Vladimir Unkovski-Korica (LeftEast) is a member of Marks21 in Serbia. He is a historian and researcher who is currently Assistant Professor at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His upcoming book entitled “The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-Alignment” will be released soon.
1) The Radnička fronta (Workers’ Front) has been recently founded and often calls itself the ‘Croatian Syriza’. Could you tell us something more about the emergence and program of the Front? Who are you, how many are you, what do you stand for?
The Worker’s Front was founded in May this year by a group of workers, trade unionists, students, activists and unemployed. Our goal is to create a broad progressive platform, combining the activity of a political party with direct action at the workplaces and political activism in general. At the center of our mission is the provision of a coherent critique of the capitalist system, and together with other progressive groups employ direct strategies against it. We think that a fundamental change of Croatian politics and society is necessary because the capitalist system, which is currently on the offensive in dismantling the remnants of welfare state, is inherently producing inequality, destroying the environment and increasing the ability of rich and the powerful to live off the work of the oppressed and the neglected, while simultaneously diminishing the latter’s ability to influence the political process in any meaningful way.
To do so, our platform has to be wide, because the oppressed and the neglected span through all parts of society: the young, the old, the students, the workers, the unemployed and the retired. The Worker’s Front is open to everyone who shares the ideas of anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-racism, the fight for the rights of women and minorities, ecology, and international unity of the workers and the oppressed. We firmly believe that only a common platform, combining different types of progressive struggle, can be successful in changing the current situation. We want to combine razor-sharp critical analysis of the society we live in, political activity, and direct action.
We currently number around 100 members with local organizations in 3 cities and our membership is expanding quite rapidly. Some of our members are prominently featured in the media (mostly newspapers and news portals) giving commentary on the contemporary national and foreign issues while others are prominent union activists.
2) The left in the post-Yugoslav region had great trouble re-asserting itself after the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia and the nationalist hysteria. What, if any, were the turning points that have allowed a left to re-emerge in Croatia?
The 90’s were a tough time for the left. After the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia, the nationalistic discourse reigned in our society without much opposition. The few voices which had the audacity to critique the regime were silenced and the overall atmosphere was quite hostile to leftists. Only in the first years of the new century, after the collapse of the regime of Franjo Tuđman, and the subsequent dismantling of the rigid social order which was imposed during his presidency, the left has started to come back. The first larger appearance was the protest against the American aggression against Iraq in 2003. In subsequent years the main rallying point for the left was the opposition to the rise of college tuitions and the demand of free, publically financed high education. That struggle culminated in the student occupation of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb in April 2009, which then spread throughout Croatia with 20 universities and faculties occupied at one point. These occupations were the turning point for the new left in Croatia, not only because it was so massive, but because the new student movement criticized the rising tuitions in the context of the privatization of the high education system. It also managed to produce a high-quality, systemic criticism of capitalism, especially its neoliberal offspring, which was up to that time nonexistent in the mainstream Croatian media. And which, subsequently, largely contributed to the anti-capitalist public discourse in Croatia, now not as unusual as only a couple of years ago.
At the same time there were communal movements against gentrification of urban space (the citizens of Zagreb protests against the devastation of downtown housing blocks), as well as movements against the devastation of other areas, the movement against the construction of large golf course and tourist complex in Dubrovnik). In 2011, Croatia also saw a month of large protests in the whole country and the new radical left was an active part of them. All of this together makes the unique block on which we lean as a new political initiative today.
3) In the post-Yugoslav region, the most spectacular success of the left was the recent breakthrough of the Slovene Left front in the recent elections. Do you have any relations with the Left front? What do you see as the main lessons of the left in Slovenia?
A number of the activists of the WF know the core of the Slovenian Initiative for Democratic Socialism already from their pre-incarnation in the Workers’ and Punks’ University. Thus, we are still in contact with the Slovenian United Left (of which IDS is a part of) and we’re planning to work together with them in the future. The parliamentary success of the United Left in Slovenia is obviously very important and a great impetus for all progressive forces in former Yugoslavia. The main lesson and what our Slovenian comrades have shown us is that political success and impact on a larger scale is not just something that can occur in Greece or Spain but in this region as well.
4) One of the questions we face in Eastern Europe is how the left can develop as a ‘third force’ separate from the dominant social liberals and the nationalist conservatives? Is this a question you ask yourselves and what answers do you offer? Has entry in the EU changed your perspective on this problem?
The problem of nationalism still looms large in the former Yugoslav countries, but the more insidious problem is the social liberals. The biggest problem with them would be that they are trying to present themselves as an alternative to the nationalistic right while they are obviously not. At the same time, the Croatian right is still largely mentally trapped in the war the country went through, so all they are capable of seeing is that they are „threatened“ by Serbs and the commies. In the last few years, they are also being „threatened“ by gay people. The matter of the fact is that the society as a whole is moving forward from the xenophobic 90’s and away from the far right nationalistic discourse and the political right, which was bathing in their privilege during those years, is scared witless by the fact that they are not the main political force in Croatia. That all played well into the hands of the social liberals (nominally the Social-democratic Party) who managed to grab the rule in the country and proceeded with catastrophic austerity measures, continued the privatization of the country and that in turn played right into the hands of the political right, which, financed and supported by the Catholic Church in Croatia, went through a revival.
The current situation is one in which we have a rebirth of the far right which is countering the ruling Social-Democratic Party (SDP), who are losing support. Meanwhile an eco-social-liberal party emerged and is rapidly rising while, yet again, offering no real alternatives, and only riding the wave of the demise of the “social democrats”.
Considering extreme economic devastation in the period of restauration of capitalism (Croatian BDP in 2014 is 7,7% lower than in was 1986), large rise of gross external debt, rampant unemployment (only 49,1% of citizens in Croatia age, group 15-64, were employed in 2013, the lowest figure in EU), and the fact that our current main stream parties are offering more of the same solutions that brought us here, we are convinced that Croatian political scene is ripe for a true alternative – a left party with a left program.
5) Since there are other left parties, trade unions, left NGOs and left sections of civil society in Croatia, what is your relationship with them? Is there a wider sense of renewal of the left scene in Croatia? Around what issues? What will be your next steps to build the Front?
Relationship with the trade unions is very important to us, especially the smaller militant unions which have direct influence at their working places since the larger trade unions tend to be corrupt and more often than not complicit in degradation of workers’ rights. There are a lot of trade union members in the Worker’s Front and we plan to grow further in that field. Concerning other (radical) left parties, there simply aren’t any – the WF is the only political force in Croatia seriously trying to do something on this front.
As for other left sector actors in Croatia, we are already cooperating in some struggles, like the one against privatization of highways and neoliberal reforms of workers’ rights laws. And considering the dire situation here, we are sure more will follow.
As for the renewal of the left in Croatia, in the last few years more than few quality initiatives have emerged, from left NGOs, newspapers and internet portals to already well=known left manifestations like Subversive Festival in Zagreb or Fališ in Šibenik. The left is rising again in Croatia and we are glad to be a part of it. As a contender for serious political work, we would be more than happy if people from other initiatives would join us.
As for the next steps, we plan on maintaining presence in street actions and in the media (although we’re still delaying our “grand entrance” onto the Croatian political scene because we’re still in early phases of organization), working on our strategies and theoretical foundations, and to continue with our weekly meetings to which new members are coming in rising numbers.
We have already established and plan to deepen our contacts with the European left and one of our projects for December is organizing a large conference of progressive and militant Croatian unions.