Neighboring countries, different trajectories | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Neighboring countries, different trajectories

/ 05:13 AM June 14, 2024

Split, Croatia—Here in the Old Town—a Unesco World Heritage Site—one has the sense of being fully in Europe as conjured in popular culture: people dining al fresco under the shadow of ruins dating back to late antiquity, sipping wine (Croatia has local grape varieties, including the famed Plavac Mali), and partaking of the Adriatic Sea’s bounty as fellow tourists with gelatos and shopping bags walk by.

And indeed, one would not be mistaken for placing Croatia within this imagined Europe. Geographically bounded by Slovenia and Hungary to the north, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the east, and Montenegro to the south, this Balkan country’s Dalmatian coast runs parallel with, and proximate to, Italy’s eastern shore and, atop the peaks of the Mosor mountain range, I managed to glean the faint outline of the Apennine Mountains.

Politically—and perhaps more significantly—it is also fully within the European Union; its citizens have the right to work and reside in all of EU, from Ireland and Iceland to Germany and Greece; conversely, Europeans can flock here as digital nomads, taking advantage of the splendid weather, incredible sea-to-summit landscapes, fairytale “Game of Thrones” cities like Dubrovnik, and rapidly expanding infrastructure. Sporting fans—and there are many of them in the continent—will also appreciate its football heritage as ably represented by Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić.

Such a sense of belonging to Europe, and even to the “West,” would not have been surprising to its past inhabitants. Croatia, after all, was at the heart of the Roman Empire as the province of Dalmatia; Emperor Diocletian’s palace still stands as the old town’s main attraction. Succeeding polities—from the Duchy of Croatia to Austria-Hungary—would likewise enfold Croatia within Western Europe as well as the Catholicism that distinguishes it from its Muslim and Orthodox neighbors.


And yet, its present state would be quite remarkable in light of its more recent history. Part of Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century, Croatia was mired in war and ethnic conflict in the first half of the 1990s—as well as in economic crisis in the latter part of that decade. Within a generation, however, Croatia managed an extraordinary political and economic turnaround which culminated in EU membership in 2013 and, just last year, inclusion in both the Schengen area and the Eurozone. Meanwhile, with the exception of Slovenia, its former colleagues in Yugoslavia have been unable to join the EU or attain the same level of development—even as there are inspiring signs of progress across the region.

What makes neighboring countries end up following different trajectories? Tomislav, a history graduate student who sidelines as an Uber driver, credits on one hand Croatia’s tourism industry (20.6 million tourist arrivals in 2023, an astounding figure for a country of just over three million) and EU membership. On the other hand, there are enduring internal divisions that have undermined countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. Just like the question of whether Josip Broz Tito was good or evil, and who is at fault in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, this question—as applied to the Balkans—can unearth thorny and deeply held issues, including religious, cultural, and national identity.

The same question is just as relevant for the Philippines, even if we are on the losing end of its predicate. Once part of the same batch of newly independent nations in the aftermath of World War II—if not ahead of the pack—we have been left behind one by one, from South Korea in 1964 to Vietnam in 2020.

As in the Balkans, there are no definitive answers, but if anything can be drawn from the Croatian example, it is that industrialization and a diversified economy matters; it is perhaps no accident that Croatia has had a highly developed industrial sector, with its very own car manufacturing company (thanks to Rimac Automobili, which now owns Bugatti). The failure of the Philippines to industrialize—as compared to neighbors like Taiwan, Malaysia, and Thailand—continues to be litigated (and lamented) by economists and activists alike.


Another clear factor is misgovernance that has led to strategic indecisiveness on a host of issues—from education to economic policy—as well as the obscene levels of corruption and cronyism that have bedeviled our economy for decades.

Perhaps one apt illustration is the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, which was marred by an inability to come up with a decisive stance on the plant itself and on the question of nuclear energy; more significantly, it was undermined by corruption from its very beginnings. Today the plant still stands, finished but never fueled, costing billions in public funds without producing a single kilowatt, a symbol of our wasteful history for which our leaders and colonizers have not been fully held to account.


“We did not overtake you,” a Thai colleague once told me some years back, when we were comparing our two countries’ divergent paths. “Your leaders held you back.”


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