Public attitude toward minority rights usually can serve as a good baseline for testing a country’s level of general democracy and tolerance. Croatia became a European Union member in 2013 and is criticised for its undemocratic society.
Inside the country, there are constant debates on this ground about whether Croatia should be affiliated with Western Balkans or Central Europe. Daniel Martinovic, a human rights activist, and president of the Croatian NGO Rainbow Families Association (RFA), spoke to JURIST to shed light on this topic.
The Association of Rainbow Families works in the advocacy and legal field, mostly helping LGBT+ people who are parents or want to become parents to fight discrimination. Among recent cases the association won are:
- A 2020 civil case that ruled same-sex couples in Croatia can be foster care providers,
- A 2021 civil case that ruled same-sex couples can adopt children, and
- Two cases in 2022 and 2023 ruling against the religious extremist vigilantes.
One of the core successes of the RFA was getting recognition for same-sex couples in civil unions to be providers of foster care and to adopt children. In 2017, conservative right-wing governments tried to block this initiative, but later Zagreb Court and Croatian Constitutional Court ruled in favour of activists.
LGBT+ Rights in Croatia Under the Law
According to Martinovic, the legal rights of sexual minorities have significantly improved over the past ten years. In 2013, a notorious referendum on the definition of the word “marriage” took place. The government organised a populist referendum, and 65% of voters (around 38% of all eligible voters participated) supported the statement that marriage is matrimony between a man and a woman.
A number of activists, politicians and NGOs described this referendum as manipulative. Martinovic said that at that time, the government used the referendum more as smoke and mirrors to distract attention from the severe crisis and high unemployment than as an actual restrictive mechanism.
The rights of sex couples, according to the jurist specialists of the RFA, were not limited by this decision because the definition was too broad to be efficiently implemented.
“It limits the usage of the term, but not the community’s legal rights,” Martinovic said.
The current legal framework for same-sex couples in Croatia is called a civil partnership, which is a form of civil union. In the same vein, Ukrainian politicians and activists are trying to compel the Ukrainian government accept the same concept.
“Most chapters of the legal code are basically copied and pasted from the [country’s] family law, regulating the life of families, so it is practically the same as a marriage. It just has gender-based categories; most, the only difference relates to adoption rights,” Martinovic said.
The increase in positive public perception of LGBT+ people over the last ten years is also visible.
“According to our data, in this aspect, we are somewhere in-between problematic Poland/Hungary and well-developed Norway or Mala,” Martinovic said. “It is a small one-to-two percent increase in our favour per year. We have now reached around 50% acceptance.”
There is an acceptance of the right to be married and of individual freedoms. However, problems persist with public perception of the rights connected with foster care and adoption of children.
To combat these issues, public education is used to create a more equitable view of minorities.
Martinovic is one of the coordinators of the Civic Initiative for Civic Education in Croatian schools. The country does not have a public system of sex or civic education in schools. Hence, the organisation provides students with an opportunity to take these classes as extra-curricular activities. Daniel predicts that in five to ten years, it can substantially affect public perception of minorities.
At the same time, Croatia is a very religious country. According to the last available census in 2011, 86.3 of the population is Catholic. Several radical religious organisations are trying to counter the work of activists, promoting specific ideas.
When I came to Zagreb and accidentally came to the main square on Saturday morning, I was shocked by the ritual of middle-aged men (mostly) kneeling for the purity of women, family, and the patriarchal organisation of society. According to Martinovic, the organisation responsible for these activities started petitions two times against the RFA, but they lost in court.
Moreover, over the years, in big cities, people have stopped taking such organisations seriously, so they do not have any governmental power.
“There are some attacks by football hooligans on the LGBT+ community, but overall, people feel safe,” Martinovic said.
A Change in Government Strategy
There is an increase in support for the rights of minorities from the government, even if it is not fully open. After the last pride, police arrested people who tried to harm people in the column. A few years before, the situation was way worse.
Currently, Croatia has a centre-right government that wants to align with the Catholic church. Still, a number of cities have left or green-left local governments, and these cities are in charge of education, so they are cooperating with activists to introduce the above-mentioned sex education in schools as an extracurricular activity. So far, according to Martinovic, it is very popular among teenagers.
Still, on the national level, there remains a reluctance to make any progressive changes. Nothing has changed in this sphere over the last 20 years, so part of the country awaits comprehensive educational reform.
In theory, Croatia has a solid system of anti-discrimination laws. Still, in most cases, the government pretends that some norms simply do not exist because they were introduced by their predecessors, not by them.
In the political sphere, this topic is a double-edged sword for the Croatian government; thus, they try to abstain from making any decisions. From one side, any discriminatory steps could lead to European sanctions, and Croatia, which is economically vulnerable, would feel them; from another side, any decisions favouring minorities would lead to losing political points and votes.
Therefore, activists and NGOs must constantly push the government and appeal to the Constitutional Court to accept necessary decisions. All the legal advancements mentioned in this article were made via private litigation against the state.
The government usually adopts some decisions, which they know cannot win in court, but they receive votes through them. Thus, we see a peculiar case where the Court is responsible for forming legislation in the field of minority rights, not the government.
One of the possible reasons why such a system was formed is explained in the work of distinguished Croatian Political Scientist Dr Zoran Kurelic.
According to Kurelic’s article, “No Carrot and No Stick: Croatia’s Simulated Democracy and the EU”, the democratizing process created for Croatia by the EU partly failed. Over the second half of the 20th century, the main widely supported regimes were socialist and nationalist, which are hard to count as democratic or liberal.
In an attempt to liberalise Croatia, the EU failed to realise that they are not an authority for the country, the church and its anti-liberal position had strong support among the population. The change from actual socialism to truly liberalism was supposed to be a revolutionary move.
It should have included all the spheres of society to work out, but it has never happened.
Thus, as a country, Croatia created liberal institutions, wrote proper anti-discriminatory laws but did not implement them to change the people’s mindsets. As a result, the country has a democratic construction without democratic values; the so-called “simulated democracy.” It is one of the reasons why the government is doing the bare minimum to receive the EU funds but are not keen to liberalise the country. The carrot-stick policy was too weak to convince, and now the opportunity is missed.
However, according to Martinovic, grassroots movements and organisations are doing real work to liberalise Croatia, and it works. Slowly, but works, so in another ten years, we can see a completely different picture.
Mykyta Vorobiov is a political science student at Bard College, Berlin. He previously studied at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the University of Tartu, and the University of Zagreb in Croatia.