- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009

COMMENTARY:

From Iceland to Latvia, the growing financial crisis is triggering popular revolts. Several European governments are on the verge of being toppled. Yet, it is in the Balkans where the rising tide of discontent may have the most significant impact.

The bloody breakup of Yugoslavia left in its wake successor states - all of whom, with the exception of Slovenia, are mired in economic stagnation. The region’s biggest disappointment, however, has been Croatia. It is now badly lagging behind its northern Slovene neighbor due to massive political corruption. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader vows to lead his country into the European Union by 2011. Instead, he has transformed Croatia into a mafia state. The government’s incompetence threatens to push the country toward economic collapse. It’s no wonder thousands of protesters took to the streets in December demanding early elections.

Since coming to power in 2003, Mr. Sanader and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) have presided over a creeping authoritarian kleptocracy. Bribery, kickbacks and cronyism are ubiquitous. Most senior politicians possess unexplained wealth. Mr. Sanader has amassed a personal fortune, including a Zagreb mansion worth about 10 million euros and a luxurious watch collection valued at 150,000 euros. This kind of wretched excess would cause even former disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to blush.

Moreover, Mr. Sanader is cracking down on the independent media. His regime controls state television and radio, suppressing dissent - especially, any investigations into high-level HDZ corruption. Under Mr. Sanader’s watch, journalists have been killed and physically assaulted.

Mr. Sanader is also an incorrigible liar. His allies are desperate to discredit the regime’s critics, especially those in the West like myself. He has used a pro-HDZ smear Web site by the name of Javno to peddle lies about me. Under my entry in Wikipedia, there are countless false statements. The goal: To smear my father and grandfather - and by extension assault my reputation. The entry claims my father is a “German” from the Croatian region of Slavonia. It says my grandfather “immigrated to Brazil, refusing to join his wife and children in Canada.” It goes on to say “Kuhner is generally perceived as anti-Bosniak,” and that I have been criticized for “having emotional and national ties too deep to be writing on Balkan subjects.”

Almost every statement is a lie. My father is not German, but an ethnic Croatian. My grandfather immigrated to Canada with his wife and children, and then later moved to Brazil along with my grandmother to retire - where he eventually died. I was a staunch defender of the Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks) and Croatians against Serbia’s war of aggression during the 1990s. How this makes me “anti-Bosniak” is beyond me. As for the criticism of my alleged emotional and national ties, the assertion is not only completely unfounded but bigoted.

When Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Arab-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Anglo-Americans write on issues pertaining to their parents’ ancestral places of birth, their commitment to the truth and capacity for honest, rational discourse is not questioned. They are human beings first, and Americans second, whose background if anything gives them special insight and sensitivity into the topics they are writing on.

And here’s the rub: Mr. Sanader’s cronies despise me not because I am emotionally too invested in the Croatian cause, but because I refuse to allow the ties of blood and ethnicity to serve as an excuse for giving the government a free pass. I refuse to yield to the primitive Balkan atavisms of blood, soil and nation.

Ironically, the reasons for this are my ancestors. The Kuhners go back at least 800 years in Croatia. Over the centuries, they shed their precious blood in defense of the Catholic Church and their homeland. My grandfather - the same one, who according to pro-HDZ propagandists abandoned his wife and children - was a simple Croatian peasant, a devout Christian, family man and patriot. He adored the populist Croatian Peasant Party, which championed home rule and social democracy. He was persecuted by the Nazis. The victory of the Yugoslav communists, led by the brutal dictator Josip Broz Tito, resulted in the destruction not only of the Kuhner clan, but of the historic Croatia my grandfather loved - and, in many ways, embodied.

Hundreds of thousands of Croatians were systematically butchered by Tito’s Partisans; priests, nuns and peasants were massacred; their lands were confiscated; and slave labor camps were established. My grandfather’s brother - a priest - was murdered in his own church, hung with piano wire through the back of his head. My grandfather and his wife and family were rounded up into a concentration camp for three agonizing years - he and my grandmother survived, most of my other ancestors didn’t. Upon leaving the death camp, my grandfather’s small farm was seized, his family persecuted and eventually driven into exile. Despite all their suffering, my grandparents managed to rebuild a life for themselves and their children.

In short, my ancestors were everything Mr. Sanader and his allies can never hope to be: self-reliant, resilient and - above all - courageous Christians not afraid to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. There is something not only grotesque but pathetic about a regime that lies about a dead man in a juvenile attempt to smear one of its Western critics. Croatia can - and must - do better. Croatia’s conundrum is that it has a Central European heritage combined with a Balkan political class. Its culture is that of Vienna or Prague, but its politics is that of Belgrade or Sarajevo.

Zagreb should aim to be a model for its neighbors, forging a path toward real economic reform, political accountability and liberal democracy - one that will demonstrate a viable alternative to the crony capitalism and gangsterism prevalent in the region.

Mr. Sanader’s criminal regime is a stain on the Croatian nation. Croatians must ask themselves whether they want something better - or are they resigned to being dragged, inch by painful inch, into a Balkan abyss.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.