Behind medical masks, democracy is being suffocated

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Croatian soldiers distribute protective masks to media and visitors at a field hospital for coronavirus treatment on the outskirts of Zagreb on 21 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/ANTONIO BAT]

In the midst of its EU Council presidency, Croatia turned to the UAE and China for medical help, forgetting its current leadership role as the presiding country that should spur member states into coordinated action, writes Oriana Ivković Novokmet.

Oriana Ivković Novokmet is the executive director of GONG, a civil society organisation that works to promote democracy.

It is not about official Council meetings that have been cancelled because of the pandemic or the earthquake that hit Zagreb in March.

It is about the absence of Croatia’s European solidarity in the first days of the crisis, when it failed to galvanise wider EU medical assistance for Italy and emphasise the importance of the European community.

Instead, the prime minister used military rhetoric, declaring war on the virus, and politicians in the national and local emergency headquarters even put on military-style uniforms.

In the early days of the crisis, it seemed to us that the European Union was a thing of the past, especially after the moves of some of its member states.

The Croatian EU Presidency ignored Viktor Orban’s suspension of the Hungarian Parliament and prominent members of the conservative ruling HDZ party even expressed their support for him.

Foreign Minister Goran Grlić-Radman said that democracy in Hungary is not endangered and that it is a matter of perception. During a border meeting of the two ministers, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjarto praised Croatia “for not joining the liberal mainstream”, and the Croatian Minister replied with the slogan of unity: “Brother with brother, Hungarian with Croat”.

This is not the first time that the Croatian ruling party has been supportive of Orban. And it should not be forgotten that Prime Minister Andrej Plenković proposed to the Croatian parliament a similar scenario in the early days of the crisis.

He suggested that Parliament empower the Government to pass decrees with the force of law and when the opposition refused such an offer, he came up with a new trick.

The National Civil Protection Headquarters (a temporary operational body as described in Civil Protection Law) began implementing various restrictions, bypassing the Parliament, from a ban on leaving the place of residence to the suspension of public transport and closure of stores.

Only after legal experts and civil society blasted these moves as unconstitutional were the acts of the Headquarters subsequently “legalised” by the Parliament.

The commitment of the authorities to counteract the virus can very easily strengthen corruption and also endanger our rights and freedoms, especially if the government manages to pass a proposed law on cell-phone monitoring of all citizens.

A democratic state should not pass such a law unless cell phone monitoring is time-limited and restricted to people in self-isolation, and the law stipulates that data should be destroyed after emergency situation cease.

The damage could outweigh the benefits, especially given that Croatia has a history of scandals from the 1990s, involving secret service surveillance of dozens of journalists and intellectuals. In the face of public pressure, the mobile tracking law was switched to regular parliamentary procedure and we are now waiting for a second reading in parliament.

The Croatian government has its own vision of civil society, where its primary role is to provide social services and assist the homeless, disabled, unemployed, and veterans.

While these functions are necessary, this vision does not seem to have a place for those engaged in critical questioning of society through the fight for human rights, democratisation, and good governance.

The process of transforming the civilian into the social sector has already begun, judging by the redistribution of money from European tenders, in which money goes to “social inclusion” instead of “good governance”.

We do need that, but we also need democracy and human rights. Such a trend could be further exacerbated by the government’s announcement that hundreds of millions of “EU money” from the social fund will be distributed for the purchase of medical equipment and development of enterprises.

In doing so, the government has provided billions of kuna for entrepreneurs through wage subsidies, but civil society organisations cannot apply for that unless they are sports organizations. It is clear that civil society is at stake.

The fight to preserve democracy during the pandemic in Croatia is not over until we see what will happen to the non-transparent procurement of medical equipment and mysterious donors, as well as the unknown recipients of state subsidies for businesses.

The pandemic will be over one day and, in the meantime, we must not allow the fight against the virus to cause a social cataclysm.

We do not want a state trapped in partisan and particular interests, with a low level of democratic culture, a loss of privacy, and suppression of free media and this is true for the whole of the EU.

We want a community of solidarity, of countries that work together to solve problems instead of closing their borders.

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