Saturday, 27 October 2018

A lovely city. An excellent meal. Great conversation. And some invaluable insights

The soft glow of gaslights in Zagreb's Upper Town
It’s curious being back in a country I haven’t visited for over half a century. 

A lot has changed. Starting with its name. Back then, it was just a constituent republic of a state called Yugoslavia. Today, it’s the independent republic of Croatia.

My first visit was in 1964. Among the few memories that have remained with me was the port of Dubrovnik, with three US warships docked in it. Even at eleven years old, it struck me as fascinating to see a ‘Communist’ nation hosting the US navy. It was testament to Tito’s wit in playing off the great powers against each other, as it was to a more intelligent side of US foreign policy, cultivating better relations with a supposedly enemy power, rather than going to war with it as in Vietnam.

After all, the US won the game in Yugoslavia. Vietnam inflicted their first ever defeat on them.
Flower market in Zagreb's old centre
We did get to Zagreb in 1964, but only to the suburbs. I remember a good lunch and little else. That made it all the more pleasurable to discover how much the city has to offer, as our friend Ana showed us around it on this visit. A beautiful old centre with a huge market offering every imaginable ware, streets offering fine prospects at every turn and glorious views from an upper town whose streets are still lit by gas in the evenings.
Roofs and spires, seen from the Upper Town
It’s a fine, and above all European, city. And the lunch was as good as back then.
With Danielle (left) and Ana
And Marija Juric Zagorka, Croatia's first female journalist
But our conversation was even more interesting than the city.

I’d already discovered in Valencia than when people talk about ‘the war’ they don’t mean the same thing everywhere. In Britain, France or Germany, it generally means the Second World War. In Spain, it’s the war against Franco’s Fascists in the late 1930s. But with a chill up my spine, I realised that when Ana speaks of ‘the war’ she means something that she suffered directly herself, where she saw and heard air raids coming in over the city in which she lives.

She’s talking of the war the Serb-led Yugoslav army waged against Croatia to prevent its becoming independent.

‘Not a civil war,’ she assures us, ‘because Croatian forces never set a foot on Serbian territory. It was a war started by the Serbs and fought in self-defence by the Croatians.’

We first met Ana in Strasbourg. She reminded us of the quaint habit there of sounding air raid warnings at noon on the first Wednesday of every month, as a test of their civil defence readiness. The first time she heard it, she froze with terror at hearing the familiar wail with its blood-curdling associations. Only when a colleague realised what was happening to her and explained that it was only a test of equipment, was she able to regain her composure.

To me, such memories belong to my parents’ generation, not mine. And certainly not to Ana’s: she’s significantly younger than we are.

‘For years,’ she told us, ‘I wasn’t allowed to be Croatian. The state tried to force us all to be Yugoslavs, but we never were and never wanted to be.’

The right to self-determination was asserted for all peoples after the First World War. In Yugoslavia, as in Czechoslovakia and other nations, it was never truly applied. Only now can Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins and even Kosovans at last begin to live their own lives, free of the authoritarian tutelage of Belgrade.

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a mess, of course. Something Ana feels particularly strongly, as she was born there – only 200 metres from the Croatian border, but still inside Herzegovina. For now, there’s a fragile peace, but it’s hard to know whether it will strengthen in the future or break down into renewed conflict.

And what about Croatia itself? Doesn’t Ana fear a new outbreak of hostilities?

‘I don’t think so. After all, we’re members of NATO now.’

At a time when it’s fashionable to write NATO off as the work of the devil – a position shared by Donald Trump and the far left – it’s a salutary reminder that there are people who rely on it for the defence of their freedoms. Maybe the organisation, for its many faults, isn’t entirely without redeeming features.

Nor is it the only international organisation to which Croatia belongs. Another, as important as NATO, is the EU. Coming here is a useful reminder that one of the major purposes of the EU, far greater than its economic role, is to begin to put an end to violence between states, at least in Europe. That’s a continent that has seen more than enough blood flowing from its internal strife down the centuries.

Right up to as recently as the 1990s in former Yugoslavia.
Croexit? No thanks
The Croatian flag flies with pride next to the EU’s
Croatia’s proud of being in the EU. I wish more people in the UK could understand that. Before they undermine the organisation and deprive themselves of its benefits by an intemperate, ill-thought out and self-harming Brexit.

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