Despite scarce finances and converging crises from earthquakes to surging energy prices, Zagreb’s green-left municipal government is focused on restoring the city’s capacity to deliver quality public services, from waste management to childcare.
In June 2021, green-left coalition Možemo! (We Can!) won the Zagreb mayoral and city assembly elections, along with the majority of the 17 district and 216 neighbourhood council elections. The coalition was spearheaded by municipalist platform Zagreb je NAŠ! (Zagreb is OURS!), a political force founded in 2017 and allied with Nova ljevica (New Left), ORaH (Održivi razvoj Hrvatske – Sustainable Development of Croatia), and Za grad (For the City). Crony politician Milan Bandić, who over 20 years had slid from social democrat to social conservative populist, was replaced as mayor by environmental activist Tomislav Tomašević. Zagreb’s municipal administration and its public holding company, as well as the city’s infrastructure, had sunk into a state of dysfunction and disrepair. The city had run up unsustainable levels of debt and equally unsustainable levels of payment arrears, with interest payments and borrowing guarantees hitting the fiscal brake of 20 per cent of the annual budget.
The coalition was aware that repairing and transforming the city amid the global pandemic and in the aftermath of two earthquakes that severely damaged the city’s historical centre and its poorer outskirts would be challenging. No one, however, could foresee the energy shock and soaring inflation deepened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The new green-left municipal administration acted quickly to begin delivering on its election promises to restore the city’s structures and services. It immediately restructured and expanded the capacity of the city’s administration and its holding company. Twenty-seven municipal offices were merged into 16, and competent heads of office were gradually employed through open calls. The government started consolidating municipal finances and made payments to over 300 public institutions, the lack of which had been crippling the ability of kindergartens, schools, cultural institutions, care institutions, and hospitals to cover material costs. Most importantly, it began restructuring Zagreb’s public utility and service company. The newly appointed board of directors was tasked with helping the company recover from operating losses, bringing in-house operations previously outsourced to private companies, reducing the size of the administration, and expanding the frontline workforce.
A public administration overhaul of this scale is unprecedented in recent Croatian politics. Yet Možemo! believes this is essential if the erosion of the public sector is to be stopped and the trajectory of Croatian social and ecological development reversed.
While overhauling the city’s administration and its holding company, the green-left municipal government immediately set the course for transformative politics along three axes.
First, expanding public services and returning them to public hands. This entails growing the operative capacity of public utility companies. The waste management sectors that had been privatised are being reintegrated into companies owned by the city. As municipal politics starts from where people live and work, public companies need to regain the capacity to respond to citizens’ demands for safe roads and communal and green infrastructure. Second, improving the provision of childcare and public housing. After a decade and a half of reliance on family-based childcare and religious and private kindergartens, the green- left government is building 21 kindergartens and kindergarten extensions to make public childcare accessible to all. In a similar vein, it has halted the privatisation of public housing and, once fiscal circumstances improve, plans a significant expansion of public housing to buffer exploding house prices.
Third, the city’s urban metabolism has to be made sustainable. The most significant undertaking is the transformation of the entire waste collection and management pipeline. Mobilising every household, this plan aims to significantly increase waste separation, bringing Zagreb closer to its zero-waste goal. Furthermore, pedestrian zones are being expanded and new tram lines and bus routes are being introduced. For the first time, a systematic approach to creating a true network of cycling routes for the city has been adopted. Finally, the municipality has initiated a programme of rooftop solar generation on public buildings that will generate more power than is currently produced by Croatia’s biggest solar plant.
In Croatia, the state holds the levers of both energy and social care provision. The government, led by the social-conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has released a comprehensive package to counter the energy and the cost of living crises. This package includes caps on energy prices for households (which are projected to go up by 20 per cent for gas and 10 per cent for electricity), price caps on certain foods, and one-off energy rebates for almost 100,000 citizens. As a parliamentary party, Možemo! has also called for windfall taxes, as well as power and insulation programmes that would prioritise energy-poor households. The party has also criticised HDZ members for their involvement in gas speculation through the former national oil company in which the Croatian state still owns a 45 per cent stake.
The city of Zagreb has complemented the national government’s measures with targeted financial assistance for the groups left out of the state package, primarily single-parent families and energy-poor households. More importantly, Zagreb has so far managed to keep down the price of communal services despite galloping inflation (12.3 per cent year on year in July, with salaries rising only 7.5 per cent for the same period). Specifically, with its new waste collection system, Zagreb has pushed the cost onto polluters through variable rates paid for unsorted waste. This has helped to make the city’s waste collection service one of the cheapest in the country at 6 euros per household per month. Free bags are also available to certain user categories and diligent sorters.
While social care policy is primarily the state’s responsibility, Zagreb provides additional services such as free public transport for socially vulnerable groups including pensioners and people with disabilities, assistance with housing costs, and financial assistance for retirement home residents and the energy poor. Možemo! is focusing on long-term social innovations, primarily in community-based, deinstitutionalised care, which is currently almost non-existent for the elderly and other vulnerable groups. Novel forms of community-based care organising are promising to expand care-receiver rights and improve labour conditions for care workers. Presently, care workers are emigrating in droves to higher-wage countries. If these transformative reforms fail to materialise, Croatian society will find itself with an aged population with meagre pensions facing a radical shortfall of care.