A year after the left-green political platform Zagreb je Naš/Možemo! won the local elections in Zagreb, Paul Stubbs reflects on the key achievements, constraints, and shortcomings of the new administration.
Živio prvi Maj – May Day forever
The traditional 1 May celebrations in Zagreb’s Maksimir Park were somewhat different this year. The Mayor, Tomislav Tomašević, flanked by the two deputy mayors Danijela Dolenec and Luka Korlaet, and the President of the City Assembly, Joško Klisović, made a short speech in which he consistently used the socialist name for the holiday “prvi maj” and not the Croatian version “prvi svibanj”. Part of his speech was as follows:
“Workers’ rights which we take for granted today, an eight-hour working day, pension and health insurance, were not gifted to workers but were fought for by workers, and we should remember that today. It has to be said that the struggle must go on, we believe in joining trades unions and in collective bargaining, as the only way to secure better working conditions and a better society.”
As he finished his speech, musicians from the Croatian National Theatre sang the Internationale and actors recited socially engaged poetry. As I walked around, along with the queues for free portions of baked beans and cheese pastries, I saw many friends and acquaintances, some, but by no means all, leading members of Zagreb je naš-Možemo! Almost everyone told me that this was the first time for many years they had wanted to attend the 1 May events in the park as, in previous years, the late Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić had captured the event for his own brand of populism.
Whatever else can be said about the first year of the mandate of the left-green coalition in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, the symbolic change illustrated by events in the park should not be underestimated. The mayor attending Zagreb Pride, unveiling a monument to victims of the Holocaust, and supporting activities celebrating anti-fascism and the Partisan liberation of Zagreb contribute to a sense that “the other Zagreb” is now reflected in political practices. The idea that those in charge of the City are not typical politicians is reinforced as the mayor arrives to work by bicycle or by tram. The sense that this is far from “politics as usual” is felt as the fleet of official cars is dramatically reduced and shadowy “advisors” on inflated salaries are dispensed with. Although mainstream media is forever looking for the whiff of scandal, about which more later, the days of people appointed to jobs because of their party affiliations are over.
Some notable achievements
Elements of a green agenda, and some other important policies, have begun to be implemented. Although not universally popular, a scheme to ensure that most of the city’s waste is separated at source so that as much as possible can be recycled is about to be introduced, as part of a longer-term ambitious plan of green transformation, including the closing of landfill sites, support for renewable energy, not least through tripling capacity from rooftop solar panels, reducing energy poverty, and so on. Bringing back into public ownership elements of outsourced waste disposal services has also begun, challenging the power of some private companies with close links to the previous administration.
Although still faced with severe bureaucratic hurdles, post-earthquake renewal, a key pledge that contributed to the platform’s election victory, has been prioritised, with a dozen schools, many other public institutions and some private homes having been renovated. An ambitious programme of expanding pre-school education has also begun, with four of some sixteen planned new kindergartens currently being built, along with recruiting over 400 new kindergarten staff to meet pedagogical standards. Some 12 new schools are also being built and, crucially, after many years of the education system being hijacked for indoctrination by the far right, Zagreb schools are about to introduce a programme of citizenship education that will, at least, address one problem amongst many in the education system. In addition, after some indecision, scholarships and stipends now focus more on criteria of need and less on the so-called “most talented”.
The City plans to reduce property speculation and reverse the decline in public housing, and has also improved procedures for the integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including those escaping from the war in Ukraine. At the time of writing, a scandal in which a woman who is 26 weeks pregnant with a foetus diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour cannot secure an abortion, even though such a termination is legal under Croatian law, because of so-called “conscientious objection” by doctors, has led to a commitment from one hospital in Zagreb, founded by the city, under new administration appointed by the City authorities, to create conditions for safe abortions in the city as soon as possible. None of these measures are particularly left-wing, and are far from revolutionary, but they have made a real difference to ordinary people’s lives.
Although few expected rapid transformation with a change in government in the city, the extent of politico-administrative, financial, and judicial constraints has been enormous, compounded by concerted attacks from parts of the mainstream media. Although a reorganisation of the City governance structure was agreed by the City Assembly at one of its early sessions, including the reduction of the number of Departments from 27 to 16, many of the positions of Heads of Department remain unfilled or still occupied by those appointed by the previous administration. Whilst Tomašević frequently refers to these positions as akin to that of a Minister at the national level, the fact that they are treated as technical rather than political posts is only one problem. Many incumbents, some of whom were key figures in local state capture and in promoting a right-wing populist agenda, held contracts that continued beyond the life-span of a single administration. Hence, almost a year into office, many of those responsible for implementing the policies of the new administration are, at best, lukewarm towards those policies or, in some cases, actively oppose them and subvert them at every opportunity. It is, also, worth pointing out that the fact that they are technical positions may mean that those technically qualified may still be appointed in the future regardless of the extent to which they support the programme on which ZJN was elected.
Although it was clear that the new regime inherited a difficult financial situation, a more in-depth analysis revealed a consolidated debt of 8.2 billion HRK (c. Euro 1.1 billion), around half of which is the debt of Zagreb Holding, a company formed to oversee most of the City’s services. Even before the extent of the debt was known, there was a sense conveyed that new programmes needed to be budget-neutral, with savings prioritised over new spending, largely because significant arrears, including salaries, needed to be paid. At times in terms of public pronouncements, the debt has been presented within a kind of neoliberal orthodoxy, hinting at a kind of “auto-Syrization” in which it is the debt per se, and not pressure from creditors, that necessities fiscal frugality. The phrase is meant to suggest, of course, that, unlike Syriza, the push for austerity here is not driven by pressure from external actors but derives from internal understandings. Even mainstream economic thinking suggests that levels of debt are less important than repayment schedules in terms of to whom, when, and under what conditions repayments must be made.
Of course, the city cannot be an island of socialism in a capitalist sea but any credible left administration must, surely, discuss a range of different options and develop a set of positions against neoliberal financialisation. It is unclear what advice is being received on this point and the extent of commitment to alternative, left, analyses of economics and finance. There are, certainly, rules regarding income to debt ratios that are difficult to work around. Nevertheless, the latest credit opinion by Moody’s rated the City, and Holding, as “stable” (Ba1), the same rating as that of the Croatian government. Of course, as a neoliberal agency, they praise the City’s “consistently prudent budgetary management” but, surely, if Moody’s considers Zagreb to have “low direct debt levels”, a left-wing authority should not, uncritically, be using the level of debt as, in and of itself, a kind of moral economy panic, presented as if “there is no alternative” to self-imposed austerity?
The extent of judicial constraints is illustrated by the high-profile case of one of the previous mayor’s most controversial programmes, that of “Parent-care giver” in which parents with three or more children, the overwhelming majority women, since the scheme is aimed at primary care givers, were given financial assistance by the City to stay at home to look after children and, not only absent themselves from the formal labour market, but renounce all other social benefits and exclude their children from pre-school education, in return for a monthly net benefit of some 4,500 HRK (EURO 600). Initial plans to abolish the programme were abandoned because, legally, these arrangements remained valid beyond the life-cycle of the previous administration. Currently, plans to reduce benefits to some 1,000 HRK a month (EURO 140) and make the scheme time-limited, are on hold because of a legal challenge by some parents-beneficiaries supported by radical Catholic organisations.
The case for ending the programme is based on its obvious lack of effectiveness in terms of so-called “demographic renewal” in terms of increased birth rates, but also, much more importantly, the rising numbers of beneficiaries. As a result, the scheme takes a huge chunk of a budget that could be used for innovative social policy measures – indeed, each month the scheme costs about the same as it would cost to finance a new kindergarten. Supporters of the scheme, including some radical feminists and leftists, point to it as an anti-poverty measure – recipients are overwhelmingly of low socio-economic status and many are Roma – and, indeed, as a precursor to “wages for care work” or, even, a form of universal basic income, notwithstanding the commonly accepted principle that such schemes need to be national and not local. Again, although the case for ending the scheme is clear, the administration is forced on to the defensive and placed in a policy limbo.
Although prior to the local elections in May 2021, the new platform received rather positive treatment, at least from print media, this changed dramatically after the election. In part, this seems to be because the platform challenges the power that some sections of the media had as an integral part of the previous mayor’s network of capture. Stories that are tenuous at best, and fabricated at worst, seem constantly to depict the administration as embroiled in sleaze, conflict of interest, or merely as inefficient and lacking in political experience. At times, this has led to newspaper stories of tenuous links between those appointed to certain positions and the platform’s leaders or, where there are no such links, digging up aspects of someone’s past in ways that undermine their legitimacy and credibility. To respond to these attacks, there is now greater attention to presentation of policies and appointments, and an attempt to be pro-active in terms of news cycles through initially twice-weekly, and now weekly, press conferences. At times, of course, this has meant that presentation has appeared to be prioritised over substance; at other times obvious misjudgements have been compounded by a refusal to change course rather than admit mistakes. Most worryingly, a culture of fear has been created in which the appointment of anyone close to the leadership to any role, albeit through completely open and transparent procedures, tends to be avoided if at all possible.
Decision-making and direct democracy
For me personally, the greatest disappointment has been the contrast between regular consultation with members and supporters of the platform up to the elections, and minimal consultation since. Apart from a recent Zoom meeting that was a technical discussion about merging membership of Zagreb je naš with the national platform Možemo!, I recall only one, perhaps two, consultation events since winning the elections. This means, in effect, that those who are not part of an inner circle of decision-makers, including even some elected members of the city council, municipal councils or neighbourhood councils, and those who are part of, more or less technical, working groups, tend to hear of policy initiatives through the media. At the same time, there is grassroots energy around the many new activists who have been elected to local levels of governance even though their status within the platform remains unclear, with many not formal members given a distrust of “newcomers”.
A platform that appeared to welcome open decision-making through concentric circles has, certainly, faced challenges in translating oppositional activism to local decision-making and citizens’ democracy. This has symbolic importance in that feelings of exclusion, feelings of not being “in the loop”, or even of simply not hearing first-hand explanations for certain decisions, does not consolidate, or ensure continued support from, a grassroots base. The extent to which the platform is being led, at least informally, by what I would term NGO-liberals who believe in hierarchical decision-making structures, ushering in a kind of technocratic, depoliticised, consensualist management of capitalism rather than a determination to pursue and explain politics in terms of struggle or, at least, agonism, is an open question. Of course, the other side of this is that the most powerful social movements in Croatia, and indeed, in Zagreb, are war veterans’ and radical right groups. Unlike, for example Podemos, Syriza or Barcelona en Comú, then, Zagreb je naš appears neither to have continued responsiveness to radical social movements nor, perhaps inevitable given the class base of the platform, to have ensured that demands and criticisms from the grassroots have a sustained impact on the policies of the platform.
Linked to this is a kind of “over-responsibilisation”: a sense that those elected to run the City cannot fall back on their party-platform affiliations but must be “responsible”, even for resolving a chaos not of their making. This has also led to a kind of burnout and dissipation of energy amongst part of the leadership. Although evidence for this is, at best, anecdotal and, sometimes, based on blog posts by those who have no loyalty to the platform, it seems that a pattern of ad hoc, impromptu, decision-making has emerged such that whenever a wicked problem emerges, those close to the administration make quick decisions based on informal advice from those they believe can provide an implementable response. Unfortunately, such flexible actors are just as likely, perhaps even more likely, to be insiders within neoliberal financial capitalism as to have a clear left agenda.
Without going into details, Zagreb Holding has proved to be the biggest headache for the new administration, with hasty decisions to appoint neoliberals who had clashed with the previous administration to managerial and supervisory roles backfiring rather quickly. Attempts to restructure Zagreb Holding to create fewer administrative and more operational positions, have been constructed as an attack on the very workers’ rights Tomašević pledged to uphold in his May Day speech. For me, more worrying regarding Holding and beyond, is the lack of any strategic direction or, at least, a lack of strategic direction and timeline that has been communicated outside the inner circle.
In my earlier text, I noted the difficulty of a double movement that would both “normalise” the governance of Zagreb and “radicalise” it. Normalisation appears to have been the priority of the new regime, whether by desire or default, and, in and of itself, this is a kind of transformation, the importance of which should not be understated. At the same time, the tensions between more liberal elements and more radical left positions are in danger, at least at the moment, of being resolved in favour of a liberal, technocratic, management. The planned merger of Zagreb je naš with Možemo!, whilst logical in many ways, may threaten the autonomy of a radical experiment in municipalism. At the same time, a new platform in Serbia, called Moramo, (We must,), has proved that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and achieved results in national elections and in Belgrade that are not unlike those of Zagreb je naš-Možemo! a few years ago. Real dialogue is needed between these two initiatives and practical examples of radical municipalism across the world including, close to home, in Barcelona, Graz and Berlin, to retain a chance that, after a year of consolidation and symbolic change, real left-green change can occur in the future.
 This text is a follow-up to an article written a year ago on the likely success of Zagreb je naš (Zagreb is ours-ZJN), a left-green political platform, in city council elections in Croatia, see: https://lefteast.org/will-zagreb-be-ours-the-prospects-for-a-left-green-alternative-in-croatias-capital-and-beyond/. Although still a member of the support group of ZJN and a (rather marginal) member of a Working Group on Human Rights, Minority Rights, LGBTIQ+ Rights, and Social Policy, this text is written from the standpoint of an outsider, albeit one sympathetic to the aims of the platform and close to some of its leaders. Whilst responsibility for what follows is mine alone, comments from, and discussions with Karin Doolan, Mariya Ivancheva, Tomislav Medak, Daniel Silver and Mislav Žitko have helped in framing aspects of the text.
 Although confusing even to some insiders, Zagreb je naš was formed as a municipal platform in 2017 and many of its key initiators, with others, formed Možemo! („We can!“) in 2019 as a linked national platform. Not all members of ZJN are members of Možemo! and vice versa.
Paul Stubbs is a UK-born sociologist who has lived and worked in Zagreb, Croatia since 1994. His work focuses on policy translation, international actors in social policy and, increasingly, on the history of Yugoslav socialism, social welfare and the Non-Aligned Movement. His latest edited book Socialist Yugoslavia and the Non-Aligned Movement: social, cultural, political and economic imaginaries will be published by McGill-Queens’ University Press in 2022.