EU Rural Reviews
Croatia's unfinished business is outside Zagreb
Louisa Vinton, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Croatia
Croatia can be justly proud of its achievements in two decades as an independent state, including the creation of robust democratic institutions and a level of prosperity (at least as judged by an average GNI per head of $13,580) that has vaulted it into the World Bank's elite category of high-income economies. Membership of the European Union (EU) is within reach.
To celebrate the 65th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), the team of UN agencies working in Croatia chose to hold its annual party outside Zagreb, in the town of Petrinja. Although just one hour from the capital (when the traffic is good), Petrinja is located in the Areas of Special State Concern and faces many of the challenges typical of Croatia's war-affected regions.
It is an attractive riverside town, with an energetic mayor, a resourceful business community, and an impressive 1954. theatre where UN Day was celebrated. Post-war reconstruction has restored its leafy streets. Yet many buildings still bear the scars of war. Minefields still menace 40 sq km of the town's territory. A population that was once almost evenly mixed between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats is now overwhelmingly Croat, and scarce Serb returnees and more numerous Croat settlers now seek a peaceful coexistence in the many rural villages nearby. A large farming population struggles to make ends meet, despite the proximity of the famous Gavrilovic factory. Many farmers produce only for their own needs and live off pensions or benefits. The choice of Petrinja as the venue for our anniversary celebrations upset some diplomatic routines, but it is outside Zagreb that the UN sees Croatia's unfinished business. The country can be justly proud of its achievements in two decades as an independent state, including the creation of robust democratic institutions and a level of prosperity (at least as judged by an average GNI per head of $13,580) that has vaulted it into the World Bank's elite category of high-income economies. Membership of the European Union (EU) is within reach. But averages, though telling, can conceal a wide range of individual variations, some of them extreme. The spectacular beauty of coastal resorts which captivates so many visitors and fuels the country's booming tourism industry is just one part of Croatia's story. So are the comfortable circumstances of Zagreb.
Croatia has many faces
Croatia has many faces. Partly that is a result of the country's wealth of distinct cultural identities and diverse natural environments. For a relatively small country, Croatia is unusually rich in this respect. Part of this diversity, however, is also a reflection of the disparities in income, access to public services (such as certifiably clean drinking water), job opportunities, and living standards that Croatia, like many other European countries, is striving to overcome. These challenges are typical of remote and rural areas everywhere, but here they are more acute in areas that have experienced the devastation of war, massive flights of refugees, and the daunting tasks of reconstruction and reconciliation.
The distance still to be covered for less-advantaged areas is why the UN went to Petrinja. The slogan "Leave no one behind" was chosen to mark this year's UN Day as a way of drawing attention to Croatia's less fortunate groups and areas, at a time when the country is readying to join the EU. The numbers here are telling. GNI per head in the Areas of Special State Concern is one-third the national average. The share of people at risk of poverty is 19%. Unemployment is almost three times higher than the national average, and 24% of families in the Areas of Special State Concern lack access to clean drinking water. Addressing the needs of vulnerable people is a focus of UN activity everywhere, and in Croatia this preoccupation has centered on the Areas of Special State Concern. UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), whose presence in Croatia dates back 19 years, has worked to ensure that returnees and settlers have adequate housing and some initial resources needed to rebuild their lives. It has also provided skills training to help people develop new sources of income. And it has encouraged community reconciliation between different ethnic groups.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP), for its part, has worked with dozens of rural communities and towns to help repair and upgrade infrastructure; promote the development of small businesses; and provide vocational training, especially for people living in rural areas. Near Petrinja, for example, UNDP works with the Plum and Chesnut Centre in Donja Bacuga to teach farmers how to improve fruit crops and raise and breed livestock. Increasingly, these development activities are oriented to the challenges posed by EU accession – for example by ensuring that cattle breeders gain the certification they will need to market their products on European markets, or that municipal officials gain the project skills and build the partnerships with other municipalities and stakeholders that they will need to secure EU funding.
In its work in Croatia, the UN has encountered many remarkable activists, organizers, and entrepreneurs whose energy and ingenuity have helped transform their communities for the better and improved people's lives. A few of these shared their stories with the audience at the UN Day event in Petrinja, in a talkshow format deftly moderated by the HRT's Mislav Togonal. What this discussion showed is that activists are everywhere, but that they need better information and better skills – not handouts, this no one wants – to escape the constraints of subsistence agriculture in which so many are currently confined. Tapping domestic retail markets is another challenge where more conducive policies at the national level would help unleash entrepreneurial energy.
Croatia's rising profile in the UN
Success in overcoming the regional and social disparities represented by the Areas of Special State Concern would enrich Croatia's already enviable record of achievement since 1991. Even as it continues to benefit at home from the services provided by UN agencies, Croatia has become a valued contributor to a wide range of UN activities abroad. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted at the beginning of this month in an interview with Vjesnik (6 October 2010),"Croatia's active contribution to the United Nations has far surpassed its size." Thus UN Day this year was also an occasion to salute Croatia's rising profile in the UN. Most prominent in this respect is probably Croatia's engagement in UN peacekeeping missions, through the deployment of both military and police officers. Croatia currently has a total of 130 personnel – 11 police, 16 military experts, and 103 troops – engaged in nine UN peacekeeping missions (including in Cyprus, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, Sudan, Timor-Leste, and Western Sahara).
Croatia's international training center for military police peacekeepers in Valbandon, which is certified by the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations, has gained a reputation for excellence and is attracting candidates for certification not only from Balkan neighbors but also places as diverse as Norway and Iraq. The UN is also looking to Croatia for expertise, most prominently in the Secretary-General's selection this year of former Justice Minister Ivan Simonovic to serve, with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General, as the head of New York arm of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Croatia's experience is being sought as well as its human resources. The country's track record in building democratic institutions and overcoming a legacy of conflict yielded an invitation this August to former President Stjepan Mesic to visit Kyrgyzstan on an advisory mission in the wake of violent upheaval in the country's southern regions, where many ethnic Uzbeks reside. At UNDP's invitation, the former President travelled to Bishkek and held lengthy conversations with President Roza Otunbayeva. His advice to the Kyrgyz authorities to individualize responsibility rather than allow a culture of collective guilt to flourish reflected the sort of wisdom that Croatia has to share.
The path to EU
As Croatia follows its trajectory towards the EU, the work of the UN will shift in emphasis. UN agencies will focus less on providing development services in the country and more on channeling advice, expertise, and tested tools to countries facing challenges similar to those that Croatia has already overcome. UNDP is already putting to use in Bosnia and Herzegovina some of the local development strategies it found worked well in Croatia, and a half-dozen countries have lined up to emulate the energy efficiency program it is implementing on the Government's behalf in 7,000 state-owned buildings. Interest is also keen in Croatia's community and preventive policing work, and in efforts to collect and destroy the many small arms still in illegal circulation.
Where Croatia's solutions remain at best partial and scattered, however, is in rural, war-battered landscapes like those in the green hillsides just outside of the town of Petrinja. These areas are likely to remain at a significant disadvantage even after Croatia joins the EU, with living conditions, job opportunities, and public services all falling far short of the norm in the capital.
They need sustained attention; they need targeted support. That is why, drawing inspiration from a legion of community activists and diligent entrepreneurs in the Areas of Special State Concern, the UN in Croatia devoted its anniversary party to focusing the capital's attention on places like Petrinja.
The text was published in the "Guest Commentator" column in Vjesnik on 23/24 October 2010