During the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Award speech, President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović stated that
she was born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. This statement provoked numerous
reactions from the media and a storm of reactions on social networks.
Kitarović was born in Croatia, which was part of Yugoslavia until 1991. Although
communist-run, Yugoslavia was independent from Eastern Bloc countries. In that
context, the statement was false.
Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović was presented with the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Award on 26th of October 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. It is annual award given by the Fulbright Alumni Association to honour distinguished Fulbright Alumni. Being Kolinda Fulbright Alumni in 2002-2003 this year Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was awarded for her achievements as a leader, diplomate and public servant.
The headlines in the Croatian media very much focused on one issue. In her speech, Grabar-Kitarovic reminisced about being a girl born on “the wrong side of the Iron Curtain” who used to dream about other places in which people enjoyed freedom of choice and could freely express their opinions.
This statement sparkled a debate in the media and the public arena if Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović was really born and lived behind the Iron Curtain, knowing the fact that Croatia at the time was part of Yugoslavia. As it happens very often, the interpretation of historical facts came into focus of the general public. In order to understand the context it is important to state a few historic facts.
1.The mention of the term “Iron Curtain” was made by Winston Churchill in 1946. It was on occasion when Winston Churchill, then already ex British prime minister, in the American town of Fulton, Missouri, gave a speech and used the descriptive phrase “from Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.”
2. After the Second World War, Croatia was one of the republics of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, a country ruled by the communist party and a strong leader Josip Broz Tito
3. Tito died in 1980, but the system remained in place until Croatia gained independence in 1991.
4. There is also the fact that Yugoslavia’s communist leader Josip Broz Tito had a split with Stalin in 1948, and broke all ties with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries
So the fact that Yugoslavia was on the other side of Iron Curtain was valid only for two years. The best known Croatian Cold war expert and the author of the book „The Third Side of the Cold war“ Tvrko Jakovina, refers to Churchill’s statement on the Iron Curtain and says that, regarding Yugoslavia, it was a true statement only until 1948. At the time of the Churchill speech, the Iron Curtain not only included cities like Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, but also Vienna and Berlin that were jointly occupied by the French, British, American, and Soviet forces.
In 1948, something happened that shook the world. It was the Tito – Stalin split. The Yugoslav president, Josip Broz Tito, despite being a communist formerly loyal to Moscow, split with Soviet leader Stalin in 1948, two years after Churchill’s speech.
According to historian Tvrtko Jakovina, the split was one of the most important events of the early phase of the Cold War.It was recognized by the Americans as a chance to move Soviets further away from the Adriatic Sea and Italy, to move the „iron curtain“ to the borders of Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Although Yugoslavia remained a one-party system with a Commnist Party rule, it was not allied to the Soviet Union and was also not a part of collective defence treaty – The Warsaw Block. The West supported Yugoslavia because it was meant to be a kind of an example to the others which were strongly tied to the Soviets. According to historians, this was the main reason why Yugoslavia remained outside the Iron Curtain until the end of the Cold War.
By 1949, Truman’s administration was lending millions of dollars to Yugoslavia, Truman was sending food packages to Yugoslavia. American General Omar Bradley, called Yugoslavia „American communist ally“. China’s leader Mao Zedong was criticizing Yugoslavia for not being communist enough. One of the proofs of this is also the fact that in 1953, and then in 1954, Yugoslavia and two NATO members Greece and Turkey, signed the Balkan Pact, a political and then a military treaty. The aim was to act against Soviet expansion in the Balkans. In all the geopolitical maps, Yugoslavia although communist-run, was (see the map) drawn outside of the Iron Curtain area.
The term Iron Curtain remained as defining a border between Soviet Union (Eastern Europe) and the western world that sustained itself until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The border was heavily guarded by the Soviets to prevent foreign influence that would disrupt their communist rule and to disable its residents from escaping Soviet territory. The fact that Croatia was part of Yugoslavia at the time, Yugoslavia wasn’t a part of the „Eastern bloc“, therefore was not behind the Iron Curtain.
The Iron Curtain was very often identified with Berlin Wall, but it is not exactly true. The Berlin Wall was built 1961. And it fell some months after the first “part” of the Iron Curtain fell on the Hungarian-Austrian border when the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria had symbolically snipped the border fence, the physical “Iron Curtain” between the West and the communist bloc controlled by the Soviet Union.
Presenting it to the public as a national pride and a wish to create a third way in a the polarising world between the West and East, Tito’s rebellion caused a lot of tensions between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Overall, the polarisation that later turned to Cold War started discussions among other countries about the peaceful coexistence between the two forces. The discussions led to the setting up of the Non-alignment movement. The idea was realised in 1956, when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlah Nehru and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Naser met with Tito on the Brijuni islands to talk about the very foundations of the movement, the conclusion of which was the signing of Brijuni Declaration. Five years later, in 1961, the first conference of the Non-alignment movement was held in Belgrade with Tito having a lead role. As this third bloc became more powerful, both Eastern and Western blocs started to acknowledge it, which lead to Tito having meetings with various statesmen across the world.
The difference between Yugoslavia and the countries behind Iron Curtain were, among other things, their travel rights. Yugoslav residents regularly travelled abroad, mostly to Italy or Austria to buy things that couldn’t be obtained in Yugoslavia and many people also left Yugoslavia to work in West Germany after an agreement was signed between Yugoslavia and Germany in 1968. The red Yugoslav passport allowed traveling across the world including to the Soviet Union, as the two countries started having better diplomatic relationships after Stalin’s death (1953).
During the Cold War period, from the establishment of the European Economic Community (later expanded into the European Union) in 1957 until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Yugoslavia was the only socialist state which developed close relations with the organisation, but never became a full member.
At the same time, Yugoslavia joined many organisations established by the western countries. As an example, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a member of European Broadcasting Union. As such, Yugoslavia was the only communist country that participated in the Eurovision Song Contest, joined in 1961. and participated 26 times.
Kolinda Grabar Kitarović’s statement that she was born on the other side of Iron Curtain caused a lot of controversies in Croatian public arena. However the story culminated with the president facing the inaccuracy of her statement saying that she was only referring to Churchill’s speech. As Churchill’s speech dates from 1946, but Kolinda Grabar Kitarović was born in 1968, there is no way that she could have ever lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. And her talk about dreaming about going to the places where “people were able to speak freely” was also not true, because, not only could she could travel freely, but she herself was able to go to the United States in 1980s on a high school exchange programme.
In the context of everything that was said, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović’s statement that she was born and lived behind the Iron Curtain can be nothing but false.
It is worth to mention that President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović has a Master’s Degree in international relations from the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, so it is doubtful that she is not aware of the historical fact because her Faculty mentor prof. Radovan Vukadinović is an expert in the field. Or she might be aware of the fact, but spreads disinformation anyway because it just – sounds better. In the era of political populism it has become very common to cover up and distort history in order to influence politics. The presidential elections in Croatia will be held on 22th December and Kolinda Grabar Kitarović is running for a second mandate.
Fulbright 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony
Churchill's Missouri speech
Authors | Ivor Kruljac i Filip Bahun, students at the Journalism and Media Production Department, Faculty of Politial Science, University of Zagreb