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Croatian president criticized for saying Yugoslavia was behind the Iron Curtain (it wasn't)

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović during NATO Military Committee Conference in Split, Croatia, Sept. 17, 2016.  Photo by D. Myles Cullen, CC BY 2.0

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović drew an avalanche of sneers on Balkan social networks after she said Croatia was behind the Iron Curtain, an assertion considered historically inaccurate.

The president made the remarks during her acceptance speech of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the Fulbright Association in a ceremony on October 26 in greater Washington D.C., United States.

Grabar-Kitarović has been president of Croatia since 2015. She is currently campaigning for reelection — Croatians will vote on December 22.

This is what she said on October 26:

I was a girl born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain when I started dreaming big. Together with my friends, all of them boys for that matter, I would lie down on the ground in the evening and gaze at the stars and the flickering lights of the aircraft flying high in the sky, wishing they would take me away, to those other places where people said freedom of choice existed. Where, they said, you could do whatever you wanted. Where, they said, you could say whatever you believed in without being persecuted. And where, they said, you could become whatever you wanted, only if you work hard enough. And I am proud tonight to dedicate this award both to my family and my nation.

Her words caused many angry reactions and accusations of historical revisionism.

Journalist Jelena Prtoric wrote an extensive thread on Twitter debunking her comments — while also taking the opportunity to poke criticism at Croatia's current state of freedom of expression:

Meanwhile, others criticized the president's attempt to portray herself as a victim in spite of her privileged upbringing.

According to her official biography, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was born on April 29, 1968, in Rijeka, where she attended primary school. She attended high school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the US, graduating in 1986. At that time, the Iron Curtain was still standing, and kids from the Eastern Bloc didn't have a lot of opportunities to travel to the West.

Yugoslavs, on the other hand, prided themselves on the privilege of holding the “red passport,” which allowed them to travel both to the Western and Eastern Blocs, as well as to some Non-Aligned countries that were off-limits to a few Western citizens. Such mobility also extended to working and studying — for example, Yugoslavs formed, along with the Turks, the largest population of “guest workers” (gastarbeiter) in West Germany.

Grabar-Kitarović also belonged to the more affluent section of Yugoslavian society. In the 1980s, her family owned a butcher shop and a ranch with 22 cows in the village of Lopača near Rijeka. Unlike the countries of the Eastern Bloc or neighboring Albania, socialist Yugoslavia never completely clamped down on private property and allowed entrepreneurial activities.

Only for Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the [political party] Croatian Democratic Union and the Fulbright Association. This is how the Iron Curtain looked like.

Responding to the criticism, Grabar-Kitarović said that Winston Churchill included Yugoslavia within the range of the Iron Curtain when he first came up with the term. But Churchill made that speech in 1946, just after the communists took power in Yugoslavia, but before their split with the Soviets two years later.

Croatian historian Hrvoje Klasić explained how this type of revisionism, which tends to affect the public discussion in the Balkans, became widespread in recent times:

Predsjedničina je izjava, nažalost, produkt pristupa prošlosti u Hrvatskoj u zadnjih 30 godina koji je crno-bijel pa sve što se događalo od 1945. do 1990. ocjenjuje crnim, a sve se što je bilo u Hrvatskoj od 1991. godine ocjenjuje bijelim, a ni u jednom ni u drugom slučaju nije bilo tako. Kada je Churchill izgovorio riječi o Željeznoj zavjesi, Jugoslavija zbilja jest iza Željezne zavjese. Međutim, već sljedećih nekoliko godina, nakon sukoba Tita i Staljina, Jugoslavija dobiva specifičnu poziciju između istoka i zapada. Nekad je bila istok, nekad zapad, nekad je u isto vrijeme bila istok i zapad…

U trenutku kada se Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović rađa i odrasta, Jugoslavija sigurno nije iza Željezne zavjese, o čemu upravo svjedoči činjenica da je, za razliku od vršnjaka iz Poljske ili Bugarske, ona mogla putovati s tom putovnicom. I, što je još zanimljivije, mogla je putovati bez vize, zbog čega je ta putovnica bila itekako na cijeni i vjerojatno je jedna od najfalsificiranijih putovnica na svijetu. Ne moram govoriti da je u Jugoslaviji holivudska elita snimala filmove, što je samo jedan od dokaza da se nije radilo o životu iza Željezne zavjese, što ne znači da se nije radilo o životu u socijalističkoj zemlji.

The president's statement is, sadly, a product of the black-and-white approach to history that has been common in Croatia in the last 30 years. According to this approach, everything that took place from 1945 to 1990 is designated as black, and everything after 1991 is considered white, even though in both periods things were much more complicated. When Churchill spoke about the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia was indeed behind the Iron Curtain. However, in the following years, after the clash between Tito and Stalin, Yugoslavia achieved a specific position between East and West. Sometimes it was pro-Eastern, sometimes pro-Western, and sometimes both at the same time…

At the time when Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was born and growing up, Yugoslavia was most certainly not behind the Iron Curtain. The fact is that she, unlike her peers from Poland or Bulgaria, was able to travel with her passport. It is interesting that in many countries, the [Yugoslavian] passport allowed for entry without a visa, which made it very valuable and probably one of the most forged passports in the world at that time. I don't have to mention that the Hollywood elite was making movies in Yugoslavia back then, which is another proof that the country was not behind the Iron Curtain. However, it doesn't mean that life was not affected by the order of the then-socialist country.

Montenegrin historian Boban Batrićević shows in an series of articles, published between November 11 and 18, how Yugoslavia had close cooperation with NATO members since its founding in 1949. Concerned about a possible invasion from the Soviet Bloc, the Yugoslav leadership established a military program in 1951 with cooperation from the USA, the UK, and France, which included the import of modern weapons to replace the outdated World War II technology available to the Yugoslav People's Army. In 1953, Yugoslavia signed a friendship treaty with Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, which was upgraded to the level of military-political defense alliance in 1954.

All of this made socialist Yugoslavia an integral part of the Western security system, as its members pledged mutual aid in case of foreign invasion.

Not the first time

The Croatian president, who has a degree in International Relations, has put herself in similar situations before.

At multiple international events in 2017, she claimed that Yugoslavia was behind the Iron Curtain first along with Romania and Poland. In April 2019, she said it again during a visit to Czech Republic (a country that was actually behind the Iron Curtain).

But the instance when she received the largest amount of criticism was after an interview with the Austrian paper Kleine Zeitung on September 11, 2018. She said:

Odrasla sam u komunizmu, i nisam htjela ništa drugo nego da izađem iz toga. Htjela sam biti slobodna. Htjela sam imati mogućnost u dućanu birati između raznih vrsta jogurta, i da ne moram vlastima priopćavati koliko ću kruha trebati idućeg tjedna.

I grew up under communism and I wanted nothing more than to get out of it. I wanted to be free. I wanted to have an opportunity to choose between different brands of yogurt in the store, and to not have to report to authorities how much bread I would need next week.

Croatian fact-checking service Faktograf determined that all aspects of her claim were false. Using data from a specialized journal of the Yugoslav dairy industry (available through Open Access), it could determine that the country had over 85 brands of liquid and solid yogurts in 1975.

Faktograf also quoted consulted with historian Igor Duda, who researches consumerism in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and the 1980s. He said that, even though there were shortages of a few imported goods (like coffee) following the period of prosperity in the seventies, limited choice was much more related to local supply chains. For example, a small shop in a village would only sell products from local producers, without making use of the full range of products available across Yugoslavia.

Rationing of basic staples such as bread indeed happened in countries behind the Iron Curtain, but that was never the case in Yugoslavia during the lifetime of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

Besides the sarcastic criticism and the memes, some people also considered that, with that interview, Grabar-Kitarović attempted to inflame nationalist passions. Indeed, she said: “for decades, we Croats were forbidden to name our ethnicity. Instead of saying ‘I am a Croat,’ we had to say ‘I am from Croatia.’ Whoever would show national pride would be threatened with jail.”

In response, many people posted photos of their school and marriage certificates, as well as other ID documents from that time, which clearly include the word “Croatian” in the field for ethnicity.

Faktograf also noted that, according to official Yugoslav Census data, the number of people self-identifying as Croats in the federation increased from 3,78 million persons in 1948 to 4,42 million in 1982.

In fact, the principle of “brotherhood and unity” enforced by the Yugoslav regime actually encouraged expressions of all the diverse ethnic identities present in the country, as long as it didn't overstep into nationalistic chauvinism or challenge the supremacy of the Communist Party. Moreover, Josip Broz Tito himself had Croatian origins on his father's side, and neither he nor the official state narrative ever shied away from asserting it.

1 comment

  • Aleksandra

    Revisionist Croatia at its finest, first saying how Jasenovac Death Camp was a nice place to be (definitely wasn’t!), now Croatia was apparently behind ‘the Iron Curtain’ (which it wasn’t).

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