling and organisation of an idea of a better future towards a movement that cannot be out-voiced, is exactly what the Croatian civil society has to offer to those kids, pupils and students who gathered in public spaces in defence of public interest. For many of them, this was the first protest they’ve attended.
If culture, cultural movements and actors could embrace „depoliticised“ educational system as the starting point where critical, progressive and experimental cultural practices can be nurtured, there is a possibility that those practices will retain its addressees. Only from that point onwards can that system – its practitioners and users, accept political as a way of operating, as a way of forming the base for reproduction of critical, progressive and experimental ideas.
Yes, we all know that there is no possibility for educational systems to avoid being ideological, but only through cultural education can that idea become prevailing. Developers of the curricular reform, teachers, have invited engaged cultural practices into educational system; there is only the effort of responding to the invite. Since the possibilities in the institutional context are really scarce, cultural organisations could join teachers and organizations that work in education in the common struggle of breaking down government’s barriers to an educational system that is free, just and accessible to all.
Author Matija Mrakov?i? is a journalist and editor at a non-profit web portal Kulturpunkt.hr and works on some programmes of its publisher – association Kurziv – connected with informal education and documentation and historization of Croatian independent cultural scene. She writes about regional independent cultural scene, civil society organisations, media, contemporary culture, education policies, and collaborates with organisations and initiatives in Croatia, region and Europe. This article was originally published on politicalcritique.org.
Lead image: Reading Umberto Eco’s essay Ur-Fascism in Zagreb by artist Damir Bartol Indoš, action by Kulturnjaci 2016, photo by Kulturnjaci 2016.