Foto: Turistička zajednica Vukovarsko-srijemske županije

Research: 80 percent of Vukovar citizens are dissatisfied with the political situation and want to overcome the past

Interesting research: 80 percent of Vukovar citizens are dissatisfied with the political situation and want to overcome the past

We are talking to the authors of a study that showed that citizens are much more prudent and progressive than the policies that deal with them.


30. 04. 2021.

More than 80 percent of Vukovar citizens are dissatisfied with the political situation in the city. As five key problems they recognize the departure of young people, the lack of jobs, the division of children in kindergartens and schools, the bad political atmosphere and the national division.

The vast majority of Vukovar citizens want change and are ready to overcome the past and reconcile. These are some of the findings of a very interesting research on how the citizens of Vukovar see their city, which in 2020, with the support of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, was conducted by psychologists Dinko Čorkalo Biruški from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb and Nebojša Blanuša from the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb.

Dinka Čorkalo Biruški

The study involved 372 people aged 16 to 60 years. The research, entitled “A City Captured by Politics”, showed that the citizens of Vukovar are more prudent and progressive than the local and national policies that deal with them and make them their hostages for many years. We discuss these policies and research findings with the authors.

MATEJČIĆ: In your research, the people of Vukovar express quite dissatisfaction with the political situation, distrust in the government, hopelessness. How do these indicators differ from the attitudes of citizens of other cities? Is the fact that, as you state, Vukovar being captured by politics is an exception or can it be applied to some other areas as well?

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: When it comes to trust, then I would say that the Vukovar results reflect what is obtained in national samples, so it can be concluded that Croatia is a country with chronically low trust in institutions, especially political ones. Research on social recovery during the pandemic, conducted recently by the team I lead, shows that citizens’ trust in political institutions starts at basically low levels and that as the crisis lasts, trust is further reduced – mostly in the Civil Protection Headquarters, then in the Government and  the Parliament. At the same time, trust in close people is initially high and remains stable during a crisis or even increases somewhat.

When we compare this with the Vukovar results, we see a similar pattern: trust in people who know each other, and a good level of interethnic trust, but distrust of government institutions, including local, and especially the judiciary. In Vukovar, the trust in judiciary institutions is at the lowest rate. I would like to point out another difference between the national and Vukovar results, and that is the trust in civil society organizations.

At the national level, it is not at high level and it even decreases during the crisis, while in the Vukovar context, civil society organizations seem to have a good social position, because people mostly trust them, but their potential is simply not used enough. Therefore, civil society organizations should work further on their visibility, as well as offer programs that will encourage and strengthen civic initiatives in order to deconstruct this “political captivity” and awaken civic activism and responsibility for their own destiny.

BLANUŠA: Vukovar shares similar experiences of corruption, clientelism, nepotism, various scandals, inconsistencies and malversations that we can encounter in other local communities. This creates a gap between political actors and citizens. However, we need to add two more dimensions that further complicate the situation in Vukovar. This is a difficult economic situation that Vukovar shares with the rest of the eastern part of Croatia, which has been systematically neglected in the last 20 years or more. What further complicates the local situation is the interethnic division in the city, which is emphasized by the local government, and all these years is supported and perpetuated by political actors at the national level. Our results clearly show, to put it simply, how people of Vukovar are sick and tired of such a policy model. In that sense, it is time to stop putting them to be hostages of the past.

MATEJČIĆ: This was confirmed to me during my journalistic visits to Vukovar: people are tired of insisting on the victim identity of the city and believe that politicians are manipulating the war past and playing on ethnic divisions. But then who chooses such politicians if the vast majority is dissatisfied with them, especially since the current government in Vukovar is prone to strained interethnic relations?

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: It really seems incredible: citizens are dissatisfied, and the same or very similar policies are persistently recycled. However, it is worth recalling one important problem – the really low turnout of citizens in the elections, especially in Vukovar and the entire Vukovar-Srijem County. If citizens stay at home on Election Day, change is impossible, and the elected then have the legitimacy of those who went to the polls. Quite simply. The democratic right to vote is not only a right, it is also a duty. And certainly a patriotic act – it is our duty to go to the polls and choose the policies that we think and believe will work for the common good and the well-being of the whole community.

BLANUŠA: People are dissatisfied with the situation, but also additionally frustrated because they have the feeling that whatever they do, nothing will change. Poor political supply also contributes to this, so that helplessness is exacerbated by the fact that bad and worse options are in circulation. It is indicative that the main political actors are trying to draw their reputation from the infantile ethnic orthodoxy that presents itself as the protection of their own people.

As long as this mobilizes a sufficient number of voters, with the willingness to choose a lesser evil and the lack of an option that would speak and work outside such a hegemonic framework, nothing in Vukovar will change significantly. Everything will remain on the facades and communal infrastructure. It is clear from our research that the citizens of Vukovar no longer believe the stories that political enemies lurk behind these facades, but there are still no political actors who would be willing to represent such a community and speak and act on its behalf.

MATEJČIĆ: About ten years ago, a Vukovar activist from the civil sector told me that the people of Vukovar should start behaving like people, not like Croats and Serbs. According to your research, it seems to be so? Although there are differences in attitudes among the national groups of respondents, they are not large.

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: True, the differences between the citizens of Vukovar are not great, but they exist. They should not be reduced, and certainly not increased. But what is absolutely necessary is to hear and recognize the needs and interests of all. Politics cannot be built on deafening and ignoring people’s needs, nor on a “blind spot” strategy for the problems and challenges that citizens face. And our results show that there is no aspect of life in the city that the citizens themselves do not see as problematic – from the departure of young people, lack of jobs, national division of children and others, bad political atmosphere, corruption….

There is no national sign here, dissatisfaction is general and people are looking for a turnaround. Although our results show that citizens themselves assess that the lack of civic initiative is one of Vukovar’s challenges, I would also say that this clear expression of dissatisfaction with the current situation is a key insight and perhaps the beginning of stronger involvement of citizens in care and responsibility for their city.

BLANUŠA: The above statement shows how long the state of political captivity in ethnic trenches is and how unproductive such insistence on ethnic optics and such organization of life is. Let’s face it, that doesn’t mean the traumatic past should simply be forgotten, tucked under the rug, and moved away from it.

The problem is that no one has seriously addressed the significance of this past outside the ethnic framework and sacralisation of the past, and what lessons this local community can learn from it in order to stop enslaving it and ensure normal living conditions for future generations, regardless of their ethnic origin and cultural background identity.

In that sense, the long-completed territorial and institutional reintegration did not include the internal social reintegration of the local community, which significantly exacerbates the problems that colleague Čorkalo pointed out and ultimately leads to the demise of Vukovar. If this continues, only those who cannot go anywhere else will stay in Vukovar.

MATEJČIĆ: When there were riots in Vukovar due to the installation of Cyrillic plates, the so-called ordinary citizens said that such an atmosphere is created by a minority that has usurped the right of the public, while the majority has other concerns and wants to live in peace. Hasn’t that been confirmed by your research?

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: Our research has clearly shown that citizens recognize national division as a problem, but also some other neuralgic points, such as the experience of discrimination among citizens of Serbian nationality. The example with the presence of Cyrillic in public space is one indicator. I deeply believe that this issue cannot be resolved by “beating over the knee” and stretching the legal provisions, but by careful and measured steps and the agreement of well-meaning and responsible people. But the essence must be mutual good faith and trust.

Building trust requires a multitude of small reciprocal steps that little by little make a difference, far greater and far clearer than any that can be offered by street politics and minority that is too loud. For example, common symbolic gestures by politicians would be an important step forward. But also daily true and persistent care for the needs and interests of citizens, regardless of their nationality. For common playgrounds, common sports clubs, common halls, common reading rooms, common production facilities – for living together as everyday life, not as an appropriate slogan.

BLANUŠA: The erection and smashing of Cyrillic plates was only to the advantage of those who believe that instead of peaceful reintegration, the Croatian Danube region should be territorially reintegrated by military action, which would lead to similar consequences as the ones from the Storm. Their appointment without co – operation and agreement with local actors was a reckless act by the then Government, which only fuelled the local political scene and revived the 1991 split.

At the level of a political act, breaking the slabs is a symbolic revenge for the Great Serbia aggression, which from such a point of view, together with collective guilt, is attributed not only to all Serbs living in Vukovar at the time, but also to those who, according to such perverted political logic, dared to remain to live in Vukovar and their descendants. I don’t think we need to further explain how insane and destructive that logic is. This is clear to most Vukovar residents and our results show that the vast majority do not support it.

MATEJČIĆ: Professor Čorkalo Biruški, your previous research on education in Vukovar has already shown, as in this one, that the people of Vukovar are dissatisfied with divided kindergartens and schools and still such a situation is maintained, moreover, the establishment of the Danube Intercultural School also failed, despite many years of commitment by the civil sector. Who is responsible for this and what are the consequences of the separation of Vukovar children in the educational process?

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: So far, in research over the last twenty years, we have shown that the process of distancing children who go to school without mutual contact is unstoppable and that insisting on the current model is a safe and well-trodden path to a divided community. We predicted a long time ago that in this way we will reach a stage when children will no longer need each other. As a social scientist, I couldn’t be sadder that my predictions came true.

What do I mean by the fact that children in Vukovar no longer need each other today? Unlike all our other multi-ethnic communities in which other minorities are educated according to model A, namely Hungarians, Czechs and Italians, in the Vukovar context Croatian and Serbian adolescents in over 70% of cases have best friends exclusively from their own ethnic group. So, Croats are friends with Croats, and Serbs with Serbs. It is an almost unnatural condition for adolescence, children need contact with others, and they must be allowed to get to know each other.

The results I have cited are particularly alarming when one considers the multi-confirmed fact in various world studies that intergroup friendships are the best way to establish better intergroup relationships. So how much evidence does politics need to decide to change things? Or to allow people who know, are motivated, and are able to implement change to actually implement it? In addition, our latest results show that the citizens of Vukovar – Croats, Serbs and members of other national minorities – are most in agreement that Model B of minority education is the one that best harmonizes the need to learn about minority languages and culture and the need for children to grow up in an integrated environment.

Model B predicts that the social group of subjects is taught in the mother tongue, and that the natural group of subjects is in Croatian, where the children are together in the class. When I say that citizens are the most consistent in choosing this model, we are talking about really high percentages in each of the communities (over 73% in the Serb community, almost 80% in the Croatian community and almost 79% among members of other national minorities). That is what the citizens want. Insisting on the existing model is politicking, not grounded public policy.

From the position of a socially responsible scientist guided solely by data and scientifically based facts, I repeat for the umpteenth time: I understand, support and actively, without a fig in my pocket, advocate the protection of minority rights. But politics must not and cannot be above the interests of the people, and especially minority politics must not be above the politics of children’s rights. Children have the right to be better and politics has a duty to make that possible. Both minority and majority children. Let me emphasize: it is not a question of abolishing rights, but of changing the paradigm of exclusivity and burying oneself in long-occupied positions that are today anachronistic and extremely dysfunctional. In order for this paradigm to change, Croats need to finally hear Serbs, and Serbs finally need to hear Croats and respond to mutual needs in dialogue.

MATEJČIĆ: The research showed that the people of Vukovar are distrustful of the media as well, and that they consider them, along with politics, complicit in forcing narratives about a divided city captured in the past. I have heard the same thing many times from the people of Vukovar: that the Vukovar they read and hear about in the media is not the Vukovar they live in and that politics and the media emphasize divisions. But at the same time, it is difficult to find interlocutors in Vukovar who are willing to speak in public, especially those who deviate from this dominant media narrative. There were many who would tell me that they did not want to emphasize their non-belonging to the divisions, as if it were something bad, a provocation. What was your experience of cooperating with the people of Vukovar in conducting research?

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: My usual experiences of cooperation with the citizens of Vukovar over the past twenty years are mostly very positive. I would especially like to emphasize the cooperation of schools – students and teachers from both classes, but also the cooperation of parents who regularly participate in research and strongly support them. Those who are usually more distrustful are representatives of local policies at different levels.

However, the research I conduct with my colleagues always implies a longer relationship, where data collection always includes returning the results to the community through conferences, meetings, seminars, discussions, where participants at different levels have the opportunity to discuss the results and bring for themselves what they seem important for the improvement of school practice, but also the socialization patterns of children. That is why we try to acquaint as many citizens as possible with these latest results.

BLANUŠA: The reluctance to point out those who do not belong to the divisions speaks about how ubiquitous the hegemonic narrative of the sacralisation of the victim is, supported by the media and encouraged by politics, and how much it affects the everyday life of the citizens of Vukovar. Such public deviation still carries with it the consequence of resentment by those who hold the levers of power with significant consequences of social, status, and economic degradation for those who dare to speak differently in public.

But from our research we see that the vast majority just think and want differently. And this discrepancy means that there is no freedom of speech or enough political courage in Vukovar to question how the production of a divided city through educational institutions and discrimination that, in short, follows the logic of “first Croats, then everyone else, and finally Serbs.” Some pretend not to see it, and some think it’s just the way it should be, but they’re actually in the minority.

MATEJČIĆ: Has anyone from the political level shown interest in the results of the research? Have you perhaps noticed that the research is influencing campaign topics for the upcoming local elections? While preparing for the interview, I came across an interesting advertisement in Večernji list, which in cooperation with the City Administration in Vukovar publishes a text in which Mayor Ivan Penava presents Vukovar as a modern, prosperous city, caring for all its citizens – from kindergarten children to the elderly, and war is hardly mentioned. It sounds as if he based his pre-election propaganda on what the citizens expressed in your research.

BLANUŠA: You used the right word: propaganda! The text you mention claims everything to the contrary from what this research has established and is a real varnish in that sense. It is framed by a water tower as a symbol of a city that has been preserved to constantly remind us of the war past.

In short, it is a totem that constantly reminds us of violence and continues to mythologize the victim, which is exactly what produces divisions. Thus arranged, externally and internally, it has nothing to do with modernization, least of all with the future of the material, but with the repetition and objectification of the already established image of the city that freezes it in the past. And trauma, in order to continue living, does not need to be frozen, but worked on.

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: It would be great if politicians used research in the social sciences to articulate the interests of citizens and help create responsible and well-founded public policies. If our research served as the foundation of the picture of the situation and provided insight into how citizens see their city that is good. But turning the saw upside down, in terms of listing success, won’t help much.

It would help to take a critical look at previous policies that have mostly built buildings and facades, and of course invisible walls, and failed to build real life, a city tailored to all people. Pre-election varnishing and make-up may help politicians feel important and advanced, but citizens need something else – policies that will put them, the citizens, in the centre.

MATEJČIĆ: The research showed that the people of Vukovar definitely want change, but they do not believe that it is possible. Is that a characteristic of a city in depression?

BLANUŠA: I don’t think it’s about depression. Rather, it is a long-standing frustration caused by local and national politics, which prevents them from participating more actively through the occupation of institutions and the neglect of the needs and interests of all citizens. Through the already mentioned bad public policies and para-political actions, such authorities obviously produce inequality, silencing those who disagree with such activities, and the dominant response of citizens is withdrawal into privacy, into their own personal, family and friendly relations, not making problems, largely left for self-management in securing their own existence.

Such a gap between politics and citizens has long-term very negative consequences for the local political culture and quality of life in such communities. This should be a warning signal to civil society organizations that we have found to have very poor visibility in Vukovar.

Their role in advancing common interests, dissolving interethnic divisions, developing a constructive culture of remembrance, more effective resolution of local community problems and mediation between citizens and local government, ie internal reintegration of the local community, cannot be sufficiently emphasized. The results of this research clearly indicate what problems need to be addressed, and a great desire for change among the citizens themselves already exists.

ČORKALO BIRUŠKI: Citizens really showed dissatisfaction in our research. Many are disappointed with local policies and the state’s attitude towards the city. One gets the impression that nothing can be done. But I would like to say that the strength of the citizens is in themselves. Things will not change on their own. The city, the community, is looking for active citizens who are ready to build it, so in this regard, the best motivational message to the citizens was delivered by Siniša Glavašević: Vukovar, it is you!

This material was created with the financial support of the European Union within the project “Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021”. The author is solely responsible for the content and cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.