A Foreign Eye at UGP Croatian Entrepreneur Protest in Zagreb

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It was a feeling I have not had for 25 years. Walking to the event with a sense of anticipation, with everyone else walking in the same direction. It took me right back to 1996, the last year I had a season ticket at Villa Park to watch Aston Villa. Most of those walks of anticipation to watch Villa ended in disappointment. Would this too, my first attendance at a protest in Croatia?


In truth, I was not sure to expect. Permission to hold a protest by the Voice of Entrepreneurs Association (UGP – Udruga Glas Poduzenika) had not been granted, and so a call to action was issued instead, inviting entrepreneurs and the public to come to the square and voice their grievances on air via a live stream by the Johann Franck cafe on the corner of Ban Jelacic square. 

After weeks of inconsistent measures and double standards, followed by the arrest and alleged fining of a gym owner for opening his gym earlier this week, frustration has been growing among the entrepreneur community in recent weeks, and UGP has become a focal point both for raising the concerns of its entrepreneurial members, as well as demanding appropriate economic measures and a lessening of the parafiscal burden. 


As expected, there was a police presence, but it was at a distance. The entrepreneurs came in peace wanting to makes their voices heard, and I don’t think there was any expectation that there would be any trouble. In any event, there was none.  


While the police presence may have taken a back seat, there was a sizable Croatian media presence, with this man very much in demand – Andrija Klaric, the 51-year-old gym owner who was recently released after being arrested for opening his gym. More on that story in Gym Owner Released from Custody, Called on Prime Minister to Resign


After weeks of closed cafes and restaurants and very little ‘normal’ social life, the gathering performed different functions for different people. For some, it was an opportunity to vent their frustrations via megaphone and chanting. Others were clearly enjoying the social aspect of it all, catching up with friends from other parts of the country with a drink or two. The frustration was ubiquitous, the methods of expressing it varied. 


Former Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegovic was among those in the crowd.  


The messages were simple – Just let us work. Cafes, gyms and restaurants remain closed in Croatia, while it is ok to buy a takeout coffee from a bakery, but not a cafe, then sit on a park bench next to a closed cafe terrace. Read more in As Gym Owner Faces Prison, the Virus Must be Laughing at Croatia’s Inconsistent Measures.


Return VAT to 13%.  At 25%, Croatia has the second-highest VAT rate in the EU after Hungary.


Enough Andrej. A reference to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.


Plenkovic: F*** video surveillance, fines, repression… just kill me now. 


Racketeering: it mixes in everything. A depiction of Plenkovic and the slogan of leading Croatian food seasoning condiment, Vegeta. Podravka, the company which makes the world-famous brand,  yesterday presented Plenkovic with his own branded Vegeta. It coincides with the appointment of Martina Dalic, Plenkovic’s former Deputy Prime Minister, as the new head of Podravka. Dalic was forced to resign due to the Agrokor scandal a couple of years ago.  ‘It mixes in everything’ is the Vegeta slogan. 


The UGP plan of events to form a line to give statements to the live feed was somewhat hijacked by other attendees, some of them with megaphones, who came to give their own messages and to vent their frustrations. Drazen Orescanin, one of UGP’s founders, encouraged people to express themselves by giving statements to the live feed, which was the original plan.  


So how many people showed up? I haven’t seen an official number yet, but it was certainly in the thousands and more than the 1-2,000 that UGP had been expecting. Half of the square ws reasonably full, and I think about 5,000 would be a good estimate.  


Most wore masks, but by no means all.  


A view from a taller building on the other side of the square gives a different perspective.  


And not everyone was focused 100% on the protest, for there was ice cream to be had, even in this colder weather.  


UGP had their volunteer marshalls helping things along. 

As I looked around, I saw a lot of angry and frustrated people, but also a lot of exceptional people who have the potential to make a great difference in Croatia. Several of Croatia’s leading entrepreneurs were there – and how many more leading entrepreneurs would there be if this wealth-creating sector of society were treated less as the enemy, and instead encouraged to grow with progressive rather than regressive taxation and red tape. 


Orescanin was a focal point for the media the entire time (and he kindly found time for a TCN interview in English, which we will be adding to the end of this article as soon as it is edited), but he was not the only one.  


It was nice to bump into familar faces, including the two men from Sveta Nedelja who have provided a blueprint of how administration can work in Croatia, and how encouraging entrepreneurs with tax cuts and incentives, rather than burdening them with yet more obligations, can have the right results. Mayor of Sveta Nedelja Dario Zurovec and his (until recently) Deputy Mayor Davor Nadji, have succeeded in 3 short years where others have failed. 

In an age of emigration, economic downturn and rising unemployment, under their guidance, 20% more jobs have been created since 2017, the population of Sveta Nedelja has grown more than 10% since the last census, unemployment is an enviable 3.9%, and they have just introduced free buses for all – just one of many measures to improve the life of the people they serve. In addition to that, they run the most transparent and accountable administration in Croatia, slashing taxes for businesses. No wonder, perhaps, that Sveta Nedelja has been named best medium-sized town in Croatia for the economy for the last three years in a row, as well as one of the top 5 places in Croatia for quality of life. If you are interested in more on the Sveta Nedelja phenomenon, check out some of TCN’s coverage.  

Davor Nadji (talking to the press, above) is no longer the deputy mayor of Sveta Nedelja. He has formed a political party, Fokus, has taken his seat in Parliament, and is standing for election to be Mayor of Zagreb. 

Seeing people like this at the protest wherever I looked was an overwhelming positive reaction to the day’s events. While Croatia has its problems, it also has an abundance of very capable people who are fighting for a better Croatia. And if the current system can be changed, Croatia has a very bright future indeed, led by progressive people.


Meanwhile, back to reality. Entrepreneur after entrepreneur gave their input to the live feed.   

This was not a protest about epidemiological measures, but rather about the injustice of the divide between the two Croatia’s Orescanin described with UGP co-founder Hrvoje Bujas in an interview earlier this week – Bujas and Oreščanin: Why Should You Come to Zagreb Protest? Because There are Two Croatias.  

UGP has been campaigning for months for the removal of the numerous parafiscal taxes that exist in Croatia. One major battleground has been the obligatory monthly payment of 42 kuna a month for small companies (more for larger companies) each business must pay monthly to the Croatian Chamber of Economy (HGK). After paying my mandatory contributions for 17 years now, I am still trying to figure out what exactly HGK does for businesses like mine. I documented my experiences with HGK a few years ago in Welcome to Uhljebistan: the Croatian Chamber of Economy, Beyond Useless

The 42 kuna has become a symbolic battlefield, even more so after Prime Minister Plenkovic wondered why sort of entrepreneur would have a problem paying such a paltry sum each month – they are not entrepreneurs.  


(Nik Titanik)

As legendary cartoonist Nik Titanik captured, the 42 kuna is just the tip of the iceberg of the parafiscal burden of Croatia’s entrepreneurs. 

If the 42 kuna each month was contributing to the greater good, then perhaps there would be less resentment, but HGK is one of many state institutions which is impervious to recession or crisis. For these are State institutions, and pay cheques are guaranteed. 


Ask a local how HGK money gets spent, and it will not be long until you hear about the safari hunting successes of Nadan Vidosevic, who used to run HGK.  


(Photo Instagram/Index.hr)

Salaries can’t be bad in the present crisis, as Index discovered in an article a few days ago about two senior HGK employees enjoying the high life in Dubai, as many back home wonder where the next pay cheque is coming from and when they will be allowed to earn money again. HGK informed Index that the Dubai trips were not at HGK expense, which may be the case, but it still left a poor taste to many struggling on meagre incomes in a cold Croatian winter. 


Indeed, salaries seem to be rather good at HGK, as Index found out with a little research. Current HGK boss Luka Burilovic brings home 56,000 kuna a month, which (headline above) ‘I know might seem a lot to some, but I have been working 30 years.’

The focus on HGK reform has been a hot topic in recent weeks, as the opposition sense the possibility of change. A vote on obligatory contributions was pulled at the last minute by Plenkovic last week, as it seems the government did not have enough votes to protect the current status quo. Since then, it has been interesting to watch the statements of certain MPs who once railed against HGK and are now defending the need for its existence in current format. A lesson in Croatian political horse-trading, which is holding this country back for years now. 

But there is a wind of change, and promises for HGK reform have been made – as I understand it – a vague plan to implement a phased introduction of change in a few months. Conveniently after the local elections.  There is very little trust left these days, and if the government was sincere, it has the ability to introduce rapid change. Just look at the digital nomad visa, for example. Plenkovic introduced amendments to legislation in Parliament the day after he announced it, and five months later, American Melissa Paul became the first recipient of Croatia’s digital nomad visa


I was glad that I made the effort to go to not only show my support, but also get a better understanding of the issues. 

And, the eternal optimist about Croatia’s future, I will sleep a little easier tonight. Yes, the mountains are huge, and the resistance is large, but so too is the determination for change. There are a lot of inspiring people pushing in the same direction. The twin viruses of technology and transparency will eventually prevail, perhaps later than sooner, but change is coming. 

I look forward to the month soon when I have 42 kuna more to spend on my business each month. 

February 3, 2021 was a good day. 

Interview with Drazen Oreascanin at the Zagreb protest. You are advised to turn on the subtitles, as the sound quality is not the best (my apologies, the interview was impromptu).

For the latest from UGP, follow the dedicated TCN Glas Poduzetnika section.   



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