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12 May 17

Zagreb Could do Without its New Mountain

Borna Sor

The inhabitants of the Croatian capital have long lived in the shadow of a mountain - but now they have a second one to contend with, not filled with bears, but with pestilence, garbage, and corruption.

Zagreb's Jakusevec "mountain". Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Branko Radovanovic

The capital of Croatia is an ever-growing city. Situated on the slopes of Mount Medvednica, it has doubled in size each post-war period. And God knows, there have been too many wars in this corner of our continent.

Now reaching its first million in population, the cornerstone of the country's economy, and, since Croatia's entry into the EU, doubling its tourist numbers, Zagreb can truly be called prosperous.

And yet, its citizens don't seem too pleased. Maybe you have heard how the citizens of Zagreb – known as «Purgers», from the German word «Burg», meaning «town», not the English «purge» - are generally considered arrogant.

We are. And proud of it. Legend says that long ago our ancestors came to live in the shadow of the holy Bear Mountain, where for generations they fought with the bears over territory, berries, and honey.

Five great wars were fought, with no clear victor. The bloodshed did not stop until the ancient Purgers, led by a vision that only a new mountain would keep them away, built the legendary Bear Castle – Medvedgrad.

And so the bears were defeated, not physically, but psychologically. Within the castle's strong walls, our ancestors boldly mocked the bears from the inside, coming up with new insults and jokes, slowly pushing them deeper into the forest.

What worked on bears, worked on humans, too. For centuries, Zagreb was protected by its castles, and the population grew confident and proud, claiming the mountain all for itself.  

So, yes, we knew we would grow and were not surprised to see so many people coming to live in Zagreb. With the bears gone, that was to be expected. That part we like.

The reason why so many people believe we are not going in the right direction is a matter of another mountain.

Our Mayor, Milan Bandic, has been with us for over 16 years now.  That is 16 year as a mayor, not as a living human. That is longer than your full education should last and longer than all my past relationships combined. And, like all relationships that last for over 16 years, it is either great or something is very wrong with it.

When your boyfriend drunk-drives and runs away from the police, your parents may be worried but you are not going to dump him.

Even when he gets the cop fired, and later forces him to godfather his child in a stunt, you will forgive him. If you really love him, so what if he is under corruption investigations and if the public construction work is as transparent as water in the dark. «All the paperwork is there, you just can't see it.»

And so the pile of evidence grows. The same roads constantly repaired, the same fishy companies, the same accusations, everything new tainted by suspicion of corruption, every building, square, and fountain ruined by greed.

When something new is built in Zagreb, it feels like being robbed. Whistleblowers come out, the local population revolts, journalists connects the dots, ex-partners confess to police, but, still, nothing can make you dump him, can it, Zagreb? Why?

Why do you love him so much? Is it because he paid you? It is true, he pays those media handsomely that glorify him, or look the other way. But it is not his money to give, so you are not just selling yourself, you are stealing with him.

Or is it because your family loves him? Because he hired them, so creating the biggest local bureaucracy in the region, where nepotism is so high that dating work colleagues is forbidden for the fear of incest?

He also hired them with our money. What seems like saintliness to you seems like thievery to me. And while you look away, the pile of evidence grows - and is now a mountain. It is one hidden by corrupt law officials far away from the public eye. But can you truly hide a mountain and sweep it under the rug? A metaphorical one, maybe, but not a real one.

Over years of and years of accusations, Mayor Bandic has always replied: «I am clean. Everything is clean!» and people believed him, because everything was clean, literally. The streets were so clean, that people from all over the world would come to Zagreb and say «Oh my, it is so clean here.» And we proudly responded, «Yes! Everything is clean.»

And, with the city growing, reaching its first million, there was a lot of garbage and waste to deal with. And, just like all the evidence of corruption, it was swept under the rug. For reasons of profit or for reasons of neglect, it mattered little. For this pile of garbage, known as Jakusevec, grew and grew. Soon toxins were discovered in the air and water, and an awful smell fell upon the south side of Zagreb.

The mayor promised to take care of it - 15 years ago. Bandic even said he would burn himself alive if he didn't fix it in four years. That was 10 years ago. And what was a field one mayor ago is now a true mountain, a mountain of pestilence, garbage, and corruption, becoming the second highest mountain of Zagreb. Locals are getting sick and a real estate crisis is underway. Now, with all their arrogance, the Purgers created themselves another mountain, Jakusevec. This one will surely keep others away, humans and bear alike.

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