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 a decade 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? 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.
This is, in brief, the story of Topcic-Rosenberg’s entrance into politics that started four 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. She became a Vice President of GLAS from its inception with the intention of creating a new dimension in female politics.
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. This was commendable but I felt it needed to be much more,” says Topcic-Rosenberg. She adds that this was one of the reasons she became passionate about changing how women are perceived in Croatian society and what their role could really be.
The country she found was a much different place from the one she left at the end of the ex-Yugoslav wars of the 90s. “Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia which was a socialist country. 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 have been becoming much more conservative, more religious and less progressive.”
To her, the reason for this turn to conservatism derives from the war, when a mass defence of the country was mobilized to a large degree by the Catholic Church. “To redefine us as Croatians, different 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. The public policies were being designed to further confine women to the home in order to raise children instead of being a progressive part of the workforce. Topcic-Rosenberg gives an example of a policy introduced by the former capital city of Zagreb’s municipal authorities. Millions were spent to pay salaries to parents with more than three children to stay at home and raise them. “Over 90% of the beneficiaries of this policy are women, which means that they stay at home to take care of their children until the youngest one turns 14. The result of this is that they will never enter the labour market, because after all these years they will have no skills to offer. The policy contributed not only to female poverty, but also to creating a model of a “stay-at-home mum,” 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 equally mandatory for both parents. 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 is 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. The same applies to 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, Topcic-Rosenberg sees her role in the world of politics to be one of the antidotes to these developments. “This is where politics in general should be going – creating space for women to be equal to men in all aspects of society.
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 or Angela Merkel cannot be classified as models of a female leadership approach that is different from the male one. 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 a stereotype,” she says. “What is very important is that [women] can put on the agenda issues that specifically address the needs of 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 toward men, we have a chance to succeed. Because it is not only about promoting women's issues, but also about taking men along. Moving society as a whole rather than creating more divisions 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 include an equal number of men and women and give them a chance to fight for a political position. However, just by itself, it is window dressing,” she says. In order for genuinely equal political representation to take place, Topcic-Rosenberg thinks that parties need to go an extra mile by integrating female inclusive issues at every level. “They have to create female-specific campaigns, women have to have equal influence over the campaign budget, they have to have influence over the party’s policies and political programmes, equal opportunities to speak to the public and not simply be decorations standing behind men,” she adds.
Toxic political culture
Unfortunately, very often women-politicians themselves are prepared to take the back seat and follow party lines instead of raising their voice on socially important issues. Topcic-Rosenberg gives an example from her own experience of proposing legal amendments related to protection of child privacy. “I called women from various political backgrounds to support the amendment. 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 a child. 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. Are we prepared to take tough challenges and make changes to society or do we care only to make politics a career, to remain party soldiers, and bake cakes?” she says. She advises political parties to choose strong female candidates who have something to say, rather than simply follow party lines and comply with the quotas.
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 and how preoccupied we are with the past. 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. 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.” In fact, 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. Work opportunities and professional advancement is linked to party membership,” 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. Surprisingly, 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. This is a challenge for women much more than it is for men, to leave the privacy of anonymity and to enter the public sphere, where one is 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 believes 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 among them. “We need more women in public life who pave the way for other women to follow them. When we, as women, 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.
Diana Topcic-Rosenberg has been campaigning for social and political change in various roles. She was a high-ranking official in the Government of Croatia in charge of the Department for Strategy and Social Policy at the Ministry for Social Policy and Youth, a civil activist for the rights of children in the social welfare system and a member of policy-making committees. She served as a Vice President of GLAS (07/2017-05/2020), a liberal party of Croatia. Currently, she is a member of ALDE Alliance of Her Advisory Committee and a social policy and public administration consultant.