Meet Povratak, a Croatian Diaspora Group Looking Forward Not Back

Total Croatia News

April 16, 2018 – Among the many communications we received following the announcement of the gradual change in direction for TCN with Voices from the Asylum, we came upon a rather interesting and progressive diaspora Facebook group called Povatrak (Return). An interview with page administrator, Mario Sokcevic on the hopes for a better future for Croatia and life in the diaspora. 

1. You recently started a Facebook group called Povratak. Can you tell us about it and what you are hoping to achieve?

Two and a half years ago I moved from Croatia to the UK, driven primarily by economic reasons. Just like many of my compatriots did recently. I had an opportunity to get a job in the UK with much higher earnings and more disposable income, so I moved with my fiancée. After having spent some time in the UK and having made some savings we have started to think about returning to Croatia, to be closer to our families and to a more familiar lifestyle. As I started to think more about it, I also started to think more about Croatia as a society. I started to think more about why I left and why so many are leaving, what lies ahead if I come back and what our children would be facing when growing up in Croatia one day. I came to realise that the country is slowly disappearing as we know it. When thinking about the root causes of that disappearance and what could be done to turn that around, I could not really find any other reason for the country’s degradation and decay other than the political system and the infamous nepotistic bureaucracy. I also realised that I don’t want to wait for someone else to turn that around and that everyone needs to do their bit. I started to think what I could do personally and an idea came to start galvanising all the bright young people that have recently left the country and who feel the same way about it as I do and start engaging in political action in Croatia. Something I never did and something others probably didn’t do either.

I wish to gather good, able and moderate people, the kind of people that take care of themselves, exactly the kind that has been leaving our country during the last couple of years. People who share similar worldviews and who share my fears about our country’s future. I count on the talented individuals who left the country because of how it was, but would be willing to return and work together to change it for better. I count on the fact that they also gained new experiences abroad which can be useful in transforming the country.
Right now, the prospect is not looking particularly bright for our country. More and more individuals are leaving the country for good and our politicians are focused on the past and our activists are focused on dissatisfaction. There is a lot of dissatisfaction indeed but that dissatisfaction is not really channeled in a positive and constructive way on our political scene. And I’m afraid that without constructive changes on the political level our country cannot really progress.

It is often said that our society is a divided one, however I don’t really see that when it comes to what we want from the future. A clear majority of our population has shown several times that we want an open society with equal opportunities for everyone. A society based on an economy driven by a free market, with rules and regulations in a place that would regulate that free market so that it remains available for anyone to join without excessive barriers and so that it does not fail its own purpose. This goal has been stated as our goal with the onset of our independence, we have moved closer to it at times and at times we have been moving away from it. We know where we want to go, but what is missing now is a clear path forward, i.e. how we get there. The major changes should be agreed by the majority of the society, as this would make it possible to realize those changes beyond political cycles; only this way real change and prosperity could be achieved in the country. There are a lot of potential positive improvements that could be done in our society. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think these things are as easy as flipping a coin – some are, but most would require diligence and relentlessness in pursuit. Some would require adjustments as you go, especially on the practical implementation level. However, the main course of the changes would have to be carefully thought over in a consistent and coordinated way, their implementation should be clearly planned and designed, assigning responsibilities and keeping clear track of progress.

What I want to do at this initial stage is to gather interested individuals to discuss and then promote positive ideas which could really help our country. I started off with some examples in the group, which are just initial examples that can be improved and fine-tuned later on; and more can follow as more people join actively.

One of my ideas is a point-based system for public employment, whereby employment in the public sector would depend on points (to be awarded based on some measurable criteria, like academic and professional track record or any other appropriate way depending on the job type etc.) instead of depending on family connections. This way we might finally reverse the trend of personal connections often getting inept people to work for the public services, which could be a first step in improving how the country functions. This measure could also bring hope to individuals that they can actually be considered for a public career, which currently in many people’s mind is reserved for certain other people.

Some of the other ideas could include re-shaping tax breaks to provide a serious incentive for self-employed individuals who work globally to choose Croatia as their home and bring their income to our country. We would also generally promote a tax system leaning more towards taxing spending rather than earning, but primarily focused on enabling economic activities.

I also have some ideas with regards to bringing more investment by large multinational companies into the country, which would be beneficial for the economy of the whole country and would help the lives of the individuals who prefer standard employment (and not so interested in self-employment). These people are currently moving from Croatia to other countries which offer wider employment opportunities with higher earnings. In Croatia such opportunities rarely exist, there is not a big choice of employers and earnings are often insufficient to be able to make savings and live a comfortable life. Large corporations have been usually avoiding investing in Croatia. Every government usually promises to attract new employers to the country, yet most of the initiatives fail, unless it is related to the tourism sector. The key is the fact that the investments don’t seem to be returning the money if they are made in Croatia. The issue is not only the high corporate income tax, but also the burden related to staff: personal income tax and other contributions. A system might help where there are special rules for new investments in the first few years. This way the investment would have a chance to pay itself off. Special tax rules would not only apply to corporate tax, but also to the personal income tax of the newly employed individuals or individuals with special conditions (e.g. flexible working for mothers, special health conditions). An additional incentive in attracting new investors could be building technological parks in public-private partnerships on government-owned, privately leased lands where office space could be rented. In my opinion, the use of public property for both business and housing is a vast underexplored topic in our society.

What sets us apart from the mainstream Croatian parties is that we want to move the focus away from the past and philosophical questions to more practical questions focusing on the future. What we need is more clever regulations, based on common sense, that will ensure proper functioning of the country and especially the state apparatus on the lower level. This level is not often examined by the press, although it is costing our country a lot, both directly as a financial burden and far more indirectly through improper functioning.

What sets us apart from most anti-establishment movements is that we do not see a need for a set-up radically different than the one which is ensuring that Western countries are what they are: well-functioning free market accessible to anyone with a wish for entrepreneurship as the economy driver, proper public services and a welfare state that ensures equal opportunities for everyone. This kind of thing is what Croatia needs and doing it from within is very difficult. Starting from outside can work – it is credible, it is completely new, from outside you can have a different perspective.

2. The relationship between Croatia and its diaspora is complex, and covers many aspects, as emigration happened at various times. Can you give us an overview of the main Croatian diaspora groups?

It is best that I give a view of what I see from my social media engagement. Reality may, of course, be different. The way I see it, the moment you step out of the country, you start to function as a time capsule of your own emotions and views you have had in and about that society at the time you stepped out of it. This was very true during the pre-internet era, but still very much holds truth today as well. We constantly evolve as societies, Croatian society, Chinese, American, Russian or British, we all do – going back in time would probably be a great cultural shock for any of us. We move on in terms of how we collectively look at things and which topics occupy our minds. I guess as human beings we are very much influenced by our surroundings, probably more than we would be willing to admit. Large groups benefit from influence of thinkers and trends spread. Individuals and smaller groups which are somehow isolated tend to follow their own path. So, in a nutshell I’d say our groups abroad are particularly shaped by the fact when they emigrated from Croatia. Our most recent emigration is marked by the sense of hopelessness about Croatia and individuals within it are dissatisfied by its political scene, its public life and employment options. Differences in views do exist, though rather about whom they primarily blame for the current situation in the country than anything else. Among the modern emigration, on Facebook at least, there is also a certain difference related to the country that they have migrated to. In Scandinavia and English-speaking countries our people tend to join in Facebook groups where they organize gatherings and help each other with advice. The situation in German speaking countries is a mix of modern emigration and a late wave of economic emigration from the 1970’s and 1980’s, the latter being the majority. There are Facebook groups there, quite numerous ones, but usually with a different flavour than the ones mentioned earlier. Apart from a few, most groups are there for ads and some nostalgic entertainment. Keeping the community together seems to belong to the Church in these countries. Some Facebook groups in Australia where our emigration is quite old tend to be lost in the past and occupied by the far right somehow. I think that the reality of Facebook groups tends to follow the real reality to a certain extent, but to say how much exactly, one would need to study it carefully. Overall, we can say that we can distinguish between present day economic diaspora, late twentieth century economic and political diaspora, and what I would call ancient diaspora, economic migrants from the early twentieth century.

The focus of my group remains primarily the modern economic migration of the 21st century.

3. The relationship between those living in Croatia and some diaspora communities abroad is not strong, and their world views are very different. Why is that?

I have given you already the beginning of this answer – these communities lead their own lives and are shaped individually. This naturally leads to differing world views. A very tiny portion is the ancient emigration – pre- World War 2, most of these people are highly integrated to their new home countries, those who have managed to preserve the sense of identity usually have a strong patriotic feeling unspoiled by any reactions or political agenda. I guess it is only true patriotism that can survive four or more generations. Two groups with the biggest worldview differences are the two Yugoslav era emigrations: the political and the economical one. The economical emigration is situated mostly in German-speaking countries and usually originates from rural areas. People are often held together by the Church there and their views are very much shaped by the Church. The Church is most certainly strongly influencing the views in Croatia as well, but there are other voices that can be heard and the different influencers are more balanced. On the other hand, there is the political emigration from Yugoslavia, partially dissidents from earlier Yugoslav years and partially World War 2 refugees. The first tend to live mostly in US and Canada and the World War 2 diaspora is usually associated with South America, Australia and South Africa. Most of the people in this group have migrated immediately after the World War 2, a clear majority belonging to families which were in some way associated to the Nazi puppet state that existed in and around Croatia during World War 2. Some of the people in this group tend to ignore the uncomfortable facts about that era and have a romantic view about it. That seems to be the greatest difference between that diaspora and the native country. I can imagine it is because family narratives must have been focusing on the loss of lives of family members by communist regime and the immediate circumstances of their emigration. They were not really focusing on the other aspects of that era and there was no one to confront them with the harsh reality. On the contrary, all sorts of influencers from the political far right seem to have found a fertile soil in this group.

This fact is conveniently ignored by Croatia’s right-wing politicians, while Croatia’s left-wing politicians simply avoided communication with this group. I am sure that this world view difference is also a result of a lack of education and will be one of the main challenges in making better connections between Croatia and this part of the diaspora. The way forward are honest and sincere attempts at dialogue and education. This may initially fail, but it is the only correct way forward and will eventually work.

4. How would you rate the levels of communication between Croatia and its diaspora, and how could they be improved?

The communication between modern diaspora of recent years and Croatia as a society is quite strong since people still have immediate family members living in Croatia. On the other hand, the communication with the state and its institutions is almost non-existent and there is a serious threat to lose any connection over the next decades as personal and family ties fade away. There will have to be systematic efforts to keep that connection and those efforts must come from any future government. Our governments should coordinate establishment of cultural centres in the new centres of our diaspora to ensure that contacts continue and that ties are strong. It is not so much a matter of money – I am sure our people abroad would be happy to contribute – but official coordination of activities. This is especially important for the children. If they could spend time in centres where their culture is nourished, for example by folklore activities, and which would organise gatherings and visits to the home country and similar institutions, that would help greatly in keeping the traditions, culture and connections to the home country. There are many good examples of other nations in foreign countries all over the world. I can see some efforts by the embassies but more would be needed. For the old diaspora, the problems are different. Groups have organised their own cultural centres, however their connections with our society need to be improved. There is the previously mentioned worldview discord. This could be addressed from two angles. One is the opening of dialogue at a higher level, where our leaders need to open some difficult questions with the representatives of the communities in question, as I said before. Another idea could be some kind of a student exchange programme, where these communities would help organise a “year abroad” for Croatian students and Croatian state institutions could help organise a “year in the old homeland” for diaspora students, which could bring the two communities closer, could increase the ties to the homeland (especially spending time with a Croatian family) and could help keeping the cultural traditions in the diaspora.

5. You recently moved to the UK. Tell us a little about your diaspora experience so far.

Yes, 2.5 years ago I found a better job in a foreign company which has its regional HQ in the UK. I was dissatisfied with my previous position in a Croatian company and this was a way to improve it. At the same time, it was somewhat natural for me, being a specialist in oil refinery business optimisation, to move from a regional oil company to a specialised, globally present, knowledge-based oil software company that has its roots in an MIT project. It gave me a chance to experience life in modern-day UK, to witness how a modern striving economy functions, to travel around the world and do business with people from across the globe. I had a chance to get connected to and meet my fellow Croatian compatriots living here in the UK. There is a very good group on Facebook there, called “Croatians in London”, started by a local entrepreneur who also organizes concerts of Croatian bands in London. In this group I could see many examples of our people helping each other with practical advice when starting their life in the UK and having engaged intellectual discussions. Another group also organizes events in London. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of us in the surroundings of London who were finding the London events to be either too far or focusing on a different activity than they would be interested in. Together with another man from our community I have organised a first gathering for Thames Valley Croats. Since I travel a lot for work and can’t always be present I have moved out of organising the events since then, but the gatherings are now regular and very popular. The interesting part of the gatherings is that you could meet people of different age and occupation, coming from all over Croatia. A group you could rarely find within Croatia in one place.

At the same time, I have started to look at my country from a different perspective. Croatia started to seem like a much smaller country and any news from it were affecting me far more than before. Being isolated from others and not being able to just vent out my feelings about what is happening in the country helped greatly in finally deciding to do something about it.

6. For Croatia to prosper, it desperately needs to stop the mass emigration of its brightest young talent, as well as get the diaspora to engage more with the homeland. How can this be achieved in your opinion?

We should achieve that goal of people start returning, as Croatia starts to offer a better future for them. Current returnees, apart from being small scale, consist either of retirement return, or small-scale investments made from personal savings which might as well be called retirement. Croatia needs to start thinking about how to attract talented young people to see their lives in Croatia. I am hopeful that all the measures that I have listed previously, as well as new ones that we are yet to propose, would help achieve that. If opportunities in public employment were fair, that would give hope, (e.g. by the above-mentioned point-based system). Tax breaks could help self-employed individuals to see their future in our country. With good tax breaks corporations could come to see our country as the place where they base their activities and offer employment. I am not talking here about some unsustainable changes to the tax system. I am very well aware what that system supports and must continue to support, although we should think about how we can rationalize and make more effective the operation of the state systems. I am rather talking about lowering the part of the tax that we are not collecting anyway: tax from plants which were never built and tax from individuals who left our country or are from another country and are tax residents elsewhere. If we could break this vicious circle we could get our people to start returning.

7. Croatia, and its politicians, seem to be more obsessed with the past than perhaps any other country. Why is that, and how do we get people to focus on the future?

Yes. Our history is troubled, and our political life is marked with focus on the past. Some of the topics are divisive and create a “sense of us and them”, politicians can easily get votes out of fear that “the other side might win the debate by controlling the official truth”. In this atmosphere it is no longer important who did what but whether they are “ours” or “theirs”. Still, I see progress: more and more people see through this and are interested to move on. And that is a good thing.

My way of dealing with this is simple: I do not allow myself to spend more than 20% of my time dealing with anything that belongs to the past. It may seem awkward, but it is just a simple example of some self-discipline rule. I read the rule as a quote once and decided to stick to it.

We must respect the past, we must learn from it, but we have the obligation to do something for our future. When talking about the past, one should be very careful to put things in a way which is not provoking anyone, to try to imagine herself or himself in someone else’s shoes and to not deliberately seek enemies, to talk about the truth and respect the facts rather than promoting some emotional propaganda. Some people choose to completely be silent about these topics, I don’t. The 20% rule and moderation should help to make progress in this and to achieve that the topics don’t come back. 20% rule also means that we still have 80% of our time to deal with what is important for our future, 80% of the message to overshadow anything unimportant. You really cannot be moving forward and looking backward. That is why I tend to dismiss all the characters that constantly talk about the past.

8. And finally, are you hopeful for the future of Croatia?

Very much indeed. Many people in our society are aware of the reality and that is one very important thing. We don’t tell ourselves something that is not true. Disappointment is the first step towards success of an individual or a society. We also know what we want, as I already stated: we have always been striving towards a kind of society that we see in many western countries: a liberal, open society with an open market with equal opportunities and a just, fair legal system that supports both. Have we managed to get there in what is now almost 30 years of our independence? I would say not yet. Analogies can be drawn between individuals and countries: do we let initial failure to get us disappointed or do we see it as a learning point? Do we relax and let someone else take control or do we take firm control and keep sure we oversee at all times what is happening with us? Our future is in our own hands and we must be serious and responsible. I think our society is getting more and more serious in that respect. The public is looking for far greater accountability from politicians than before and that is great news. There is intellectual thought in our society.

The group that I’ve started is not a result of my creativity or an import from somewhere else. It is a result of a thought that has been existing for very long in our nation and that is looking for ways to come through. It is the very idea based on which we founded our independence, the very idea that brought more democracy to the country at the turn of the century. Every time we got closer to what we want and I’m sure that this time around our generation is going to succeed.

To learn more about Povratak, or to get involved, find them here on Facebook



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