How Croatian agriculture bought the farm
Agriculture was once a core industry in the former Yugoslavia. But corruption and mismanagement turned the region's one-time breadbasket into a 'small war zone.'
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According to Mario Ivekovic, a Croatian trade union leader who campaigned for the national audit to take place, the state has only provided an “inventory of the crime.” It has not cancelled the privatizations or compensated the victims, as the public had hoped.Skip to next paragraph
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“Nothing happened afterwards,” he says. “The years are going by, and it will become harder to get to the bottom of these cases.”
This report by BIRN pieces together how a single collective farm fell apart, using interviews with workers and managers, as well as court and government documents.
Mismanagement appears to be the main culprit in the farm’s demise, yet many questions remain. Who got what share, and how much did they deserve? If the answers are hazy, it is partly because the very definition of ownership was up-for-grabs during Croatia’s chaotic transition to a market economy.
Nevertheless, from the messy specifics emerge elements that will be familiar to farmers across the former Yugoslavia: the loss of shared assets, the whiff of wrongdoing, and the missing pot of money for which no one has been held accountable.
Zivkovic is an energetic man in his late sixties, who owes his furrowed face and gnarled hands to a lifetime spent working outdoors.
He was an employee of PP Retkovci, an agricultural collective named after the village where it was based, in the plains of Slavonia, eastern Croatia.
Like thousands of farms in Yugoslavia, PP Retkovci was part-owned and managed by its workers. It was blessed by rich yields from an arable soil – and by the generosity of a socialist state.
“We appeared on TV!” says Zivkovic. “We were the first agricultural company with an advanced drainage system in Yugoslavia.”
The employees of PP Retkovci were enthusiastic stakeholders, regarding their workplace as an investment. By the 1980s, the farm employed some 200 workers – the equivalent of a fifth of the local population. It was a symbol of the village, a source of pride as well as wealth.
The Yugoslav era came to an end in 1991. Croatia declared independence and was at war with its neighbors soon after. At the end of that year, PP Retkovci employed around 125 people. Its value at the time was the equivalent of around €1.5 million ($1.9 million).
The farm’s accounts were in the black, but its ownership structure was in flux. The new Croatian state had assumed full control of all collectives, including PP Retkovci. This was intended as a stopgap measure, paving the way for the eventual privatization of the old socialist state’s assets.
The villagers continued to work at the farm, believing they would be compensated for their stake in the old company by its eventual new owners, or by the state.
PP Retkovci was opened up to private investors in 1993. However, the state did not put all the farm’s assets on the market. Instead, it only offered shares in the buildings and the equipment. As with other collective farms, the fields were set aside, to be redistributed later by the local government. In this sense, only part of PP Retkovci would be privatized.
The farm attracted the interest of Vinko Markovic, a prominent supporter of Croatia’s nationalist HDZ party. In 1994, he acquired a 15 percent stake in PP Retkovci. The other shareholders included various funds, and the farm’s 189 workers, who had received 50 percent of the shares between them.
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