TOP STORY: AFTERMATH OF WAR: Family planning becomes politically charged issue in post-war Croatia

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

ZAGREB, Croatia (RNS)-A patchwork collage of multi-color maps of Croatia and posters of wet, wide-eyed babies checker the walls and windows of the Croatian Population Movement’s (CPM) Zagreb office.”Have one more child,”reads one poster with a smiling preschooler in army fatigues flashing the two-finger victory sign.”These black fields show where deaths outnumber births by 2-to-1,”explains Suzanna, a CPM volunteer, pointing to one of the detailed demographic maps.”It’s very dangerous for Croatia,”says the 21-year-old Catholic,”because if we don’t have young people, we don’t have Croatia. We would stop existing like a people.” The CPM, a small, well-funded group with close ties to the government, is run by Franciscan priest and outspoken conservative Don Ante Bakovic. Alongside Bakovic’s organization, the Croatian Catholic Church, the ruling nationalist party (HDZ) and a growing anti-abortion movement are backing a stepped-up campaign to promote bigger families and ban abortion in Croatia.

Croatian nationalists say decades of communist, anti-Croat policies have drained the Croatian nation, pushing it to the brink of annihilation. But critics of the pro-family movement and a related state-backed demographic program say the campaigns are overtly nationalistic and anti-woman, aimed primarily at repopulating Croatia-and Croatian-dominated parts of Bosnia-with ethnic Croatians.

The Catholic Church hierarchy, although supportive of the movement’s larger goals, has distanced itself from radical nationalists, who it says want to use the church for their own political agenda.

Earlier this year, the Croatian parliament passed the Program for Demographic Renewal, a manifesto calling for measures to increase the national birthrate, stem emigration and”redistribute”the population. The latter goal refers to resettling sparsely inhabited, war-ravaged parts of the country through”selective immigration”and a”purposeful replacement of the population.”In strident, nationalist language, the 50-page declaration demands the”protection of the family as the basic unit of society”which will lead to the”renewal of nation and state.””The Croatian nation could be threatened with extinction if determined steps are not taken,”Croatian President Franjo Tudjman claims in the document.

Part of the program proposes economic incentives and media campaigns to encourage women to have three or more children.”Many young people are afraid to have children today because they just can’t afford it,”says Zivko Kustic, director of the Catholic press agency in Zagreb, which is close to the church hierarchy. Kustic says the Catholic Church supports those aspects of the demographic program that would make families feel more secure.

Church leadership sees the source of the falling birthrate in divorce and the economy.

But, Kustic says,”increasing the birthrate to have more Croatian soldiers is not in the spirit of Catholicism. The church can’t support something like this.” Croatian women’s groups say the financially strapped state is unable to provide mothers with the minimal benefits already promised them.”Women are promised these incentives if they stay home,”says Kristine Jenkins of the Women’s Information and Documentation Center in Zagreb.”But it’s a red herring because they don’t exist,”says Jenkins, who is an American citizen.”Women will leave or be pushed out of their jobs for nothing.” The initial impetus for a Croatian demographic policy came from Bakovic, one of the ruling nationalist HDZ’s founding fathers. When President Tudjman’s party came to power in 1990, Bakovic was second in charge of the newly created Ministry for Development and Renewal. But shortly afterward, protests over the Franciscan priest’s radical views and the dubious nature of the office forced him to step down.

Even the Catholic Church has cautiously distanced itself from Bakovic.”His ideas are mostly good,”says Kustic,”but he goes too far. The church can’t let itself or its beliefs be used by people with racist or chauvinistic ideas.” Bakovic declined to be interviewed for this story.”Naturally the low birthrate concerns the church, as it does all Croatians,”says Kustic.”But, as Catholics, we must distinguish between legitimate moral reasons for these kinds of policies and populistic motives.” The newly passed demographic program is a product of the same ministry that Bakovic helped create, now in the hands of Vice Prime Minister Jure Radic.”The real players are the state and the HDZ, which are more or less the same, and the Catholic Church,”says philosopher Zarko Puhovski, a prominent human-rights advocate.”Extremist movements like Mr. Bakovic’s are used only as an argument against those people who say the HDZ or the state are doing too much, too quickly.” Critics of the demographic program claim its real goal is to rectify population imbalances created by the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. In Croatia, large swaths of war-damaged and ethnically cleansed territory are virtually uninhabited. When the rebel Serb minority took control of one-third of the country in 1991, 300,000 to 400,000 Croats were forced to flee. Last year, the Croat army recaptured the areas, causing a mass exodus of Serbs. Today, only a fraction of the formerly 600,000-strong Serb minority still lives in Croatia.”There’s a clear political, even military-strategic agenda behind these demographic policies,”says Puhovski.”Their goal is to create more Croats and less minorities in the area nationalists see as Croatia, which includes western Bosnia and Herzegovina.”In the demographic program, these areas are referred to as”regions of strategic importance”for the Croatian state.”Basically, these people see women as the vehicles for their own ethnically homogenous Croatia,”says Vesna Kesic, a well-known Croatian journalist.”The message they’re sending is very worrisome.” The demographic program itself refers to other nationalities living in Croatia, such as Serbs, Muslims and Albanians, only rarely-and then as”other citizens of Croatia.”It advocates the strict regulation of immigration from other parts of former Yugoslavia.”The massive immigration of demographically stronger peoples to Croatia (Muslims in former Yugoslavia have a high birth rate) has already started,”it concludes.”By the end of the 21st century, the Croats could become a minority in their own country.” The demographic campaign is closely linked to a growing, Catholic Church-backed anti-abortion movement. Although abortion is still legal in Croatia, the Croatian Catholic Church and like-minded groups are lobbying to have it banned.

In addition to moral reasons, nationalists argue that abortion depletes the Croatian nation.”Gynecologists in Croatia have killed five to six times more little Croats than the Chetniks (Serbian soldiers) during the war,”claims Bakovic in his monthly publication, Narod (Nation).

One clause in the demographic program encourages doctors to refuse to terminate pregnancies on grounds of conscientious objection.

Kesic says that, while the Catholic Church leadership has remained critical of national voices in the ruling party, it supports the demographic program as a means to have abortion outlawed.”The government is reaching out to the church,”she says.

It’s difficult to gauge public enthusiasm for the campaign. The state-controlled media have pushed the program gingerly.”One More Child”propaganda appears on a few billboards. After nearly five years of war and economic hardship, most Croatians seem to have little interest in an ideological campaign backed by an ever-less popular government.”Croats will start having babies when the economy picks up,”says Jasna, a 26-year-old school teacher.”And for that we need new elections.”


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