Modern Day Slavery In Croatia

Entering the European Union on July 1, 2013 didn't bring any improvement to Croatia | Youtube snapshot

The Republic of Croatia, one of the poorest countries in European Union, features one unique and unfortunate economic phenomenon – the “blocked” people. With a population of 4.2 million, almost 320,000 in Croatia have their bank accounts under distraint. Since the majority of “blocked” have families, the number of affected can be multiplied by several times. The debt has reached 42.8 billion kuna (7.1 billion USD) and it keeps growing, but what is the most concerning is that the largest part of the debt falls on interest, not the debt itself.

People find themselves in such a situation after losing their jobs, or being under payed and on minimal wages insufficient for many people to fulfill their financial obligations. Very often, people are facing a horrific choice: to pay the bills, or to feed their children. Literally. Those who took credit from the banks and were unable to make payments are in the worst situation. Banks are relentless in their pursuit of money, and since they are protected by many legislations, they take people’s homes ruthlessly.

Blocking banking accounts de facto means slavery to not just the banking system, but to state institutions as well. We have seen people being evicted from their homes for small amounts of money owed, for example for failing to pay simple telephone bills, TV subscriptions or electricity bills. Owing the banks is the worst possible case in which people are being evicted—with the help of SWAT teams. Even though the debt is in most cases just a little part of the property value, people and families are being thrown out of their homes. Those properties are being sold for much lower prices then the real market value, and you can guess that there are people who can't wait to get their hands on such cheap properties, and later manipulate the property for their own personal financial benefit. 

Notary Public offices are managing the distraint orders away from the judicial system. Many of those offices are specialized just to manage the distraint orders, and are making a fortune out of people's misery. Very often those orders are in collision with the law. Many people are unable to pay for a lawyer to bring the case to a Court of Law, and if they do, the process could last for many years. By the final verdict, people already have lost everything. To get back what they owned would lead to another process which could also last for years.

The death of Marijan Hanzekovic, the owner of leading notary office, was met with mixed feelings among the public. Since he and his office were a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people, some felt relief. But his death will not change anything, since the problem lies in state legislation, known as the Distraint Law. The Law has been changed five times in last five years, and the ruling party is preparing another change. Since every single legislation has failed to resolve the situation, it is very hard to believe the new changes will bring any kind of positive solution for the “blocked”.

Even though the official numbers of the Croatian Bureau of Statistics says the unemployment rate is at 12.2%, the real figure is much higher because many unemployed were deleted from the system: when the government aid stops, people stop fulfilling their obligations to the Employment Bureau, which in reality doesn't serve its purpose.

With the full independence of the Republic of Croatia, and after the socialist system was replaced with capitalist system, the political elite promised the people an era of economic prosperity and an economic standard which has never been seen before. In early 1990s, they promised Croatia to be the “new Switzerland” and that nothing would prevent Croatia from reaching that goal. Instead, most of Croatia's industry was deliberately destroyed and robbed by those who promised “prosperity”, and a huge number of the population fell into deep poverty, a situation which remained till the present. Very few companies remained, those with very well known brands, and no matter whether the owner is domestic or foreign, employees are under-payed and in the never ending circle of living “from the first of the month till the first on the next month”, as the “famous” Croatian expression says. Here lies the source of the problem of the “blocked” people.

Acting President of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, in her post-elections victory speech in January 2015 promised: “Croatia will be one of the most developed countries in the European Union”. Today that promise looks like some kind of morbid joke. Two decades of broken promises left the majority of Croatia's population in apathy, and once they reach retirement, pensions that are too small will drive them even deeper into poverty. Today, you can find many elderly people digging in garbage bins in search of bottles so they can take them for recycling to get 0.50 kuna per bottle. Sometimes they search for anything which can be useful for them, even food. We are not talking here about the homeless people, nor people from the bottom of the society (which was introduced along with Capitalism), but simple pensioners who are trying to survive. Retirement shouldn't be like that, but for many pensioners it is a brutal reality.

Entering the European Union on July 1, 2013 didn't bring any improvement. To the contrary, Croatia sunk even deeper. EU capital has easier ways to enter the market, but Croatia's is no match to the big corporations which are ruling the EU market. The only “benefit” for Croats, especially the young people, is the opportunity for them to work in EU member states. The exodus of not just highly-educated people, but simple labourers, is happening, and for those who experience high standards in western Europe, it's unlikely they will ever come back. 

Matija Lukač

Matija Lukač is a pro-Syrian activist and researcher of the Syrian conflict; he is also a Special Assistant and Contributor for the Middle East and Syria at the GlobalCIR website.