Croats come to Martinsburg to learn about democracy

August 02, 1999

Croatian tourBy BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo: YVETTE MAY / staff photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The search for democracy led a small group of Croatians to Martinsburg on Monday for a few tips on bringing the democratic process to war-torn Bosnia.

Seven of the 75 main opposition parties in Bosnia have sent seven representatives and an interpreter to the United States as part of an American program to develop more political equality, West Virginia Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said.

"Croatia claims to be a democracy, but right now it's more of an authoritarian regime," Unger said.

The Croatian Democratic Union holds a 45 percent majority with the remaining support splintered among 74 minority parties, Unger said.

Unger is the lead trainer for the seven-member Croatian team looking for political strategies to take home at the end of their two-week U.S. visit.


Group members, ranging in age from 25 to 30, got tips in Martinsburg from Democratic National Committee consultant Ann Beser.

"In one sense it's about activism and volunteerism but its very different than the way we see it," Beser said. "Those are life-and-death issues for them but not for us."

When asked by Beser why they got involved in politics, members of the Croatian group gave a variety of answers - from self preservation to a desire to create change.

"I noticed some things that were not so good and I was looking for ways to change things. Everything is politics," said Zdravka Podnar, youth organization president of the Croatian People's Party.

The political upheaval of Bosnia in the early 1990s has led to more youth involvement, said Toni Marusic, president of the Cakovec Branch of the Young Croatian Liberals.

"More young people have started paying attention to politics," Marusic said.

Beser, a Shannondale, W.Va., resident who has worked on presidential and local political campaigns, said the key is making sure people stay involved.

"Coke and pizza will get a college Democratic group started, but it won't go much beyond that," she said.

The question in Croatia is whether people might be hesitant to participate in the democratic process out of fear of repercussions for themselves or their families, Beser said.

While the group took studious notes, pausing only to occasionally ask Beser to slow down, they already knew the answer to her question on the principals of every political campaign.

"People, time and money," they responded, in unison.

The Croatian group got a look at small-town government in America with a Sunday visit with Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Mayor Kip Stowell and a Monday morning meeting with Shepherdstown, W.Va., Mayor Vince Parmesano.

The group left Martinsburg Monday night on a five-hour ride to Bluefield, W.Va., where they will attend more democratic seminars before heading to Kentucky, Unger said.

The Croatians' interest in democracy reflects what many Americans have come to take for granted, Unger said.

"They have a lot of enthusiasm and passion," he said. "In a lot of ways I wish we had that in our country."

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