Is It OK to Criticise Croatia? Sometimes? Just a Little Bit?

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I am beginning to wonder with all this energy spent on Facebook comments whether a single opinion has ever been changed as a result of heated exchanges when touchy subjects are written about on TCN.

As someone who scarcely has time to read the comments, I am in genuine awe of those who seem to dedicate much of their free time to entering debates, often with fake profiles, with other people across the ideological divide. And it doesn’t take very long for things to get heated, insulting and filled with abusive name calling. And despite all that effort, not one opinion changes. It truly amazes me. 

And of course, if a website deigns to publish an article in English which is in any way critical of an aspect of Croatian life, especially one run by a foreigner living in Croatia for 15 years, that really is beyond the pale. 

It is one of the things that fascinates me most about Croatian culture. Sit in the cafes and hear locals complaining about everything, from the cost of living to the size of tomatoes – finding fault in something is part of the Croatian way of life. Until… 

God forbid that a foreigner might voice an opinion publicly in line with those felt by locals. In English, so that foreigners may get to hear that things are less than perfect. 

Then the walls come up, the local ranks close, and the foreigner is attacked, threatened, told to fuck off whence he came. And very often by Antipodean Croats living in their 1941 bubble, with no concept of the daily grind of life in Croatia. 

The spark for this article, of course, is the recent piece on Tportal about the Belgian couple who sold everything, bought a house near Sibenik, and experienced rip-off situation after rip-off situation until they could take it no more and returned back to Belgium. You can read their sad story here in English. The story is the most popular on TCN so far this week, and it has already gone international, after Belgium’s second largest newspaper contacted us after finding the story on TCN (one more example of the growing media reach of TCN – if you would like to work with us, please contact us on [email protected]). 

Of course, it didn’t take long for the comments to come in. How can we know this is true (the cult of fake news is really taking off these days), how is it possible that people can buy in a foreign country without doing the appropriate research, why is TCN publishing such sensationalist rubbish portraying Croatia in a bad light, why don’t we report on happy stories (oh but we do! – here is just one example) these people should just back their bags and leave if they don’t like it without whinging to the media about the privilege of being constantly ripped off. But my favourite was one of early comments, sadly now deleted (it didn’t take long for someone to accuse someone of being a fascist – such is the way in the happy world of FB commenting on Croatia), where the original poster went on about some rant about people should be proud to live in Croatia and all foreigners are trying to take everything for free, to which the first reply was a question, asking if the ranter lived in Croatia, or was part of the sizable diaspora. Whether the ranter had day to day experience of life in Croatia or was commenting as a proud Croat abroad and occasional visitor. It is one of the faultlines of Croatian online commentators. 

A Dalmatian friend asked me this week if I ever get homesick. The answer is an emphatic no. Despite rumours of me being an undercover MI6 agent monitoring the Varazdin pumpkin harvest, I have no affinity to the Mother Ship these days, but I do realise and understand the pride Croatians feels in their young country after such recent heavy sacrifices, and why they might be more sensitive to criticism than some fat Brit. But does that mean that nothing can be criticised by foreigners? One of the great spectacles of the Croatian mentality is the politics of deflection – whenever a criticism is made, it is seen as an attack, and the classic Croatian response is to turn the attack into a counter-attack. Rather than acknowledging a criticism by a foreigner may be valid, Croats tend to go on the attack, pointing out the problems and bigger criticisms on issues linked to the foreigner. It is a tactic I have seen on topics from the price of eggs to war crimes tribunals.

It is not healthy. Dealing with criticisms, learning from them and effecting positive change because of them, is healthy. What is ironic is that many of the those criticisms are openly agreed upon when the conversation is local to local. Of course, as noted before, a foreigner is not really entitled to an opinion…

But in answer to a couple of the comments made, TCN is a news portal, which covers the news – the good, the bad and the ugly. Trying to maintain a news website with only happy stories in Croatia is about as challenging as being a successful wine critic in Saudi Arabia. A lot of people tell me this is a website for Croatians. Well, yes, partly, but is it primarily a website about Croatia – there is a difference. If you are looking for happy lifestyle stories all day, there is a very good website which caters to that need. 

On the subject of buying property here, I know a fair bit about it, both as a purchaser and also a real estate agent during my time on Hvar. The first thing I would say is that things have changed a LOT in the last ten years and would I advise someone to buy property in Croatia these days? Yes, absolutely. The market is MUCH more regulated now, the days of the Wild West are over, and many, many more properties have been cleaned of their bad paperwork. With licences real estate agents (as opposed to every waiter and his dog back in 2004), a lot more info available online, and lawyers with much more experience of foreign buyers, it is harder today to get caught in some of the unfortunate things which happened to this poor Belgian couple. 

Were they naive? Perhaps, but only in the same way that so many others were too. Part of it I think is that many foreigners came from countries where they took the word of a lawyer at face value whereas the local perception of lawyers based on local experiences (again, only for public discussion in cafes in Croatian, not with a foreigner in English – it is a topic I will return to when I finally finish my next book, Around the World in 80 Disasters), is somewhat different. Here is what happened to me.

Buyer meets lawyer with an intimate knowledge of the terrain. He utters the famous words “Nema Problema” – no problem – (note to future buyers – if you hear this phrase from a property lawyer, run a mile in the opposite direction), as well as the reassuring “Papiri su 100% cisti” (the papers are 100% clean). Coming from a country where things are very regulated – you could get sued for failing to disclose info about a bad neighbour in the UK last time I was selling – a lawyer’s word is taken at face value. So the lawyer guarantees the papers are clean and there are no problems are pretty reassuring. Going back to the UK for a bit, why wouldn’t I give the man a Punomoc (power of attorney) to seal the deal in my absence, leaving money with my father-in-law to be for the deposit when the lawyer gave the go ahead?

What could possibly go wrong? The property was a large one, with multiple owners, all from the same family, and the lawyer even had a Punomoc for some of them too. Nema Problema, all would be ok. And so it was with the initial purchase of two thirds of the property – at least initially. Having completed the transaction he then announced that there was a Mala Problema (Little Problem, sometimes referred to as a ‘Problemcic’ in Nema Problema legal speak), that the other part of the property could not be bought. But Nema Problema, he would sort it. As we waited, a late night phone call from Belgrade four years later from a woman claiming 22,000 euro from me as I had bought a house in which she had a share, and she had received nothing.

Oh yes, I forget her, the lawyer told me reassuringly, you will have to pay. After I threatened to insert a Nema Problema the size of a prize-winning marrow in a place the sun don’t shine, that problem went away. There were many other hurdles on the way until ELEVEN years later, we finally got the ownership. But only of the two thirds – the rest remains not for sale.

Naive? Perhaps. Too trusting? Certainly. In the minority? Not at all. During my time as a real estate agent, I was constantly astounded by the number of people who came to the island for a couple of days, found a property to buy, then left a Punomoc with the lawyer and – even more trustingly – a Punomoc with me at the bank, so that I could complete the transaction. At one point I had something like 700,000 euro in various accounts, which I could legally have withdrawn, and then disappeared.

Those scary days are now over, and buying property in Croatia is a much more transparent and safer experience a decade later, but is it wrong to write about such ‘sensationalist’ stories? I don’t think so, it is real life, and I think a little criticism on occasion – if properly heeded – is a positive thing, and can even lead to positive change.

Not that I expect it to in this case, because no sooner will I hit publish than the torrents of abuse will start. For a foreigner criticising Croatia or things Croatian, even when done in a constructive manner, is still a taboo.

It is one of the reasons (among many others) that this country is sadly struggling to move forward.  



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