Croatia in 2021: Casinos Open, Cafes Closed; Protests Fined, Masses Blessed

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It has been a funny year. 

A year when one’s perception of the world and attitudes to the virus changed from week to week. 

I remember the feeling of internal panic as we drove off the ferry at Sucuraj on the eastern tip of the island of Hvar almost a year ago, after school closures of two weeks were announced. Varazdin was among the first to have recorded cases in Croatia (I think there were 8 when we headed south), and Hvar had none. What if we brought the virus to the island? 

So paranoid was I that I did not go within 2 metres of – or even speak to – anyone outside the immediate family for over a month. When I did leave the house for my evening walk by the Adriatic, I took care to be on the other side of the path if there were any people coming my way. It felt odd and a little farcical, but it soon became normal. 

I remember how shocked I was coming back to Zagreb some 63 days after lockdown on Hvar to see a bar crammed full of people with no masks, drinking and partying like it was a regular Friday night in the old normal. 

And yet numbers stayed low.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating lockdown, nor am I advocating a full relaxation of measures. My opinion doesn’t matter, and I am certainly not qualified to judge what Croatia’s correct approach should be. But I am advocating one thing:


As I wrote in my last editorial As Gym Owner Faces Prison, the Virus Must be Laughing at Croatia’s Inconsistent Measures, corona is beginning to feel a little like a university course in the study of human behaviour at the University of Aliens on Mars. Just observing the inconsistencies of applications of the measures in Croatia (and many other countries as well). As the aliens will have learned by now, there seems to be one rule for some, and quite another rule for the others. 

Back in March, even though the lockdown was hugely inconvenient, I took a strange pleasure in the whole experience. My days were filled with work, so it was never dull, but it felt like we were all in it together. Tough times for sure, but there was a feeling that we all needed to pull together. It took me back to my days as an aid worker two weeks after the genocide in Rwanda, when there was no electricity, running water, and scarcely any food. Alemka and Vili were national heroes, and we took pride in being praised as one of the best global responses to the initial lockdown. 

That was then. Inevitably, in Croatia, that feeling of unity did not last, and it was not long before the stories (as in other countries) of ‘exceptions’ hit the media, with official justifications for each seeming indiscretion. It was election season, as well as the important tourist season, and politics took over as the most important driving factor in the battle against corona. It has remained that way ever since. 

I still have respect for Vili and Alemka – their jobs must have been impossible with all the various people pulling them in different directions – but it is clear that politics has overtaken the need for a unified approach that our alien university students would applaud, and any sense of national unity has long since disappeared. Add to that the desperation that people in the hospitality industry (and elsewhere) are feeling, and that lack of consistency and double standards is really beginning to grate. 

My visit to Flower Square in Zagreb summed up the absurdity of the situation – cafe life without the cafes. Cafes and their terraces remained shut and off-limits, but you could buy a coffee to go at the bakery and sit on a bench next to the closed cafe terrace. People were actually huddled closer than they would have been sitting at a cafe table. 

February 15 was hailed as the date when measures would be eased, when some semblance of normal would return with the opening of at least the outdoor terraces of cafes. To be clear to our alien university students, this would have meant that instead of buying a beer from a supermarket or coffee from a bakery and then sitting on a park bench next to a cafe, people could sit in the relative comfort of a cafe terrace and be served by a waiter some two metres away from the bench. 

The announcement for new measures came yesterday, effective February 15 – cafes, like bakeries and other outlets, could now serve ‘coffee to go’ but would remain shut. Gyms and fitness centres would open, as would foreign language schools, as would casinos, bookmakers and slot machine clubs – all indoor activities of course. 

Meanwhile, the one organisation to arrange a protest, Glas Poduzetnika (Voice of Entrepreneurs), was slapped with a 30,000 kuna fine (20 for the organisation, 10 for its president, Hrvojje Bujas). You can read about the protest, which TCN attended, in A Foreign Eye at UGP Croatian Entrepreneur Protest in Zagreb.

Commenting on the situation in the country, National Civil Protection Headquarters  member Alemka Markotic said:

“Any irresponsible behaviour that can contribute to endangering someone else’s life and health has elements of bioterrorism as harsh as that word may sound.”

No comment from me either way – my focus is on consistency. 

Just days later and a few metres from where the entrepreneurs’ protest took place, the annual mass in memory of Cardinal Stepinac on the anniversary of his death, was held. As you can see from the video above, there were several hundred people gathered in the same manner as the entrepreneurs just a few days ago. Whether or not religious gatherings contain the same level of bioterrorism threat as other gatherings is up for discussion, but there was one surprising attendee given her recent comment on bioterrorism – Alemka Markotic from the National Civil Protection Headquarters. 

Gatherings are supposed to be limited to 25 people, yet the funeral of a prominent HDZ politician, Miroslav Tudjman, was attended by far more than that, as you can see in the video above. Again, it was explained away as being perfectly fine and in accordance with the rules. And even though restaurants are all closed, the head of the local civil protection unit in Knin denied that he had been in a restaurant (as it turns out with someone who was self-isolating) until confronted with the truth by the media.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. 

I was speaking to a young politician recently, who has decided to fight for change rather than emigrate. I asked him how it was going and what the biggest challenges are.

“It is incredible. There are just SO many scandals at the moment, as always. It is impossible to know which one to comment on, as you can’t give comment on them all. What is the top story in the morning is forgotten news in the evening.”

And so too, it seems, with writing. While writing this article, there have been calls for Markotic to resign after she disclosed that her mother had been vaccinated at her clinic.

And just as I was digesting that news, another breaking story, this one about the one million kuna luxury car bought by the Croatian Chamber of Economy for its leader, Luka Burilovic. This after it emerged that he too managed to get himself vaccinated, days after it was revealed that his income is an eye-watering amount, especially by Croatian standards. 

I remember those isolating days of unity with fondness now, a year on. Croatia is a wonderful country with so much potential and such a bright future. Will those fighting for a better tomorrow be able to break the grip of the Mighty State of Uhljebistan? 

If you were a betting man in Croatia in 2021, it is something you could have a gamble on at the bookies, but if you wanted to discuss it in a cafe over a coffee or something stronger, you are in the wrong country. 

And so the only vocal protest that exists continues. The protest of emigration on the streets of Dublin, Frankfurt, Stockholm and many other cities hosting young Croatians who have made the painful decision that their brighter future perhaps lies elsewhere.  


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