How civil protection has been neglected in Croatia

After the “Zagreb” earthquake in March 2020, it was crystal clear that there were serious problems in the management system of the so-called “Civil crises” – those that are primarily governed by a civil protection system in regulated countries. The marginalization and disorder of the civil protection system is known to a small circle of people who closely follow the security policies of the Republic of Croatia, but it is really rare for anyone to raise their voices and warn that the Republic of Croatia has managed to destroy the civil protection system over the years – meanwhile feeding the public with the PR concept of the homeland security – which has not managed to make a necessary step in the direction of  strengthening the coordination of the state security systems. I would like to remind you once again that the Law on the Homeland Security System was not activated either during the earthquake in Zagreb, or because of the epidemic, or because of the earthquake in Banovina. Moreover – in this last case, Prime Minister Plenković himself said that the Government will not use the Law on Homeland Security – because national security is not endangered?! So, in 3 mega-crises – that Law proved unusable. And that is why it should be abolished.

But a month or two after the “Zagreb” earthquake, public interest in the reaction to the initial reaction to the earthquake waned and the focus was logically shifted to reconstruction. At the same time, there is a pandemic of COVID 19 in which the key role is played by the Civil Protection Headquarters, whose decisions are questioned both legally (does it really have the power to restrict human rights) and politically (is it biased because its members are HDZ members) . The general public does not notice that there is nothing “behind” the headquarters. Emptiness. There are no “units” of civil protection that could be operationally involved in mitigating the consequences of a pandemic (construction of tents in front of hospitals, adaptation of sports halls into hospitals, etc.). One of the logical tasks of the civil protection units could be to monitor the contacts of the infected – a method that had to be abandoned because the epidemic outgrew the capacity of epidemiologists in the country. Both during the earthquake and during the epidemic – here and there we could see the occasional uniform of the civil protection itself. There are not enough of these uniforms – that is, those forces.

Over time, the story of the ineffectiveness of the civil protection system fell into the background. It was only here and there that the need to strengthen the system was warned. Thus, in the budget for 2021, the Club of Representatives of the Green-Left Bloc submitted amendments that were supposed to strengthen civil protection financially – but these amendments were flatly rejected by the Government.

And then another earthquake. This time in Banija. More devastating than the “Zagreb” one. This one takes seven lives. And the “blame game” begins again. Once again, the same pains come to light (as in the case of Gunja), most of which are reduced to a lack of coordination during crisis management, further distrust of citizens in institutions. Again, individual parts of the system respond well – HGSS, firefighters, first aid and the military – but as a whole it gives the impression that things are happening spontaneously. There are still no civil protection uniforms – only here and there rest. The situation is further aggravated by the massive self-organized departure of volunteers from all over Croatia to Banija and the massive influx of humanitarian aid. Calls begin at the expense of civil protection, the Red Cross. Some testimonies speak of help that does not reach those in need. In the first few hours after the quake, HGSS forces were mobilized to rescue people trapped under the rubble – most importantly. These operations were performed successfully. Unfortunately, the people who died – died immediately from the aftermath of the collapse. In that sense – the most urgent help (search and rescue dogs) was on the field extremely fast. But overall, the impression remains of a huge improvisation that somehow manages to satisfy as many elementary existential needs of the endangered in the first few days. It is not to be expected that within 24 hours everyone will be able to get everything, and that all problems will disappear, but after three days – the basic existential needs of all victims (roof over their heads, food, water) should be remedied. And they weren’t.

Attempt and failure of independence civil protection system

Civil protection in the independent Republic of Croatia has always been pushed to the margins, in relation to the military-police-intelligence forces. There are probably more reasons for this. I think that the very system of civil protection in the minds of individuals was burdened by the legacy of the Yugoslav concept of national defense and protection, although a similar propaganda concept was tried to be imposed through the story of homeland security. The second reason is the war legacy of Croatia, which after the end of the war placed great emphasis on the celebration of the armed and police forces in relation to other elements of the system. Let’s just remember how the Storm is celebrated and how the Peaceful Reintegration. Military victories are simply more emotional, more important to people.

Civil protection was an unwanted child, first in the armed forces until 1995, when it was handed over to the Ministry of the Interior, and only in 2004 did it try to become independent through the establishment of the State Administration for Protection and Rescue (DUZS). The attempt at independence will fail in 2019 when it returns to the Ministry of the Interior. There is not much public information about why the idea of ​​DUZS failed ingloriously, and why it failed to develop into a respectable institution in 15 years. They knew how to circulate stories about how the DUZS (ie the person who led it) was also burdened with corruption scandals (although no indictments were ever filed). But perhaps more important are speculations about how difficult it was to manage the DUZS due to the constant conflicts between certain branches of the DUZS – firefighting, first aid, the Red Cross and the HGSS. About what kind of power games were played within DUZS and why no one was able to put an end to it – further research will be needed. It took 11 years of work of DUZS to move more decisively in the direction of strengthening the coordination of the components of the civil protection system. In 2015, through a solid Law on the Civil Protection System, this was done, but it was operationally failed to strengthen the civil protection itself. The components of the system (firefighters, HGSS, Red Cross, etc.) function through their regular activities, but the “backbone” of the system – civil protection units – hardly exists.

Apart from internal problems, a much bigger problem is that civil protection, and then the DUZS, has never been a political priority of any government. Just at the moment when the Law on the Civil Protection System was passed and when it was finally possible to start strengthening the civil protection units, the HDZ started talking in its campaign about the reactivation of the obligation to serve military service ?! So – once again a completely wrong and disastrous direction that is coming to us again. Fortunately, this was abandoned for financial reasons.

Apart from internal problems, a much bigger problem is that civil protection, and then the DUZS, has never been a political priority of any government. Just at the moment when the Law on the Civil Protection System was passed and when it was finally possible to start strengthening the civil protection units, the HDZ started talking in its campaign about the reactivation of the obligation to serve military service ?! So – once again a completely wrong and disastrous direction that is coming to us again. Fortunately, this was abandoned for financial reasons.

It is best to be convinced of the low political priority of the DUZS by looking at the budget – the only document that clearly shows how much a particular public policy is a priority or not.

Graph 1. Budget of DUZUS in the period 2005-2018

Graph 1 shows that the budget of the DUZS generally moved in the amount of HRK 150-200 million, with a growth trend until 2009 and then with a downward trend. The sharp increase in 2017 is not the result of some strategic decision to strengthen DUZS but only an accounting fact, as the state has taken over part of the cost of firefighting at the local level. It should be acknowledged that these amounts are not all the amounts spent on the civil protection system. Some parts of the system, such as the fire brigade, first aid or HGSS, are also in other budget items – but the total amounts spent on the civil protection system may be higher by some 10 percent (excluding costs borne by local governments). It is important to note that even during the introduction of the new Law on the Civil Protection System in 2015 – this reform was not accompanied by the budget. And then why wonder? After the abolition of the DUZS, there is an even bigger mess in the budget for 2019 in the sense that it is impossible to simply and clearly draw out items related to the civil protection system. A budget mess is a reflection of a mess in the system.

Things become even clearer when the figures are put in relation to the budgets of the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense (Graph 2). -And.

Graph 2. Budgets of DUZS, MOD and MUP in the period 2006-2018.

The picture of the budget over time clearly speaks to the naivety of political decision-makers. It did not take much wisdom to realize that in peacetime, the crises that will arise will be mostly civilian, and that therefore a stronger investment is needed in managing these crises, and that it is precisely the poor management of these crises that politics can receive harsh criticism. But no, there was no investment. Of course, all budget users were hit by the general financial crisis in 2008, but while 2015 is moving towards greater investment in the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense, investments in the SSR are declining.

In addition to not investing in the system, the HDZ has contributed to the neglect of the civil protection system by introducing the concept of homeland security. It is possible that this is one of the reasons for the closure of DUZS because the idea was born that something called homeland security be the central coordinating body of the security system in the Republic of Croatia. In this concept, DUZS becomes an obstacle – and an unnaturally cumbersome system of coordinating everything and everything begins to be built, which should respond to everything and anything.

Finally, it is interesting to look at how the Civil Protection System Act itself envisioned decentralizing civil protection – which is a good proposal. Namely, the Law is linked to the smallest units of local self-government and thus a “bottom-up” system is built. But there are two key issues here. The first is that the decentralization of local self-government in Croatia is political, not geographical. It responds to political rather than human needs. It is a reflection of political tailoring and not geographical – historical – sociological. When you “stick” a decentralized civil protection system to such a system, it is clear that it cannot function as intended. Local sheriffs name or name the so-called local chiefs of civil protection, who are working on some kind of work plans – completely out of line with the work, which is probably at the bottom of the local municipality’s priorities, somewhere at the bottom. That is why it is not surprising when a catastrophe occurs that affects smaller local communities (Gunja, Glina, but Zagreb was not famous after the earthquake) – civil protection cannot respond to them – because there are no competent people there. There is a lack of people with experience dealing with crisis situations. Civil protection there is folklore, not operatives. Another problem is that even when people are appointed to develop the system at the local level – no one deals with them. As a rule, they are left to themselves. All this then results in situations of lack of operations and coordination on the ground when a crisis erupts.

How to do it in a different way?

Nothing will be able to change overnight. After such devastation of the system – it takes time for it to recover and get back on its feet. The good news is that certain system components such as HGSS work very well. And the fire department is to some extent quite well-coordinated and operational. There are exceptional people in the Red Cross as well. But there are at least three challenges ahead of the system. The first is that public safety policies begin to be built primarily on facts, scientific data, and realistic indicators. Twenty-five years after the war, it is necessary, for the security of the country, to move away from security myths. It is necessary to recognize the climate crisis as probably the most dominant source of danger to human lives in the coming years. It will also lead to the strengthening of social inequalities that will result in greater poverty. These dangers are fatal for our country, but also for other people on the planet. Let’s not forget that in the last 20 years we have lost over 100,000 people who have left our country. So we as a society are constantly exposed to depopulation – and we find no answers to it. And for the community there is no greater danger than losing people (while defending new ones who want to come live with us). When we begin to understand threats as a lack of concern for each other, and the response to them as strengthening the social fabric, building a more just society and solidarity – then we will be able to set up a security system to deal with these threats. These must be the foundations of Croatia’s security policy. This does not mean completely abandoning the system’s resistance to classic security threats (the so-called “external enemy”), but it does mean redefining security priorities. In particular, it then means making courageous state decisions. These are just a few: postpone the purchase of military fighter jets, strengthen the civil protection budget (to the detriment of the budget of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense), finally invest in the emergency medical helicopter service and stop politically staffing the system.

Another challenge is to find a model of how to include and channel this powerful social capital of will to help others in the crisis we have seen among people. That capital has been there among us for years, and no one has figured out how to direct it to the development of the country. He was there during the war, during the floods in Gunja, the earthquake, the refugee crisis. This instinctive need and determination of people to help another person without discussion at the time of disaster is of exceptional social value. In this latest crisis, that need has flooded the quake-hit area. Individuals suggested that this need should be addressed by banning the entry of self-organized volunteers into the wounded area, not to bring chaos. This is exactly the wrong direction. In a solidary and responsible civil protection system, all these individuals would have been included in the civil protection system through local organizations. Then both the BBB and Torcida and the Green Action and People for People initiative and many others who rushed to the field would be part of a system that works to help the weak not only in the event of a disaster, but in everyday life. A good civil protection system would also mean an organized channeling of solidarity. Because we do not need civil protection only when civil accidents occur. It can also work to eradicate poverty, care for the elderly and helpless. Ultimately, it can also work on building a society without discrimination and hatred. In it, and not in homeland security, lies the solution for the deradicalization of young people. The system must be open to civic initiatives, not calling them names or defending access to them. The coexistence of “professional forces” and volunteer engagement is very possible. Moreover, it is key to a quality civil protection system.

The third challenge is to professionalize and strengthen system coordination. I have already explained how the idea of ​​homeland security aimed at coordinating everything and everything missed the point – because it went to coordinate too many different factors that respond to fundamentally different threats. She went to import unequally developed mechanisms. It strengthened indirect discrimination within the system. In this sense, the story should be returned to the importation and strengthening of civil protection resources to which the army and police can only be a necessary aid. As needed. Turn the pyramid upside down. And that requires professional leaders who will enjoy the trust of the public. Those who know how to communicate humanly, and not make a number of communication mistakes visible in this crisis (publication of cell phone numbers to which no one answers, automatic replies to e-mails, PR announcements of self-promotion without any self-criticism, etc.). This means that at the local level, the priority and honor of working in civil protection should go to those most involved. They need professional support through the system. They must enjoy the trust of their local community. These are the criteria for coordinators. When the system gives preference to the most capable – it will be easy to arrange it into a command model. Without people there is no system.

But after all, skepticism remains. The skepticism that everything will soon be forgotten. This year we were shaken by 3 devastating earthquakes and epidemics. Reactions to the crisis have exposed everything. Nothing can be hidden anymore. We all saw it all. If that will not be enough for us to start the development of the civil protection system in 2021, then we did not even deserve it. Let’s improvise further and try to survive.

Gordan Bosanac