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Transformation of Values in Croatia in Democratic Times

Published onMay 09, 2022
Transformation of Values in Croatia in Democratic Times


The author outlines six theses to analyze the movement and transformation of values in the first decades of the 21st century in Croatia. The country gained independence and became a democratic state following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1990 and a defensive Homeland War (1990 – 1995). This chapter analyzes trust in institutions, which reveals the diversity and multifaceted nature of the young Croatian democratic society. In addition to addressing certain bioethical issues (abortion, artificial insemination/ in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, suicide, and the death penalty), the author points to classical and traditional values of marriage and family, as well as alternative living arrangements such as single motherhood by choice, cohabitation, and same sex partnerships. Finally, the author draws attention to a decline in ecclesiality which has been evidenced in gradual and distanced ecclesiality over several decades. The chapter concludes by stating that moving forward, Croats find themselves at a turning point in the understanding and accepting, promoting, and living values, both those of the fundamental character and those of a specific Christian and (neo-)liberal character. The author argues that the Croatian society will align with the transformation of values in developed European countries; Croatia, too, will experience its (post)modernization.

32.1 Introduction

The Republic of Croatia gained independence in the process of political turnaround in Central and East Europe in the period 1989/1990. Croatia is a post-communist state whose democratic development after 1990 was marked by a defensive war forced by Serbian aggression in the period from 1990 to 1995. In that period, through the Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Zagreb, Croatia joined the third wave of data collection of the European Values Study (EVS) in 1998.1 Since that moment, the Croatian team had the pleasure and the honor of meeting, spending time and engaging in useful and pleasant discussions with Loek Halman, during the meetings of the EVS team on several occasions and at several locations – including Zagreb in 2010. Loek is regarded as a dedicated expert, adept organizer, and a wise leader; he consistently sought to include all of Europe (with both of its lungs) in the EVS, despite numerous differences between them. Loek considered these differences as enriching the EVS project. This article, outlining several theses in order to explore the results obtained by Croatian EVS researchers, is a token of appreciation and acknowledgement to him.

In terms of secularization (Wilson, 1966; Bruce, 2002), (post)modernization (Inglehart, 1977, 1997), individualization and subjectification (Luckmann, 1967; Giddens, 2003; Ester et al., 1994; Halman, 1996; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002), and gradual and distanced ecclesiality (Baloban, J., 1982), it can be concluded that Croatia follows a general pattern to a large extent, but at a (much) slower pace in comparison to the developed world countries. Furthermore, each society, including Croatian, is much more complex than theoretical reflections and considerations,2 since it bears certain specificities. The specificity of the contemporary Croatian society cannot be understood without considering the communist period (1945 – 1990) and the communist legacy after 1990, which certainly impact value systems. It is also important to keep in mind the defensive Homeland War (1990 – 1995), the arduous process of social and economic transformation and the EU accession (2013).

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen a compelling shift in values, both classical-traditional and new, often (neo)liberal values. This is evidenced in the work carried out by the Croatian EVS team, supported by a book which compares the Third, Fourth and Fifth EVS Waves in Croatia (Baloban, J., et al., 2019). Often classified as a Catholic European country (Polak & Schachinger, 2011), Croatia has displayed an interesting acceptance and practice of values in democratic times. This article identifies the transformation of values in Croatia in certain selected spheres of human life: both individual and private as well as societal.


32.2 Six Theses Undergirding Croatian Values Change

The acceptance and practice of values over the last twenty years in Croatia is outlined in six theses.

Thesis 1: Trust in particular institutions reveals all the diversity and multifaceted nature of the young Croatian democratic society in the second and third decades of democracy (2000 – 2021). This is reflected in the fact that the armed forces, the police, the health care system, and the Church3 enjoy a great deal of confidence, whereas political parties, the parliament, government and civil service, the press and the justice system do not enjoy much confidence (Baloban, et al., 2019).

All institutions in a society – from family to public institutions – are constituted of people. These institutions are seen to operate better or worse on is in the EVS surveyed on a scale from a great deal, quite a lot, not very much, to not at all. Trust has a significant role in life of every society. Much like their European fellow citizens, Croatian citizens also highly regard family as a value, and consider it very important and quite important, notwithstanding all problems and difficulties that this fundamental societal institution has been facing. In EVS 2017, Croatian respondents stated they trust family completely (78.4%), somewhat (17.5%), and a negligible faction not at all (0.5%). Such high percentages are not recorded when asked about the level of trust in people from various groups; neighbors and people they know personally. Only 14.0% of respondents trust their neighbors completely, 57.8% trust them somewhat. Respondents trust people they know personally completely in 24.3%, somewhat in 59.7%. Croats are more reserved with people of another nationality, only 9.0% trust them completely, 54.5% trust them somewhat and 27.3% do not trust them very much.

In all three recent waves two pentagons stand out. The first pentagon of the greatest confidence includes the armed forces (61%), the education system (51%), the police (46%), the health care system (43%) and the Church (38%); while the pentagon with the lowest confidence consists of political parties (4%), the parliament (8%), government and civil service (10%), the press (10%) and the justice system (15%).

Several facts should be highlighted with respect to trust in institutions from 1999 to 2017. Firstly, the observed period is characterized by a decline in confidence for all eighteen institutions, including the European Union and the United Nations. Secondly, the Church suffered the greatest erosion of confidence of 26%, followed by the parliament with a decline of 15% and the justice system with a decline of 20%, as well as the EU and the UN with a decline of about 20%. Thirdly, around twenty years ago in the first pentagon of confidence the armed forces, the Church and the education system stood out with approximately 65% confidence.

An explanation of such a decline of confidence in these institutions, and in particular the Church, may be as follows. The transition from a totalitarian communist to a democratic system gave the Church in Croatia the right to full public profession as a relevant societal factor (school catechism, Accords between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia, media access). While it has managed to transition from a position of certain ghettoization during the communist period to free public engagement, it has failed to successfully reposition, i.e., to adequately position itself in the new order despite all external advantages provided by the new Croatian democratic society. Far too much energy was wasted ad intra, and far too little energy was dedicated to pastoral strategy ad extra, i.e., towards the actual society and the world generally. After the historical turnaround (1990/1991) institutional stakeholders had failed to completely abandon the earlier communist mentality, lacking the willingness and determination to deal with all advantages and disadvantages of democracy and consequently failed to rethink and act. Moreover, at the beginning of 1990s, Croatia had sustained military aggression on the part of Serbia and the Yugoslav People’s Army and was forced to engage in the defensive Homeland war (1991 – 1995), which slowed down democratic processes to a great extent.

Thesis 2: Following centuries of struggles for independent statehood, and after experience with an undemocratic regime in the communist period (1945 – 1990), Croats in the second and third decades of democracy (21st century) have been increasingly opting for, i.e., seeking authoritarianism (Nikodem, 2019), while simultaneously struggling with trust in institutions in the society and experiencing difficulties with respect for authority.

All three recent EVS waves have indicated that there has been a continuous increase in authoritarian attitudes among Croats. This is notable with the EVS question to what extent people favor having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections. In 1999 one in ten Croatian respondents (11.5%) considered this as very good, in 2008 this increased to one in four respondents (28.8%), and in 2017 it stood at one in three respondents (36.8%). It is particularly indicative that in the age distribution, young people (aged 18 to 29) are more advocating the strong leader model: in 1999 13.9% of young respondents favored a strong leader, in 2008 this was 32%, and in 2017 almost every other young person i.e., 47.3%.

It is important to analyze authoritarianism in Croatia in relation to trust in institutions to assert that Croatian citizens are dissatisfied with certain democratic institutions (for instance, politicians, members of parliament, and government per se), but display more satisfaction with institutions such as the armed forces, the health care system, the police, the education system and the Church, which are institutions with a certain institutional – hierarchical authority, but which serve the needs of all citizens more than it is the case with other institutions. We observe that the increase in authoritarianism among Croatian respondents does not correlate with the decrease in the number of respondents which consider that obedience is a desirable quality for a child to have. Specifically, in the last ten years, support for this child rearing value has gone down from 37% to 27.2% in EVS 2017. 

Thesis 3: Solidarity and desolidarization in the society are not only Croatian issues, but they are also, in fact, a European and global phenomenon. The process of social stratification in the Croatian society, which is closely correlated with desolidarization thereof, has not deepened according to EVS 2017, but the Croatian society has not yet “emerged from the crisis of solidarity” (Baloban, et al., 2019).

Where does Croatia stand with preferences regarding social distance, concern about the living conditions of various groups of people, with the Church, and with social issues? Up to now, the topics of solidarity and desolidarization have not occupied a prominent position in public discussions in Croatia, and scientific evidence on this topic is scarce.

With regards to social distance preferences, in all three recent waves of research we have identified comparative variations with a tendency of a slight fall (or decrease) in social distance in 2017. Social distance remains high towards drug addicts (70% would not prefer them as a neighbor) and heavy drinkers (60%); it has declined towards homosexuals (39%); it is the lowest towards people of different race (12%) and Jews (12%), while it has increased and returned to 21% towards immigrants/foreign workers. It is noteworthy that the extent to which respondents feel concerned about the living conditions of various categories of people reached the lowest point in 2008. According to EVS 2017, the extent of concern increased most for the elderly and the sick – up to 82%. The concern for Europeans and people in the region has also increased, while there was a slight uptick in the concern for the unemployed people. The issue of solidarity and desolidarization is very indicative on the question of the perception of the Church’s social engagement. In 1999, 44% of respondents considered that the Church had adequately responded to social issues; in 2008 this stood at 30%, and in 2017, 39% of respondents agreed.4 The Croatian society has not yet emerged from the crisis of solidarity despite the fact that the process of desolidarization has not deepened further.

Thesis 4: In EVS 2017, Croatian respondents did not take a consistent attitude towards certain bioethical issues (for instance abortion, artificial insemination/in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, suicide, and the death penalty); in fact they displayed a variety of attitudes (Matulić & Balabanić, 2019).

Croats have a compelling and ambivalent attitude to the fundamental and the greatest value: human life from its very beginning (conception) to its end (death). Human life is a value above all other values – it is the absolute value. We address five life moments here, or five bioethical issues which have the most direct and far-reaching relation with this pivotal value. These are the issues of abortion, artificial insemination/in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, suicide, and the death penalty.

The topic and dilemma pertaining to abortion has been for decades tearing the worlds apart from marriage and family, all types of partnerships and unions, including free relationships – where a child is conceived but not desired – up to political orientations and ideological attitudes worldwide; in essence people of both religious belief and areligious worldview. Thus, abortion has become de facto punto di riferimento of a personal attitude, societal, political and media orientation. In EVS 2017 35.6% of Croatian respondents considered abortion never justified while 12% considered it almost never justified. Among those who approved of it, 14.3% considered it always justified, while 15.4% considered it almost always justified. One in five respondents (22.8%) remained undecided. In the post-modern world, human life is associated with artificial insemination/ in-vitro fertilization. In Croatia, 69.4% of respondents support artificial insemination (44.2% consider it always justified and 27.2% consider it almost always justified). Nearly a third of respondents are divided on the issue, as 15.4% are undecided, while 8.3% consider it never and 6.8% almost never justified.

The three bioethical attitudes about the end of life are very differentiated by cause and justification of the respondents. These are euthanasia (which often involves decisions of an individual and somebody else), suicide, which is ultimately an individual decision which might be subjectively and objectively informed, and the death penalty which is rooted in the positive legislation of a country. Euthanasia is never justified for 35.8% and almost never justified for 12.2%, while always justified for 15% and almost always justified for 16.6% of respondents. The percentage of undecided respondents stands at 20.5%. With regards to suicide, Croatian citizens are far more radical and traditional since four fifths of the respondents (85.4%) do not approve of such an end to life (75.6% find it never justified and 9.8% consider it almost never justified). Suicide is always justified by 2.4%, and almost always justified by 1.6% of respondents. With reference to the death penalty – which does not exist in Croatia – respondents are less radical and less traditional since 64.3% do not approve of it (never justified 51.8% and almost never justified 12.5%). One in five respondents is in favor of the death penalty (21.9%), while 13.8% is undecided.

Thesis 5: Marriage and family as classical and traditional values of the humankind still enjoy great majority support of Croatian respondents, although they have been exposed to various challenges, including alternative forms of living, from cohabitation, single motherhood by choice to same sex partnerships (Aračić et al., 2019).

Theoretical deliberation of Croats is inclined to historical-anthropological traditional behavior. They advocate the importance of family: in all three recent EVS waves, nearly 98% of respondents consider family very important and quite important in their lives. The majority (approx. 80 percent) do not consider the classical marriage (between a man and a woman) to be an outdated institution. Simultaneously, there has been a decline in the number of respondents who agree that “having children gives meaning to life”; more precisely there was a drop from 76.3% in 1999 to 63.8% in 2017. Divorce approval has grown, so that 26.4% found it justified in 2017, whereas 18.4% found it justified in 1999. Divorce statistics indicate there has been an even greater discrepancy between theory and practice; in 1999 one in six marriages ended in divorce, while in 2017 one in three marriages was dissolved.

Certainly, alternatives to the classical marriage and family have emerged in Croatia. These include single motherhood by choice (deliberate personal choice) (Halman et al., 2011),5 cohabitation (partners living together before marriage), same sex partnerships and social sterility (Akrap & Čipin, 2006).6 Similarly to Europe, alternatives to classical models of marriage and family have been facilitated by individualization and subjectification which are increasingly endorsed worldwide, and in particular liberalization and relativization of the society, human liberties and rights etc.7 It is precisely such trends and the increasing emphasis on rights of the woman, parent and adult individual, while neglecting many/some fundamental rights of the child – a human being and person that is being developed and raised. This child is, as much as an adult, a unique and inviolable value both individually as well as locally and universally.

Thesis 6: Decline in ecclesiality as the dominant religiosity in Croatia, evident in gradual and distanced ecclesiality – which started in the communist period after the Second World War – has steadily continued in the democratic times across all dimensions of Christian religiosity as a multidimensional phenomenon (Baloban et al., 2019).

Over the last twenty years all dimensions of ecclesiality (confessional belonging, dimension of religious truths, ritual dimension, moral-ethical dimension, experiential dimension, and the dimension of confidence in the Church) have experienced a complex and differentiated decline, and thus contributed to a decline in ecclesiality and Christianity as well. The Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Zagreb conducted its first empirical research in democratic Croatia in 1997, two years after the end of the defensive Homeland War (1991-1995). The research established that 89.7% of respondents belonged to the Roman Catholic Church and 2.9% belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church. In terms of religiosity, 89.7% of respondents declared themselves as religious, while 8.2% considered themselves as non-religious and 2.0% as a convinced atheist (Valković, 1998). According to the EVS 2017 results, 80.3% of respondents identify as Roman Catholic, and 17.8% declare themselves not a religious person. There has also been a decline in the dimension of religious truths and in the ritual dimension. The moral-ethical dimension and the dimension of confidence in the Church stand out as particularly critical. Confidence in the Church plummeted from 64.3% in 1999 to 38% in 2017. The most remarkable and the most significant responses pertain to the question about the importance of religion in life. While religion was important for 77.2% of Croatian citizens in 1999, and not at all important for 20.7%, in 2017 63.9% found it important, and 34.7% found it irrelevant in life. Therefore, ecclesiality confirms that although declining, nominal Church belonging has remained relatively stable; that Croatian Catholics are selectively ritual-oriented, and morally and ethically they have been, to a great extent, distanced from their church. They adopt religious truths in line with their own subjective matrix, create their own private Credo, deviate from the faith of the official Church; Christians dispense from certain Commandments. The result is not only gradual and distanced ecclesiality, but also growing private and selective Christianity. On the one hand there is personal and institutional religiosity, and on the other there is distanced personal and institutional religiosity (Nikodem & Zrinščak, 2019).


32.3 In Lieu of a Conclusion

Moving forward, Croats find themselves at a turning point as regards understanding and accepting, promoting, and living values, both those of the fundamental character and those of a specific Christian and (neo)liberal character. Such values studied and researched from 1981 to 2017 within the EVS project are de facto heritage and facticity of the entire humankind. Furthermore, Christianity shares the fundamental values about human being, human life, and the nature (the environment) with the whole of the humankind, and in particular, with great religions of the world.

With regard to values, it is to be expected that the young democratic Croatian society will align with the transformation of values in the developed European countries. Further levels of trust in institutions will depend on whether citizens perceive institutions more as a control or as a civil service. Marriage and family as classical values in terms of factual acceptance will continue to be challenged. The decline in ecclesiality will only continue to deepen. In many aspects, Croatia will not remain an isolated island in Europe in the transformation of values. Croatia, too, will experience its (post)modernization.


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