Ruža Tomašić, the leader of the rights' party "Dr. Ante Starcevic", scared quite a lot of people in the political and administrative establishment in Croatia. The tested for the first time option for preferential voting raised Ruža Tomašić, former Canadian emmigrant, to winner of the debut Croatian election for members of the European Parliament on April 14th. Her party participated in a coalition led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) of Tomislav Karamarko. But beyond Karamarko's closest circle, there were not a few people in the political peaks in Zagreb to tell you that Ruža Tomašić is "similar to your Volen Siderov". And that is definitely not a compliment. Some even compare her with the British eurosceptic Nigel Farage, who significantly increased his influence in UK and throughout Europe.
You can often hear from state officials to say that Ms Tomašić is illiterate, even stupid and that she will be a disaster for the country, if she increased her influence. Even Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called her "evil". Worries about what the energetic Croat, a former policewoman in Canada, born on the island of Korcula, are being expressed even within Tomislav Karamarko's party. Those concerns, however, for now seem unfounded because she herself claims in an interview with this website that she does not have any long-term plans to stay in the big politics. She believes she should leave the future to the young people.
How scary Ruža Tomašić is?
Getting in contact with her proved an easy task. I was immediately given her mobile number by her party and she was quick to respond. Without any hesitation and conditionality we agreed upon the date of our meeting to be on the last day of the work of the National Assembly before the break for the local elections on May 19th. She is punctual, kept her word and was waiting for us in her office in the Croatian Sabor. The phones couldn't stop ringing, she has no assistants, no secretary, she does everything by herself. But she is visibly calm. On her desk there is a fresh bunch of lilac twigs. Her hand-shake is respecting - strong and tight. She leaves no doubt about the determination of her nature and her steadfastness.
Ruža Tomašić did not require any questions in advance, she was ready to answer whatever I asked her. In this sense she reminded me a lot of a very hated figure in Bulgaria right now - former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who succeeded to win the hearts of many Bulgarian voters and many journalists as well with his very open and spontaneous way of speaking, with his vulgar speech and the lack of any preparation in advance of any speech on TV, in Parliament or elsewhere. Ms Tomašić is far from that description. Says she prefers to tell people what she thinks and feels and not what they want to hear. This is why she disagrees with her being called a populist. No, I'm not a populist, she says with a distinct Canadian accent of her English. A populist is a man who goes here and there and tells people what they want to hear no matter if he believes in it or not, she tells me.
I don't lie, I don't have any second thoughts, I tell people what I believe in no matter if they like it or not, she goes on and gives me an example of how she travels around the country and people tell her they no longer believe any politician except herself. We do believe you, they tell her, and she answers that this will be proved on the next elections. Her expectations for the local elections are not big. After all, people choose local candidates, people who they know. You cannot take someone from your sleeve and make people vote for them, she explains. But nonetheless, she believes she will do well on May 19th. Her next goal is to perform appropriately on the parliamentary election as well and then withdraw.
This surprises me. After all who, if not her, will put Croatia on the map of nationalism. She says she is not a nationalist and prefers to leave the future into the hands of young people. We have the burden of the past upon us, she says. "I have a lot of young, very well educated people whom I want to see in government. Who am I to tell them how to live?" My future is taken care of, now it's their turn. She even shares that she imagines her last speech during which she will tell them "good-bye, I've done my job and I'll be watching you". That is her dream.
And by then, she promises to work hard as a MEP for the 10 months as much her term will be in the European Parliament until the regular European elections next year. Claims, she does not want to build a career and to be liked by anyone, which is why she will very carefully choose which political group she will join. Some things she likes with Nigel Farage, but somethings she does not. She still had not reviewed his programme in-depth. If she likes it, she could join him. In her party's programme, written in 2010, it is said that a priority will be membership in the European People's Party. "This has to change", she tells me 3 years later. We will seek those who fit the most to our own visions, who do not hate anybody, who are not against anybody neither in colour, race or language.
She cannot say what kind of a compromise she is ready for because she was still not aware of the platforms of the political groups. She does not want to commit to something she is not certain of. Explains that she works with a small team, she does not have big staff, no PR agents to work for her and they have to do everything by themselves. What the other parties are allowed to do, we are not and everyone is watching us under microscope. She is irritated by the constant phone ringing, but continues to talk saying that she never promises something she is not sure about. She wants after the ten months as a MEP her name to be linked to someone who worked hard to defend Croatia's interests. And what would those interests be? Various, she says, without being able to list anything more than financing and language. She believes that she would defend everything that is to the interest of Croatia. She is not certain in which parliamentary committee she will work, too. Believes this decision will be taken in the European Parliament.
Is Ruža Tomašić a eurosceptic?
In 2012, when the Croats voted for the first time in a referendum about the membership in the EU, Ruža Tomašić was calling on her fellow citizens to vote against. Why? Because neither then nor now are we ready, she tells me, but focuses on the economy. We are not ready in terms of legislation, in terms of economic situation. Instead of going there with our head held high, completely ready, knowing what we can, what we want and what to expect, now we will enter the EU with our hand stretched, begging for help, she says with sadness. This attitude of hers is one of the reasons why she is strongly liked in those layers of the population who believe that Croatia is sufficiently capable of doing on its own. Not necessarily the eurosceptic citizens, but those who believe that Croatia can and do not want their country to join as a beggar the club of the rich. Something that distincts Croatia from Bulgaria strongly.
Regarding corruption and organised crime, she also believes that her country is not ready, but is convinced that membership in EU will reduce these phenomena. I'm surprised because Bulgaria's and Romania's membership not only did not bring corruption down, but even increased it. Ruža Tomašić, however, is convinced that the Croats know very well that Brussels is watching them closely. She recalls that after all the EU learnt its lessons from the failure with Bulgaria and Romania and was very strict with Croatia. She does not mind a monitoring mechanism for corruption to be imposed on her country. But for other things she believes there is no need of monitoring. For all these reasons, she gets irritated when called a eurosceptic. Rather, she wants her country not to join EU unprepared. Says that Angela Merkel admitted that, Canada and US also believe Croatia is not ready.
But Croatia's biggest problem, she says, is the severe economic situation and the lack of investments. And there are no investments because of the horrible bureaucracy. She tells me several stories of people who want to invest in the country, but clash with the inefficient administration which only drags them here and there with no result. This has to change, she says.
Is Ruža Tomašić a nationalist?
Regarding the developments with Serbia, she is a little bit sceptic. She does not believe that they have changed. It is hard because a large part of the Serbs, if you ask them, still believe in the project of Great Serbia. Besides, they still have not admitted their aggression over Croatia. They are trying to create the myth that Croatia and Serbia are equally guilty for the war, that this was a civil war where both countries have an equal contribution to the blame, that they have to forget everything and move on. But no, this will not happen, she tells me and corrects herself - this should not happen. In order to believe them, Ruža Tomašić expects from the Serbs to return what was taken from Croatia in the form of money, art, property from churches, museums. They must also say where are the almost 1600 disappeared souls, believed to be dead. Their families need to know where they are and to bury them properly, she points out.
Recently, a mass grave was found in Sotin, near Vukovar. This happened with the assistance of Serbia, but Ruža Tomašić believes that they did not say anything while they should have. At least a "sorry" they should have said, she states. But nevertheless, she says "why not" to the question whether she supports Serbia's European path. But, the country should go through the same difficulties as Croatia. And will she take advantage of being a MEP to put forward conditions on Serbia if Belgrade begins accession negotiations, which is expected to be decided in the end of June? She would, if she sees that something they have to do they are not recommended to do by the EU, but she would not be a bigger catholic than the pope.
And regarding immigration - both internal in the EU and to the EU - she is of the opinion that there must be reciprocity. The Netherlands is one of the EU countries that will introduce restrictions for Croats to work on the Dutch labour market. Ms Tomašić is convinced Zagreb should respond in the same way and close its market for Dutch workers.
Now that I already met Ruža Tomašić, I find it hard to compare her to the harmful populistic phenomena like Volen Siderov and Boyko Borisov in Bulgaria, for instance. She looks sincere and convinced in what she says. Is she a threat for the political status quo in Croatia is hard to say, but it is not impossible that she be part of some change, kind of renovation. For her it is important the next generation of politicians to be very well educated and to take part in governance. This does not make her that scary. On the contrary. But time will tell. She somehow with nostalgia was telling me about the wonderfully blossomed trees and flowers on her island she once freed from drug dealers. It seems there are more important things to her than staying in politics and any price. Will she withdraw as she says she will, we will see.
But let us first see what will we remember her with in the European Parliament. It is true that 10 months are not much, but Nigel Farage quickly gained popularity.
Full transcript of the interview with Ruža Tomašić:
euinside: OK, let's first start with this really remarkable victory you scored at the European elections earlier this month. Do you expect to go even further at the local elections, to gain more?
Ruža Tomašić: Well, I don't know because these are different elections. For local elections people usually vote for their own person locally. I don't really mean anything or I don't mean much for the local elections because local people look for local people and it's not whoever you pull from your sleeve and ask them to go vote for you. It's the local names that count this time. We'll still do very good because we don't have any local members in towns or cities' politics yet.
euinside: But is this encouraging for you to move forward to develop the party and to aim for the next parliamentary elections for example?
Ruža Tomašić: It is very encouraging because now I see what people think and what people want. So, yes.
euinside: Why do you think people chose you?
Ruža Tomašić: Because with me they get exactly what they hear. I don't have second thoughts, I don't lie, I tell people what I think, what I believe in, whether they like it or not. Usually politicians, they try to tell electors what they think they wanna hear, but I tell them what I feel and what I believe in. And they said now that all in my 20 years in politics I've been saying the same things all the time which means I really believe what I do and I do what I believe in.
euinside: But isn't that populism?
Ruža Tomašić: No, it's not, because I don't tell them what they wanna hear. I tell them what I think.
euinside: So you do not agree with you being pictured as a populist?
Ruža Tomašić: No, I'm not a populist. A populist is a person that goes around and tells people what he thinks they wanna hear. Whether he thinks that or not. But I tell people what I think personally - how I feel and what I think and when people hear that, every year same, then people say 'may be I don't agree with her, but she's been saying the same things for years, like she doesn't change her coats over night'.
euinside: Yes, but it tends to be that when political parties promise one thing and when they are in government, it's slightly different. Is it because may be it's different when you are in government?
Ruža Tomašić: No, it shouldn't be different. If I tell you I'm going to buy you a jacket for 3000 euros and then I realise I don't have 3000 euros, I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm not gonna borrow from somebody to buy it for you. I'm gonna say 'Listen, I thought I had money, I don't have the money, so we're gonna try and buy you a coat for 300 euros'. But you have to talk to people. You work for people, they don't work for you. So, you have to tell them exactly what's going on. You have to be very transparent and that's what I expect, whether you want it or not.
euinside: You said you were more right-wing than Karamarko's HDZ. Have you decided which political group you will join in the European Parliament?
Ruža Tomašić: Not yet. Some people already contacted me and asking me what do I prefer, but I think when I get there and when I see the way of work, what do they prefer, what do they expect, what do they give, the way they're working, their programme, then I'll decide.
euinside: Because in your platform, on the website of your party, it is said that actually it is a goal of your party to join the European People's Party.
Ruža Tomašić: Well, we thought at the time, but we have to change that, our goal is to join the party that's closest to our own programme.
euinside: So, do you consider your party or yourself closer to Nigel Farage for example?
Ruža Tomašić: In some cases, yes, in some cases not, but I have to see his whole programme. Now my people that work with me in the party, they're getting all the particulars from all the other parties and then we will see.
euinside: So, it's not impossible that you could join his political group?
Ruža Tomašić: One thing I expect, my party will join those who don't hate anybody, they're not supposed to be against anybody, not the colour, not the race, not the language. You have to have your own beliefs, but you cannot put other people down with your beliefs.
euinside: But sometimes in politics you have to compromise and ally with people that ...
Ruža Tomašić: But, you see, I never promise anything until I'm sure of something. That's why I can tell you I'm going to join the EPP or I'm going to join whatever, I'm just telling you I don't know because I wanna be sure. We're a small party. We don't have big staff here in Zagreb that can defend us, we don't have PR agents that can smooth over things, we're responsible for ourselves. So we really have to think and medias are under microscope. What are other parties allowed to do, we're not. So, that's why I'm going to go step by step.
euinside: You have a kind of disadvantage?
Ruža Tomašić: Yes, I do. I have disadvantage and I have to watch my every step.
euinside: And have you considered which committee you would join in the European Parliament?
Ruža Tomašić: I don't think it's going to be up to me because, unfortunately, this is the last year of this session and the next elections are next year in May I think and ... it's just like in our parliament. We already have all the clubs, everything is set and I don't think they will change much before the elections.
euinside: So, it would depend at the European Parliament level, it will be decided there ...
Ruža Tomašić: They will decide if we are joining or what we are joining. So, they're deciding.
euinside: You said on a number of occasions that your main goal as a member of the EP is to defend Croatia's interests. Which interests would those be?
Ruža Tomašić: Whatever is interest of Croatia. Everything - from funding to language, to culture to whatever it takes. Because I'm going there with an open heart, I'm going there not with the thought 'I need a career, I have to make sure somebody likes me because my career can get further that way'. I'm going there to say 'I'm only there for 10 months and I want to leave and I want my name to be known as someone who really worked hard for the interest of Croatia'.
euinside: But in the same time, last year in the referendum on Croatia's accession to the EU you actually called the people to vote against. Why did you do that?
Ruža Tomašić: Because we're not ready yet. We weren't ready and we're not ready yet. And they called me anti-EU, they called me eurosceptic, they called me all kinds of names, but now Angela Merkel said 'May be Croatia is not ready yet', Canada said 'Croatia is not ready', America is saying Croatia is not ready, some other people are saying that because we're not ready. We're not ready, our congress is really bad, our agricultural laws are not good, our export is in shambles because our exporting covers only 46% of importing. So, we're not ... Now, when we're going to the EU, we're going there with open hands 'please give us something, we need something'. But, I wanted us to go there 'OK, we're stable, we know what we're doing, we're ready, we have everything ready, our people are ready, our small businessmen area ready, we know exactly what we want and exactly what we get'. Now, if you ask, most of the people in Croatia don't know. They don't know what's going on, what's gonna happen once we join the EU.
euinside: You're focusing mainly on the economic situation that you're not economically prepared, do you think that ... there are fears, for example, that Croatia is not ready yet in terms of corruption, fight against organised crime, you are famous with your stances.
Ruža Tomašić: We're not ready with that yet either, but that's one part that I'm looking forward to joining the EU because I think maybe corruption is going to be less. They are going to keep open eyes on us. Their eyes are gonna be very open. So, there's little one part of me thinking as a police officer 'OK, this is going to be much better when it comes to corruption, the EU will be trying to keep us straight'. So, that's one thing.
euinside: They didn't succeed quite a lot with Bulgaria, for example, because, you know, the accession, the expectation to accede to the EU kind of makes countries do reforms, but you believe that in the EU it would be better?
Ruža Tomašić: I hope so, because now they learnt on the situation of Bulgaria and Romania, because they kind of relaxed a little bit and they didn't do the job and I think they are more firm towards Croatia. I think Croatia knows that they are watching us. So, I hope so.
euinside: Do you believe that on Croatia should be imposed some kind of a monitoring mechanism. May be not of the likes to the one that is on Bulgaria and Romania, but some kind of monitoring mechanism to keep Croatia ...
Ruža Tomašić: When it comes to corruption I wouldn't mind, but everything else - no. I think they were very strict with us and they were very strict with us than any other country joining, so about corruption that wouldn't bother me.
euinside: You have a very comprehensive platform. I read it on the website of the party and it's really very detailed, but in terms of economy I kind of find it difficult to find where you stand. I didn't find for example the word privatisation. What do you think about privatisation, for example in Slovenia it has really huge problems with state-owned companies and banks?
Ruža Tomašić: Well, there are some state-owned companies that should not be privatised ever ever. That's water, transportation, energy and at least one bank and communication. But most of these are privatised already. Because I think every country needs state-owned. We can sell rail, we can sell shipping, we can sell all the things that are not important as a vein of life for the country.
euinside: And part of your views about the economic situation in Croatia right now, is this the biggest problem the country has?
Ruža Tomašić: Yes, because we haven't had investments in the past year, year and a half, I don't know, may be two, any major investments. And without major investments you cannot have jobs.
euinside: Why are there no investments?
Ruža Tomašić: Because our bureaucracy is horrible. It takes people long time when they wanna invest, they have to go through so many people, so many papers, they never get it and after a while they say 'I'm going somewhere else where they're gonna have my papers ready within a month.
euinside: Yes, but Prime Minister Milanovic said recently in an interview I think it was, it's OK with the barriers. Nothing more should be done. Is it OK?
Ruža Tomašić: No, it's not OK. I had a friend from Canada. He wanted to invest 10 million Canadian dollars in Dubrovnik and he spent over a month going through to Dubrovnik back and forth and just couldn't do it because they kept sending him from door to door. Like in Canada, when you wanna invest you go the mayor of the city and you tell him how much money you have and what do you want and he will do the rest of it for you. He'll get you even land, may be, may be even they give land for free, depends what it is. Because he knows you're gonna build something, he knows you can open jobs there and he's working with you to get that. In Croatia, you're on your own. Bring the money and do it there whatever it takes you. You have some investors, I was just reading about it a few months ago, you have investors from I think England. The guy's trying to invest thirteen years now.
euinside: He's quite stubborn by the way.
Ruža Tomašić: He's stubborn because his wife is Croatian and he wants to invest, he lives here half and half and says he likes it, but still the bureaucracy is horrible.
euinside: What do you think of the developments in Serbia right now, the agreement with Kosovo, the attempt of President Nikolic to apologise for the wars in former Yugoslavia?
Ruža Tomašić: Well, it's an attempt to apologise.
euinside: So, you don't perceive it as an apology?
Ruža Tomašić: No, I don't perceive it as an apology because he's under some pressure and ... they have to do more than that for me to believe that they changed.
euinside: What should they do?
Ruža Tomašić: First of all, they have to admit that they were part of aggression on Croatia. They have to admit that, they didn't admit that yet. They have to return all the things that were taken from Croatia - the gold, very high value property from churches, museums, they have to tell us, I think 1600 people we don't know their whereabouts yet, they're missing and I'm sure they're probably dead by now and their next of kin have to know where are they, their families have to know so as to bury them properly. Now, we're uncovering a mass grave in Sotin and none of them said anything about it. They should, as far as I'm concerned. They should voice their ... at least say they're sorry or off for something because they want it to be treated in the world as Croatia and Serbia are equally guilty in this war, it was civil war, we're all same guilty, let's forget it and let's go on. But it's not what's gonna happen. Shouldn't happen anyway. They also still, when you ask people in Serbia, they still think it should be great Serbia from Virovitica, Karlovac, Karlobag. When most people think like that you don't really believe they've changed.
euinside: Do you support Serbia's EU integration path?
Ruža Tomašić: Yes, why not, why not. But we went through very scrutinised laws, we went through very strict laws, step by step worked through all the chapters. That we had so I think they should be too.
euinside: Being in the EP sometimes gives a member or a country the leverage to put pressure on neighbouring countries. Do you think that you would, for example, put conditions on Serbia if it starts accession negotiations because every progress report is being viewed in the EP? Do you think you would put any conditions?
Ruža Tomašić: It depends what the rest of the EU, what they want, what they want them to do, I wouldn't be like, I wouldn't try to be bigger catholic than the pope as they say and put extra pressure, but it's just what I believe in - if they're not, if the EU didn't put in, may be I would put something I believe they didn't ask them to do, but I think they should.
euinside: What do you think about immigration? Should there be any restrictions within the EU and for people from third countries?
Ruža Tomašić: From what I hear, every country has its own law about immigration, so what I think there should be reciprocity for EU countries.
euinside: You think there should be reciprocity? For example, The Netherlands is imposing labour restrictions for Croatian workers and Croatia should ...
Ruža Tomašić: Yes, I do. I believe in reciprocity.
euinside: OK. Will you defend this in the EP?
Ruža Tomašić: Of course. I believe in reciprocity in everything, in minorities, everything because I think if you're worth something to Bulgaria then I should be worth something to Croatia. So, if I live in Bulgaria they should worry about my life or same way you Bulgarians worry about your lives in Croatia. So, there should really be reciprocity and I think if it was reciprocity people in countries would fight better for people living somewhere else. I think, it would be better not for some minorities but for all minorities it would be better.
euinside: Let us go back for a while to Croatia. Do you think that the political system needs to change because, you know, the low turnout for the European elections could be a sign that people are tired, exhausted by the political class.
Ruža Tomašić: Well, I don't think only that, it's our campaign time was very short, we didn't have much time. People weren't explained anything, people hardly knew what to do and they thought 'it was a nice day, I don't know what to do, I don't think we can do anything in the EU and to change anything any way, so I'm not going'. So I think the government should have done more to explain to people where we're going, why are we going, why is it important for people to vote and why should they vote and how can they vote.
euinside: But you think that people generally trust the political system and it doesn't need to be changed, because there's a whole wave in a number of countries against it?
Ruža Tomašić: I think now that pretty well people in Croatia don't trust any politician anymore.
euinside: It makes your tasks very difficult.
Ruža Tomašić: It is, but I don't ... when they say, usually when I'm somewhere and they say 'all the politicians are the same' and then it was 'no, except you, you're OK, we believe you'. But I say, next elections I'll see how much people will believe me. We'll see.
euinside: This is quite a lot of confidence for you. Are you afraid that you might not deliver?
Ruža Tomašić: Actually, I don't have a very long plan for myself. I have a plan to do well for the local elections, to finish my 10 months in the EU, to do well in the next parliamentary elections and then I'm saying good-bye to high politics.
euinside: What if you have a really big victory then?
Ruža Tomašić: I'm going to have so many young people, young people ready to work. It's their future, not my future. My future's just fine. My future is very taken care of, let's say it like that. And why would I decide for young people that are very well educated, that are honest, that are hardworking and they wanna take the future in their own hands? Why, who am I to tell them what to do?
euinside: So, you will be recruiting people for your party and then leave?
Ruža Tomašić: I have a whole bunch of young people. I think 75 to 80% are new people, new young, never been to any other party, well educated and I want those people to be working in government or in parliament and I'm just imagining my speech saying 'I did my job good-bye and I'll be watching you'. That's my dream.
euinside: Thank you very much and I wish you all the success.