From public policy to politics in Croatia: an impossible mission?
Diana Topcic-Rosenberg tells her story of adapting to the political and social realities of her home country after a 20-year career abroad
What do you do if you decide to come back home after decades of circumventing the globe, designing and delivering public policies, only to find a society that is much more conservative and less inclined to follow meritocratic principles than the one that you left in the 1990s? If you are a public policy expert and a relentless civic activist like Diana Topcic-Rosenberg, you join a newly formed liberal party and start a quest to normalise Croatian politics from scratch.
This is, in brief, the story of Topcic-Rosenberg’s entrance into politics that started three years ago, when she joined the Civic Liberal Alliance of Croatia, known better by its abbreviation, GLAS. She came back to her Adriatic homeland after earning a Public Administration Master’s degree from Harvard University and a twenty-year long career in the field of international development, with organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps. But she was not satisfied with what she encountered.
Disenchantment with female representation
“I remember looking at the different parties and their programmes when I returned to Croatia, as I was getting more interested and involved with what was happening in the country. I realized there are women's associations in the parties and when I got curious about what they were doing, I realized they were baking cakes for political events and were engaged in charity. I started wondering what they talk about when they bake cakes, do they talk about what they dream of for their daughters, what they want to change today so they can live better? No, they were exchanging recipes,” says Topcic-Rosenberg. She adds that, this behaviour is why she became passionate about changing how women are perceived in Croatian society and what their role could really be.
The big issue is that the country she found was a much different place from the one she left during the Yugoslav wars of the 90s. “Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, a Socialist country, and as a young woman growing up there, I didn't perceive much of a gender gap in terms of opportunity,” she recalls. “But since the war, Croatia has been undergoing a resurgence of traditionalism. As a country, we are becoming much more conservative, much more religious, and less progressive. Voices that today are dominant in Croatian politics and public life espouse things quite different from the values that I grew up with,” she adds.
To her, the reason for this turn to conservatism derives from the war, when a mass movement was mobilized to a large degree by the Catholic Church. “To redefine us as Croatians, separate from the other ex-Yugoslavs, the emphasis was put on defining our identity as Catholics. And the Catholic Church in Croatia is not one of the most progressive among Catholic churches,” she says.
The trouble of making public policy with traditional values in mind
The implications of this conservative turn are far-reaching, especially for women. “I think that over a period of time, women were pushed to the margins of public and political life and there has been an attempt to redefine our role as solely mothers, as family caretakers,” she says, whilst public policies are designed in ways that would further confine women at home to raise children and not be a progressive part of the workforce. Topcic-Rosenberg gives an example; the move by the capital city of Zagreb’s municipal authorities to introduce a policy that incentivized parents with more than three children to stay at home and raise them. “Over 90% of the beneficiaries from this policy are women, which means that they take care of their children until the youngest one turns 14. Having stayed at home raising children for 14-16 years means that they will never enter the labour market, because they will have no skills to offer. Apart from contributing to female poverty, it creates a model of a woman who only stays at home to raise children,” Topcic-Rosenberg claims.
This does not mean that she is against parental leave as a whole – on the contrary. “I proposed a draft law that had the opposite goal – making paternal leave mandatory. It was interesting that the main opponents of this proposition were women, not men,” she exclaims. “There is this very strong message that has been promoted for years about how the connection that a child forms with its mother in the first three years of its life are crucial. But there is no public debate about the research that shows how, if a father spends an equal amount of time with the child as the mother does, the way that his perception of his role in the family changes for the better, as does the quality of his relationship with the child” she adds.
The way that policies are designed tells a lot about the prevailing mindset in the country – and may be interpreted as a threat to women’s rights in the future, Topcic-Rosenberg says. “One of the important issues of Europe is its ageing population. Some countries are trying to solve this problem using a patriarchal approach of promoting an image of women as bearers of the nation’s future and applying a subtle sense of guilt if they do not spend time at home to raise children. This is not a solution either to demographic problems or gender equality, but a road to discrimination and poverty. There are other solutions, focused on diversity, openness, and inclusion,” she says.
An antidote to conservatism
In a way, this aspiring politician sees her role in politics to be one of the antidotes to these developments. “This is where we, as liberal, and particularly as female, politicians, should be going – creating space for women to be perceived not as someone who only has a domestic role at home, but as one who has active roles in all areas of life.” “Actually, this is one of the reasons that propelled me into politics – I didn't want to allow the silencing of women who happen to think differently,” she concludes.
To her, the main argument in favour of better female representation in politics is much less about different “leadership styles” or qualities that women-politicians bring and more about bringing up topics that could hardly be put on the table by men. “I think there are different examples of female leadership, for instance, Margaret Thatcher cannot be classified as a model of a female leadership approach that is different from the male one. Angela Merkel is not particularly feminine in her leadership style either. There is a perception that women are more participatory, that they are oriented towards cooperation, that they listen more... I think a lot of this is actually stereotypes,” she says. “What is very important is that [women] can put on the agenda issues that specifically address other women the way men would not.”
Alienating men through juxtaposing maleness and femaleness will not help advance the cause of gender equality, Topcic-Rosenberg says: “If we, as female leaders, put issues on the table in a way that is not antagonistic to men, we have a chance to succeed and change the role of women, change how they are perceived, and change policies as well. Because it is not only about promoting women's issues, but also about taking men along. That is an important approach when designing policies, so that they are not perceived as an attack by the other side.”
She applies the same logic to the debate about quotas. “It is good to have a quota system because it does force parties to put up an equal number of men and women and give them a chance to fight for political position. However, just by itself, it is window dressing,” the politician says. In order for genuinely equal political representation to take place, Topcic-Rosenberg says that parties need to go the extra mile by integrating female issues at every level. “They have to create female-specific campaigns, women have to have more influence over how the campaign budget is spent during campaigns, they have to have influence over the party’s policies and political programmes, they have to have equal opportunities to speak to the public, and to not simply be decorations standing behind men,” she adds.
Toxic political culture
Unfortunately, very often women-politicians themselves are happy with taking the back seat and following party lines instead of raising their voice on socially important issues. Topcic-Rosenberg gives an example from her own experience of proposing legal amendments that had to do with the protection of child privacy. “I called women from various political backgrounds to back it up. The law was about children, it had nothing to do with one being a liberal, or a conservative, or a socialist, it had to do with the particular rights of children. But the women from the ruling party were against it simply because it was proposed by the opposition,” she says.
To her, this brings up a momentous topic – the problematic political culture of Eastern Europe as a whole. Sexism is only one of its expressions. “I think there is space for rethinking the role of women in politics. We need to consider what we want to achieve when we enter politics. We need to decide whether to select those particular issues we want to fight for so that we leave our mark on the political life we participate in or do we find that the only important thing for us to do is to make politics a career, to remain party soldiers, and to stay loyal to what we are told to do?,” she says. She advises political parties to choose strong female candidates who have something to say, rather than simply to “window dress” and comply with the quotas. “It is really about believing in women,” the politician concludes.
Topcic-Rosenberg’s own primary cause since she returned to Croatia has been children’s rights, in particular – adoption. She founded ADOPTA, the Organization for the Support of Adoption, that grew into a think-tank about adoption with a strong professional and advocacy influence, even outside the country. She created the organization after over 20 years of experience of project management in the humanitarian and public policy sector that brought her to disaster-stricken countries, from the former Yugoslavia to Central America and Africa. “Working in some of these countries has taught me humility, I realized how privileged my upbringing and life had been. It really filled me with awe of the people I met, who have done amazing things despite the horrors that they have lived through,” she says.
The joys and troubles of running for office
In contrast to these humbling experiences, her life back in Croatia made Topcic-Rosenberg indignant about the prevailing attitudes of her compatriots regarding her country’s place in the world. “When I came back to Croatia, there were a few things that struck me. One of them was how insulated we are as a country, how preoccupied we are with the past, and just focused on neighbouring countries and ourselves. I realized how much we take things for granted and how focused we are on our rights and entitlements rather than what we can contribute to society as a whole. Having worked abroad, where meritocracy gives competent people opportunities, authority, salary, and advancement in their career, I was shocked by how irrelevant the concept of meritocracy is in Croatia.” On the contrary, despite her professional track record, her political career actually diminished her job opportunities at home. “It does not affect my professional life, because I do a lot of international work, but this is one of the obstacles for women who desire to get engaged with politics outside the ruling parties,” she says.
Despite all that, she does not seem to regret her decision to step out from the public policy sphere with one foot and step into the political realm – on the contrary, she says she greatly enjoyed her first campaign, running for Member of the European Parliament in 2019, talking to people – and debating with her political opponents. “I love campaigning – one of these things that I didn't think I'd enjoy. There is this shyness in me, and I used to find it hard to go out and perform before unknown groups of people. Actually, it proved to be a wonderful and a very learning experience,” she says.
The only part she did not enjoy were the increased personal insults that she had to endure, including misogynist comments on social media and racist attacks because of the Jewish surname she took from her husband. “They don't attack your policies, it is actually irrelevant what they attack, as long as they can attack you in some way. And I think this is a challenge for women much more than it is for men, when you decide to leave the privacy of anonymity and enter the public sphere, where you are very open to various kinds of criticism and attacks that don't necessarily have to do with the truth.” While Topcic-Rosenberg says she has learned how to cope with these problems, she says it explains the reluctance of many women to enter politics.
But she has a recipe to fight these attitudes and it is simple – more women in politics and greater support between them. “A way to fight that is to have more women in public life who pave the way for other women to follow them. We do not have to accept a role of “holding three corners of the house”, a role given to us! Equality starts at home! When we have (political) opportunity, we need to achieve visible change, so that other women don't get discouraged. When addressing discrimination, we should be more open about the challenges we face and, as women in politics and public life, be more supportive of other women who are coming along. Achieving change is not a battle for one woman or one term, it is a vision to be shared and supported by many voices,” Topcic-Rosenberg concludes.