With Ivo Sanader in Zagreb’s Museum… of Broken Relationships

How do even progressive and charismatic politicians become corrupt in Eastern Europe? Some years ago, the Croatian paper Jutarnji List asked me to write a book about Croatia’s former premier’s, Ivo Sanader’s, psychological background, an analysis of his personality, cultural build-up and character. Ivo Sanader is now in an Austrian jail, under investigation for corruption, embezzlement and money laundering, after having fled his country, and he will be soon extradited back to Croatia.

The book should have been at the same time an exploration into the formation and politico-cultural growing-up of an Eastern European politician and man of culture after the fall of Communism. A psychological portrait under the form of a “Bildungsroman”, those classical novels that describe in detail the formation of the hero’s personality.

(Here is the link to the Croatian text of this first installment, as it appeared in Jutarnji List:–ivo-sanader–nitko-me-ne-moze-pobijediti–sreca-je-na-mojoj-strani/956573

Such a book is a great challenge and usually they come built on the same model. In this particular case, there appeared an unexpected element, which will allow the future book to be structured on a cultural and psychological pattern: Sanader was (and remains) an expert in the theater of the French playwright Jean Anouilh. His Ph.D. thesis was an analysis of Anouilh’s theater, which he also published in book form. The structure of my book, to be called “Croatian Hybris / Hrvatski Hybris”, will thus be built around this: each chapter will start from one of Jean Anouilh’s plays and from the way Sanader interpreted it.

Traveller Without Luggage

I was amazed from the start to discover how much Sanader resembles Jean Anouilh’s main characters that he studied as a young man. These are usually great people who fall tragically and unexpectedly, sometimes with a comical effect, so huge is the contrast between their past greatness and the swiftness of their fall. This is because Jean Anouilh’s characters (like Sanader) are afflicted by what the ancient Greeks were calling “hybris”.

«Hybris» is the permanent state of mind of the hero who thinks he is invincible. The man touched by hybris is guilty of arrogant happiness. It is the feeling of impunity that brings arrogance. The sufferer of hybris, of this delusional insanity, believes that he rightly benefits from supernatural luck. He lives in a permanent state of autosuggestion. The Greeks considered this a form of madness. They knew that nothing lasts forever. In the end, the hero is doomed to fail, and he finally falls. The mental state of hybris always ends in comical disaster, usually not only for the hero, but also for those around him, who followed him and believed in him.

When I realized this, I understood the nature of Sanader’s flight on a highway to Austria, in December 2010. The way in which he fled, unprepared, in a derisory tentative of escape, without luggage, without a B-plan, full of apprehension, “like a decapitated chicken”, as they say in Croatia, this is exactly the way in which ends the hero afflicted by hybris.

Sanader appeared like someone fleeing from his past, and while in an Austrian jail, he fought (until he decided otherwise) his extradition back to Croatia, where it is rumored that he risks a conviction of up to 15 years in jail… again, like the main characters in two of Jean Anouilh’s plays, The Traveller without Luggage and There Was a Prisoner. In this last play, the main character is effectively condemned to 15 years in jail for… embezzlement. One can only wonder what young Sanader was thinking about the destiny of such characters when he was writing about Jean Anouilh before even dreaming that he himself would one day become a politician.

It is also slightly ironic that “Traveller without Luggage” is a play by this French playwright Jean Anouilh, about whom Sanader wrote his university thesis… a quarter of a century earlier, in Austria, where he was finally arrested, «without luggage», thus closing the circle. But even knowing all this, from having studied Jean Anouilh’s characters, Sanader couldn’t have done otherwise, because the man afflicted by hybris never listens to external advice.

Hrvatski Hybris

It is thus disturbing to see that after having studied so well the characters of that master psychologist (and great writer that was Jean Anouilh), Sanader followed the exact trajectory of Anouilh’s characters. All of them are stubborn and extremely ambitious. This is what stroke many of those who knew Sanader well, or who worked with him, like his former boss, the ex-foreign minister and former fellow party member Mate Granic.

“I knew from the beginning how ambitious he was”, Mate Granic told me in an interview last month, “He told me to my face, from the start, that he wanted my job  of foreign minister because he thought he was better qualified than me for it…”

Like many of Jean Anouilh’s characters, Sanader started very poor in life. He comes from a poor family; he was also involved from early life with the church, and he is a sincere believer, although for him religion remains simply a private, personal matter.  All his youth, he was burdened by the feeling of “poniženje”, humiliation, an inferiority complex derived from his poor background and difficult young years. In his own book on Anouilh’s theatre, young Sanader himself dwells at length on the feeling of “poniženje” which pursues some of the characters in Anouilh’s plays.

Thus the character in the play “Ermione”, Frantz, tells the girl who loves him: “We can’t love each other if we are poor.” Sanader comments on this: “Frantz understands poverty not only as a problem with which he is confronted, but rather like a permanent humiliation.” When the same Frantz says in the play: “I’m poor. Every day I hit my head against this wall: I am poor”, Sanader writes that for this young man who will become a criminal, because he is obsessed with money “money is an almost metaphysical problem”.

Sanader, as the others knew him

Of course, my cultural-psychological inquiry will be long and difficult. In spite of the totally open, non-political dimension of my approach, some important Croatian politicians refused until now to meet me, even for an off-the-record conversation (as opposed, let’s say, to Mate Granic’s totally open attitude). Those who refused until now were mostly senior HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union, the centre-right ruling party, founded by the the late authoritarian president Franjo Tudjman and ruled by Sanader after Tudjman’s death) politicians, I must say, which is partly understandable given HDZ’s internal tensions and the looming specter of the approaching elections.

Certainly, some of these politicians might feel today very uncomfortable in light of the revelations that might come out at the trial. They also realize now that they didn’t understand at the time the complexity of the man. Sanader is far from being the usual Croat politician. Also, given the fact that he has not yet been convicted of any crime, one has, of course, no right to call him “corrupt”. Nevertheless, even with the perspective of a conviction, he is not the first post-communist Eastern-European politician on trial for embezzlement and corruption (although, as a former head of government, he is the most important ever), but he remains one of the most complex Eastern-European politicians, both intellectually and ideologically.

«Better a smart Leftist, than an idiot from the Right.»

Although ideologically, and by education and upbringing, he is a man of the political right, he never had any qualms about surrounding himself with left-oriented friends and advisers. Back then, before he came to power, he knew how to judge the people. He judged them well; he knew how to speak with the common, and with the powerful. As someone who worked with him put it: “He even knew how to speak to people like Branimir Glavas (a Croatian convicted war-criminal, today in a prison in Bosnia), with just the necessary tinge of vulgarity.” As things go with hybris, it is the very power that he was looking for which in the end blinded his judgment.

Those who worked with him realised that he had no understanding, nor patience, for solid economics. He was insensible even to the necessity of determining Croatia’s immediate economic future and course: is it necessary or possible to keep the heavy industry? Should we go over to a total liberalisation of the economy? Is it reasonable to continue basing so much the country’s economy on private tourism? These were so many interrogations which did not preoccupy him.

What he did well for Croatia? He started by showing that the Croatian right is a modern, European movement, pro-EU and with social preoccupations. He thus managed to shed the dark, pro-Fascist image that the HDZ party had until Tudjman’s death. He also pushed out of the HDZ the most rabid hardline ultranationalists, getting rid of the nostalgic pro-Ustashi wing and thus really cleaning the foundations of the party. Sanader was thus the total opposite of someone like the Slovak nationalist leader Vladimir Meciar.

Actually, in a way which is coherent with his personality, Sanader had no interest in ideology. It seems that if, by chance, he would have happened to grow up in a Leftist environment, and to mix with Leftist politicians in his youth, he would have made a passable Socialist. He even said to a journalist whom he befriended: «Better a smart Leftist, than an idiot from the Right.» («Bolje pametan levicar, neko glup desnicar».) He never took any interest in a real ideological repositioning of the HDZ. He was content with the way in which he had redressed the party’s image abroad, without caring for its shaky foundations inside the country.

To sum it up, Sanader’s flair and stubbornness led to the renovation of HDZ’s image, and also to his main, uncontested success: Croatia’s quick advance on the road to the EU accession. Sanader subordinated everything to this, by making it his unique political card and leaving aside everything else, and mostly the economic situation of the country. It was practically his only real political goal: to remain in Croatia’s modern history as the man who brought the country into the EU. Of course, this is also a part of the personality of a man affected by hybris.

A complex man for complex times. By oversimplifying his trajectory and personality, his ascension and his fall, we risk oversimplifying Croatia’s recent history.