Thirty years ago, the siege of the city of Vukovar – one of the symbols of the war in the former Yugoslavia – ended. Boris Dezulovic, leading Croatian journalist, in a recent editorial that we translated, tries to highlight the profound contradictions of today's Vukovar. This, however, earnt him death threats. We interviewed him
In his recent editorial titled “Fuck Vukovar”, Boris Dezulovic accuses the conservative party in Croatia, the HDZ, of having transformed over the years the city of Vukovar – the siege of which ended exactly 30 years ago – into "a mere funeral light, a futile plastic totem", "a mausoleum" in which life "is not only not tolerated, but not even foreseen". According to the famous journalist, who has received heavy criticism and death threats in recent days, the controversy surrounding his article shows that there are issues in Croatia that cannot be spoken about freely.
You've received dozens of death threats on social media over the past few days. How do you feel?
It is certainly not pleasant, something I would not wish on anyone. However, I live in a small town and, if the fascists had not published my address online, I would have had no worries. But now, even if I'm not afraid (not because I'm brave, but because we know what kind of cowards and assholes we're talking about), the situation is not good for those around me, for my family. This is why I decided to report about sixty comments, the ones with the worst threats. I am for freedom of expression and I have never sued anyone. But threats and hate speech are not freedom of expression.
Who published your home address online?
It was someone who lives here in the village. This is how fascism works: you don't need so many fascists (today there aren't any more than in 1933 or 1941), as long as there are those who applaud, throw flowers, and denounce suspicious people. This is fascism.
This is not the first time you have received threats, even serious ones. What does this mean for Croatia today?
Yes, it is not the first time. I have been working as a journalist for 35 years, first in Yugoslavia and then in independent Croatia, and my work is full of such reactions, simply because we do not live in a normal country (this is not and the previous one was not). Threats occur regularly, whenever a journalist dares to speak of what they colloquially call "the foundations of the Croatian state". That is, whenever you ask questions about war crimes, criminality, corruption in power… you are somehow undermining the foundations of the Croatian state.
The reactions to your article also show that you cannot speak freely about everything in Croatia. Perhaps a bit of an obvious question, but do you think the media are free in this country?
My answer is no. There are free journalists, but no free media. Each media is limited either by loyalty to the regime, or by its pressures, or simply by economic issues. Today the media no longer live off circulation and sales, but off advertising and clicks, and therefore can be blackmailed from an economic point of view. When I started working as a journalist, advertising made up 25-30% of newspaper revenues, with the rest coming from sales. Now the opposite is true, in the most optimistic estimates. For this reason, free media in the classical sense of the term no longer exist. What is truly free is the Internet, but we have seen how that freedom plays out these days. It is total chaos, in which verified information will never be attractive enough for people to click on and read it.
How was your editorial on Vukovar interpreted?
My article on Vukovar is neither the first, nor the second, nor the third on the subject, that is, on a city that in the last thirty years has been killed by the system to be transformed into a symbol, in which life is not tolerated. Worse still, it has become a city where life isn't quite planned. Mine was a cry for life in Vukovar, but they interpreted it as an insult to the city of heroes and its victims, thus framing it as a threat to the foundations of the state. It is not like I did not expect it and it is not the first time, but it is comparable to what happened in 1995, when at the Feral Tribune [a historic satirical weekly published between 1984 and 2008, ed.] we started publishing articles on crimes of Operation Storm and then all of Croatia turned against us. Fortunately, then there were no social networks, otherwise it would have been even worse.
You say that the situation today is comparable to that of the 1990s, when there was war in Croatia. How is it possible? Are social networks to bring out the worst in society or is it the latter to be rotten?
It is a bit like the question of the chicken and the egg, of who was born first. I believe that social networks show society as it is and Croatia's has not necessarily deteriorated since the 1990s. Unfortunately it is the same, but social networks show society as if on an X-ray. It does not happen only in our country, mind you, social networks are a sociologically interesting issue all over the world. We see well how Facebook's algorithms generate hatred, but Croatia, like the other Balkan states, is perhaps among the most suitable countries for this experiment. There is already 10% of the population that hates me and would like to kill me and these become much more dangerous when there is Internet to unite them, to organise them.
In your editorial you denounce the fact that Vukovar keeps losing its population, but you also mention the fact that in the last 30 years there have nevertheless been projects, investments in the city. Why didn't they work?
First of all, it must be said that a large part of the money that Croatia has invested in Vukovar has been spent on embalming the city, that is, to keep it dead. Instead, what had to be invested for life only served to enrich a few people. When the case of the former minister of European Funds broke out in Croatia [former minister Gabrijela Zalac was arrested a few days ago for corruption after an Olaf investigation, ed.], we found out how they spend money from European funds here. Obviously this was not discovered by the Croatian prosecutor or police but by the European one. I mention this case because this minister who has now been arrested is from the very east of Croatia and she has worked a lot on European projects in Vukovar. In short, on the one hand there is the restructuring of the city, or rather its conservation as a mausoleum, on the other – and this is a perfect image of Croatia – Vukovar, the city of heroes, becomes an ATM for corrupt politicians of the local and national administration. So the history of Vukovar is a bit like the history of Croatia. Vukovar – an ATM-shaped totem pole.
But despite emigration and the lack of a future you denounce, Vukovar has continued to vote for the HDZ for thirty years. Why?
Yes, this may seem paradoxical to Italian or non-Croatian readers, but it is so. For more than thirty years Croatia, robbed and abused by the HDZ in power, has continued to vote for this party. And this for two reasons. First of all, because the HDZ – since its founding by Franjo Tudman – has blackmailed the Croatian people with war, presenting itself as a defender of national interests and has held that position for the past thirty years. Anyone who rebels against the HDZ, against corruption, against crime is automatically accused of being anti-Croatian. This is why people are silent. It should be added that the HDZ mobilises large masses thanks to widespread corruption: the number of people who are employed within the public administration controlled by the HDZ is enormous and even more, almost 500,000 people, have received some kind of privilege thanks to the status of a veteran of the war of independence. This explains that solid 30% that the HDZ gets with every election.
The second reason is that those who are against this corrupt and criminal Croatia in the hands of the HDZ are leaving the country! When I write that 5,500 people (or a fifth of the local population) have left Vukovar in the last 10 years alone, I am not talking about elderly people, but about young people who have studied, people who have a potential and a wealth of knowledge that now offer elsewhere abroad. In other words, those who do not vote for the HDZ pack their bags, because they do not have the opportunity to change society, or their city, or the country, or to find fulfillment. The only option left is to move to a city, which is not a city of heroes, but a city for living people, such as Dublin, Prague, Vancouver, etc. Unfortunately this generates the current state of things, a social and political perpetual motion, which will continue forever, or rather as long as there are people in the country. The good news is that this situation won't last long, the bad news is that it will end with Croatia's biological death.
Do you see absolutely no hope of change for Croatia?
Unfortunately no, in my opinion the situation cannot be fixed. I think that Croatia as an independent state, as a project, has failed and cannot be recovered.
In 2014 Vukovar: a Life-Size Monument to the Dead City by Boris Dezulovic won the European Press Prize for best editorial of the year.
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