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How Croatian agriculture bought the farm

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“Nothing happened afterwards,” he says. “The years are going by, and it will become harder to get to the bottom of these cases.”

This report by BIRN pieces together how a single collective farm fell apart, using interviews with workers and managers, as well as court and government documents.

Mismanagement appears to be the main culprit in the farm’s demise, yet many questions remain. Who got what share, and how much did they deserve? If the answers are hazy, it is partly because the very definition of ownership was up-for-grabs during Croatia’s chaotic transition to a market economy.

Nevertheless, from the messy specifics emerge elements that will be familiar to farmers across the former Yugoslavia: the loss of shared assets, the whiff of wrongdoing, and the missing pot of money for which no one has been held accountable.

Partial privatization

Zivkovic is an energetic man in his late sixties, who owes his furrowed face and gnarled hands to a lifetime spent working outdoors.

He was an employee of PP Retkovci, an agricultural collective named after the village where it was based, in the plains of Slavonia, eastern Croatia.

Like thousands of farms in Yugoslavia, PP Retkovci was part-owned and managed by its workers. It was blessed by rich yields from an arable soil – and by the generosity of a socialist state.

“We appeared on TV!” says Zivkovic. “We were the first agricultural company with an advanced drainage system in Yugoslavia.”

The employees of PP Retkovci were enthusiastic stakeholders, regarding their workplace as an investment. By the 1980s, the farm employed some 200 workers – the equivalent of a fifth of the local population. It was a symbol of the village, a source of pride as well as wealth.

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