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Europe

Taking a cue from the Arab world, Croatians launch street protests

Inspired by demonstrations in the Arab world, Croatians have taken to the streets to push for reform. Despite its reputation as a Balkan success story, the EU candidate faces a slow economy and government corruption.

A Croatian protester with a megaphone

Many Croatians are fed up with their government

Since late February, demonstrations have become a regular occurrence in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Although the protests are usually small and non-violent, clashes have occurred between the police and demonstrators. On Saturday, these protests are expected to go nationwide in a day of action against the government.

A small Balkan nation of over 4 million, Croatia has been considered a Balkan success story by the West. After the devastation of the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s, Croatia began to implement democratic reforms that put it on the road to join the European Union. However, an economic crisis has gripped the country and hit ordinary people hard. Corruption cases have ensnared leaders at the highest levels of government and people are losing their faith in the future politicians have been promising them.

"I think the government is corrupt and unable to bring a better future for our country," said Vladamir Vukosavljevic, a 30-year-old university graduate who has been unemployed since finishing his studies.

Social protest network

The grassroots demonstrations have bypassed traditional political structures and lack an overarching organization. As in the Arab world, Facebook has served as a key platform to get people in the streets. Status updates, wall posts and pages announce the protests and provide a digital venue for public discourse.

Croatian riot police

The protests have largely been peaceful

Ivan Pernar, 25, is the self-styled leader of the movement. The former nursing student and amateur investor credited himself with organizing the first gathering after seeing ordinary citizens successfully take on autocratic regimes in the Arab world.

"When I saw those people are falling down, I said our prime minister is not stronger than Mubarak," Pernar said. "If Mubarak will not shoot on people, I guess she will not too. So it all started."

Although Pernar described himself as a libertarian and capitalist, his message is firmly rooted in what he calls "economic patriotism." Pernar said he wants Croatia to nationalize all banks, slash its taxes and weaken its currency once the country is stripped of what he sees as a corrupt autocracy. And Pernar is not enthusiastic about Croatia's present path to join the EU.

"We will not get in the European Union on our knees," he said. "If you want to have us as an equal partner, so be it. If you want to tell us you have to do this or that, or this concession, then you can make that concession with yourself, we don't need you then."

"No Croatia in EU"

The growing antipathy towards Brussels has been on public display at the protests, with many demonstrators brandishing signs that say "No Croatia in EU." This growing Euro-skepticism worries Ivan Grdesic, a political science professor at Zagreb University and a former ambassador to the United States.

Croatian protesters

Nationwide protests are set to take place Saturday

"This dissatisfaction with the government, not only in the street but also among the people who do not participate, may be transferred into a negative vote on the European Union," Grdesic said. "That may be seriously negative for the Croatian immediate future or maybe for the long-term future."

Grdesic said he views the protests as generally healthy for the Croatian political discourse so long as they stay peaceful. However, ordinary citizens like 29-year-old Maja Savic were at their wits' end, and said they will stay in the street until change comes to their country.

"We will protest until this government falls," Savic said. "Because I'm unemployed, because I have a sick mother. I don't have any money. And this is it."

Author: Nate Tabak / sk

Editor: Sean Sinico

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