Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
Zagreb has certainly changed since I was here last.
In the years of '92-'93 the war was still on and the place had a dumpy, dirty air to it. Some improvements and repainting were underway, but mostly around the hotels and Ban Jelacic square in the Centar. It here that my photojournalism partner, Russ Moeller, and I would relax after trips into embattled Bosnia. For some god-forsaken reason, the authorities in Zagreb popped off an immense signal cannon every day at twelve noon, sending Russ and I diving for cover. Four in ten others did the same. The was wasn't that far away.
Those days are over. When I returned to Zagreb the other day I started seeing just how much the place had changed. There has been a tidal wave of investment here. Everywhere I go it seems touched by Midas. New shops, new paint, new everything has sprung up. It appears that little Croatia with her big problems has definitely attracted the foreign investor's eye. With a seeming end to hostilities in Bosnia and the HV (Hrvatski Vonjic or Cro Army), and removing that nagging question of Serb Krajina, Croatia can only grow.
While walking across Ban Jelacic the other day, taking in the sights, I looked up and there it was. That international symbol of the big money, that nod of recognition from the power centers of the Western world -- a McDonalds. "Oh my god," I said out loud to no one in particular, and stood there transfixed. For a while I couldn't even move. I was so struck. Here was the clearest signal that Croatia was well on the way to the much sought-after place in that little ring of stars on the blue flag of the European Union.
I wished Russ was here to see this, and thought about how insufferably arrogant this was going to make Zagreb's elite. So after composing myself, I walked up to the small cluster of McDonalds crew members stringing balloons and asked what the deal was. They eyed me sort of funny when I started asking them questions, but when I flashed my press card I was eagerly informed that this was the first McDonalds ever in Croatia, and it was opening tomorrow at five. Knowing that this landmark passage into Western pop culture couldn't be overlooked by the powers that be in Croatia, I asked when the press show was going to happen. Six thirty that evening, I was told with much fanfare. They were the proudest McDonalds crew I have ever seen.
Knowing full well how the HDZ, the ruling party in Croatia, has been trumpeting the virtues of this tiny land to anyone who will listen for the last five years, this was not a show to miss. At the appointed hour I walked over, and even though I was ten minutes early, the party was already in full swing. I guess they simply weren't going to wait one moment longer than necessary to crown themselves western and get on with it.
After a short delay by the goon squad guarding the joint, I was in. The last time I was in a place so packed with people was when Russ, Brian and I invited the entire Mary Washington campus back to our first off-campus apartment for the opening kegger of the school year. My glasses went instant fog and I had a hard time just finding a place to duck into while I sorted myself out. After my vision cleared, I just stood for a while, taking it all in.
There they were, Zagreb's elite. The newly-rich HDZ power players, UN and EC muckety-mucks and the up-and-comers of every ilk, looking for all the world like kids who had finally caught the brass ring on Croatia's merry-go-round. Packed in like cattle and loving it, this was the social event of the year. They gobbled down cheeseburgers and fries by the tray-full and swilled it all down with champagne. Yes, champagne, in delicate little glasses stamped with the McDonalds logo.
It was served by Zagreb's teen girls and boys, as everywhere, the foot soldiers of McDonald's worldwide army. As I watched them pour the bubbly and dish out the fries, I started thinking about many of the things their friends had been telling me in the past few days. Apparently all is not well in never-never land.
Zagreb Police vs. Teen Rowdies
About a month ago in Samibor, just east of Zagreb, there had been a rock show attended en masse by area teenagers. The incident was related by a friend who works at one of the local radio stations. As teens are prone to do, especially in a country with no drinking age, they were getting a little rowdy and breaking the odd beer bottle. In a country that desperately tries to project a spit and polish image to the rest of the world, this simply would not do and parties unknown called in the police. They did not call in just any police however, they called in the Croat version of special, paramilitary police. When they were done, people started calling the whole incident the "Samibor Massacre".
"I saw pictures of this place after," my friend told me, "and it looked like one of the Serb prison camps like at Omarska. I mean, there was blood everywhere. I saw hands on the wall in blood. I just couldn't fucking believe it," he continued. "I mean, they were just kids, man. Of course they're going to break things but, you just get regular policeman to take them away. You don't call in special police to do this with kids. There's, like twenty lawsuits by parents against the government. They really fucked them up, man. I mean, when war started here, we all respect, you know 'thank you, policeman' and all this, but now we are just like 'fuck-you-man' because of shit like this."
(Note: before Croatia was able to organize a decent fighting force when the war broke out in '91, a fair amount of fighting was done by the police because they had automatic rifles in their arsenals.)
Other kids echoed the same sentiment, going so far as to not want to be photographed because of possible recriminations later. This is a far cry from '92 when pulling out a camera around a bunch of kids was asking to blow ten rolls on "buddy" shots to satisfy them. I also noticed a lot more of them were turning to grunge and punk fashion trends. I even spotted the odd gangsta rapper types. Kids here have always had their eye on the west. When Croatian television, HTV, was running "Beverly Hills 90210," it was almost unbearable, what with all of them trying to look like Brandon or that chick who's always pitching temper tantrums backstage. These days, there's a meaner edge to the late night crowd.
Add this to the fact that the Croatian government just had a human rights condemnation handed by the United Nations. Then, Croatia's president Tudjman goes and promotes General Tihomir Blaskic, the Bosnian Croat commander accused of the 1993 massacre of Muslims in Ahmici, to high office the day after he is indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Add the HDZ's open support for Mante Baban and his gang of HVO thugs in Mostar, and an interesting picture begins to develop. The more I thought about it, the better I felt about having crashed the Mickey-D's black tie affair in my dirty old Ike jacket and smelly jungle boots.
There was, however, a touching note to the whole affair. The kids working the place were truly proud of their McDonalds. To them, this was tangible evidence that things were getting better. After all, even Belgrade has a McDonalds, and now to finally have their own, it was touching to see them all smiling. Even the kids on the line were going at it with relish and they were slammed. I used to work a Burger King in Virginia when I was their age, and our hellish lunch rushes were nothing compared to this. Even the uppity-ups were regarding them with respect and deference and the kids were loving it. How long that feeling will prevail is anyone's guess. The next day I went up for a look and they were slammed again as well. But hey, for as long as the vision lasts, I wish them the best.