It has been an up and down ride! A rollercoaster ride that has had me gripping with white knuckles, laughing in glee and feeling that at any moment the train will fly off the tracks. I was asked a couple of weeks ago what I thought about Croatia’s transition over the last twenty years.
“It must have been interesting to follow the birth of a new nation,” asked the foreign professor sitting across the table from me. “It has been a ride,” I replied. “What mistakes were made and what constructive measures were taken?” he continued to seek information. Almost in a flash of inspiration the answer came to me, it was when he mentioned birth.
Croatia, in its present form, was born twenty-or-so years ago. It was born with a fight and the birth of the new country was greeted as a new baby is always greeted, with a crescendo of optimism and euphoria. Flags were raised from every house, every street, let the whole world know a baby has been born. The consequences to the mother that gave birth to this new nation were ignored; the king is here, all hail the king. In this spirit of profound ecstasy all wisdom and organisation were thrown out of the window. We were all standing over the cot making “coos” and “goos” noises at the baby desperate to hear the first words or watch the first steps. The baby slowly grew.
As the new nation reached it fifth or sixth birthday, the young nation was still cute although it was constantly making mistakes, beginners mistakes. Who can forget the CRO signs on cars or the massively over sized identification cards, beginners mistakes. A few years more pass and the first signs of adolescence begin to show. The new country gets acne, growing pains and angst; it also gets a massive dose of teenage belief that you can do anything.
The Croatian football team has an impressive World Cup in 1998, Goran Ivanisevic wins Wimbledon in 2001, the whole country gets the teenage immortal faith. Look how good we are, now that we are independent we can show the world who we are...we can live forever! Whilst along the whole way the country is falling over, bruising its knees, cutting its forehead, and generally making mistakes. A few years pass and the euphoria has gone, completely gone.
The teenage years have been painful. The teenage spots have healed and the first steps of maturity can be seen. There are no more sporting victories to cheer on the country, the baby has grown up and the family inside it are now getting impatient for change, now is the time to learn.
Until now, this growing country has pretty much been learning through mistakes, falling down, dusting ourselves off and picking ourselves up again. Now the years of learning through mistakes are over, we have finished school now is the time to pass university. And so the teenage years transform into early twenties, now we need a mentor, and in the EU we find one. A strict professor who will teach us the error of our ways, correct our mistakes and teach us to help ourselves. Now you might well ask why didn’t we just skip all this pain and go straight to the end? Why didn’t we just go to a developed country, like Sweden, and copy/paste their system here? Wouldn’t that have been easier? Probably yes, but practically there was no chance of doing this, put simply we had to learn from our mistakes. The same way that you can’t give all the tools to a new born baby, that baby needs to learn for himself, it may be excruciatingly painful to watch, especially when you know there is a better way to do it. However, just as your children will cause you sleepless nights, sometimes you just have to sit back and watch it develop, your advice will normally fall on deaf ears.
So when I was asked “It must have been interesting to follow the birth of a new nation,” the answer was more complicated than a simple yes/no. The transition has been frustrating, exciting, annoying, enlightening, depressing and unforgettable, all in one. “Transitions themselves are not the issue, but how well you respond to their challenges!” famously said the American author Jim George. Now is our time to respond.