To Appreciate Freedom, Talk to People Who Have Lived Without It

As Americans we often take our personal freedom for granted. A relatively small country of 5 million people that is now enjoying freedom gave the author a different perspective on what it means to live in a free country.

As Americans, we tend to take our country and what it offers us for granted. We assume we will continue to be free. We assume we will always be able to jump into a car or a plane and travel across our country just because we want to or to engage in business transactions. We also take for granted that we will be able to communicate with other Americans anywhere we go despite traveling thousands of miles away into an area with a different climate and a unique history. We assume we will always have a democratic government that respects our citizens and our freedom and that we will be able to make decisions on our own behalf based on our preferences and not a political agenda of a government that makes decisions for us.

Traveling to the country of Croatia provides a different perspective. I had to get out a map to find where it is located.

Croatia is in the Western Balkans in Southern Europe next to Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Hungary. Most Americans are familiar with Yugoslavia (technically, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and Croatia used to be part of that country.

Croatia was the site of the “Croatian War of Independence” between 1991 and 1995. It was a brutal war that has had a major impact on the people who lived through it.

The city of Dubrovnik is on the coast. Much of the city was damaged in the most recent war and it was under siege for seven months. But, from seeing the city today, one would not know that a relatively recent war had occurred there. The city was rebuilt under guidelines from the United Nations (UNESCO) and the repairs were performed to have the city look as it did before the shelling.

Croatia is roughly the size of West Virginia. That state has about 1.8 million people. Croatia has about 5 million. It is now a democracy. It has had a parliament since 2000.

What does a country look like when there has been very little industrial development for decades and people have been leaving the country because of war, lack of freedom, and lack of opportunity?

Contrary to what I anticipated, it is a beautiful country. The roads around Dubrovnik are well maintained but narrow. The city is very clean. There is no visible pollution or trash on the streets. The water is clear, the air is fresh and the landscape looks like a travel poster.

Our guide was a young woman who lived near Dobrovnik. Inside the city, real estate has become expensive and very trendy. Living inside a city with walls that were built in the 13th century carries a prestige that raises the price.

Hearing a perspective of this country from a working class person who is a native of the country is enlightening.

There are a number of houses that are vacant in the country such as the one in this photo. When the Nazis invaded the country in 1941, some houses were occupied and given to others apparently thought to be more sympathetic to the German military.

Under communism, many young people left the country and traveled to Germany, America or other countries in Western Europe. Most people were relatively equal and the state provided benefits to everyone. There was no business expansion and very little economic activity. Getting a clear title to some property can be problematic as there was no sale of the property—it was just abandoned and the previous owner(s) may be unknown or dead.

The reason for the lack of economic activity was simple: the state decided the price of products to be sold. There was no economic incentive to expand a business as making a profit from expansion was not realistic because prices were determined by the government. Many people lived on small farms and grew their food on their farm.

One example: A man who makes olive oil used to make oil using a horse and a large stone to crush the olives. His family had made olive oil in the same way for generations.

He demonstrated how the oil was separated and readied for bottling.

When I asked how much olive oil he now makes (the tour guide translated) he said he now makes much more than previously. In the past several years, he has purchased new equipment with large vats for the oil, they use motors instead of horses, and can now make olive oil that is high quality, less expensive to produce, and he is free to sell it at a price that depends on how much consumers are willing to pay. The better his olive oil, the higher the price he can charge.

He now shows tourists how the olive oil was made just a few years ago during the off-season. His wife served a snack of salad with their home-grown tomatoes and lettuce, local cheese and ham and, of course, olives and bread. Now that they are free to work and to keep the profit from their own initiative, they started the tourist business to increase their income and have an income for most of the year.

He is now living better than he ever has and their son, who had moved to Maryland a number of years ago, was thinking of moving back to Croatia now that they are a free country.

The story was much the same at a local winery. Growing wine in this part of Croatia is hard. The hills are rocky and steep. Limestone makes up much of the mountain and grapes are grown on terraces.

The winery has been in this winemakers family since “at least the 14th century.” Records in the 12th century, apparently, were spotty. He is now expanding his winery. He has brought in equipment to make more terraces, grow more grapes and produce more wine. The wines were less complex that more expensive wines in California or Europe but were of good quality.

Frano Milos is the winemaker. He has recently built a wine tasting facility and also added new barrels. I asked why he was expanding. He is hopeful that Croatia will be able to sell wine within the European Union in the near future.

He is now able to charge a higher price for wine that is of a better quality and not dependent on the government to tell him what the price will be for his wine. Before, it was too expensive to grow more grapes and expand his facility because he could not charge more and keep any additional profit. He thinks the future is now very bright for his business. He was visibly proud of the fact that the best wine for sale at his winery is now going for 22 Euros (apparently with a discount for a purchase of a few bottles).

Traveling in Croatia is unlike traveling in America.

An “old” building is probably hundreds of years old and has survived conquest by Romans, Venetians, Germans, Soviets, and others. Tourism is a major industry in the country with numerous visitors from Europe and America. Hotels are expanding rapidly and large American hotels can now be seen in Dubrovnik—most of them new or newly renovated.

The houses that have been renovated can be spotted by the brighter orange roofs that contrast with the older ones.

Just as important, the excitement of some of the people is apparent. New entrepreneurs, such as the man who makes olive oil and the one who makes wine, are enthusiastic about the changes and their chance to provide a better living for their families.

Our tour guide conveyed the excitement. She has learned English, was going to school and holds two jobs to pay for a car she has just purchased and a small apartment she is renting. The population is growing again and new businesses are starting and growing in areas that were largely deserted as people left.

She also indicated there was dissatisfaction among some of the older people who have lived in Croatia or Yugoslavia for many years.

While not as restricted as people is some other Soviet controlled territory, these older people were used to having the government make decisions and provide their benefits. Many of those benefits are no longer available and they are not prepared for taking care of themselves in their old age so they are nervous and unhappy with many of the changes, including the large increase in building and economic activity in the country.

As an American, the differences are palpable. We often take for granted the economic system and political freedom. We expect it; we have had it for many generations and many of us assume we always have our freedom and independence and economic success. That may be the case. Nevertheless, it is inspiring to talk to those who have not had the freedom to travel, create a new business and to have the opportunity to provide more economic benefits for themselves and their families by being creative and working hard. Their recent war for their independence is very real and their strong emotions are evident in the conversations with people who lived through it. Their recent freedom is also new and the degree with which they value it and are embracing it may give them a chance to hold on to it.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47