The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Natasha Srdoc and Joel Anand Samy co-founded the Adriatic Institute for Public Policy, co-authored a book on the flat tax, and with God’s grace co-authored their marriage. They are working to bring free-market innovations to the Balkans, the area of southeastern Europe that was a cockpit of war throughout the 20th century, with frequent boundary changes. The Balkans now includes 10 countries—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzgovena, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania—with a total population of 54 million.
I interviewed Srdoc and Anand Samy this spring at Patrick Henry College: Here are excerpts. My wife and I recently traveled with them through the Balkans (see “Freed but not free” in this issue).
Natasha, what’s your heritage? My family lived in six different countries in the last 100 years without ever leaving home. The Austrian-Hungarian empire recruited my paternal grandfather as a 17-year-old boy to fight in the trenches. My maternal grandfather died defending the local community from Nazi soldiers, when my mom was only 3 years old. My father is a concentration camp survivor, and his younger brother died of malnutrition. German troops burned down our house.
Joel, what’s your family background? My grandparents came from southern India via the British Empire to Fiji. I was born in Fiji but came to the United States when I was 2½.
And God brought you together. Yes.
Natasha, you earned an MBA in the United States, and I understand you’d like to bring some American concepts to your native land. Yes: the rule of law, protection of property rights, independent judiciary.
Why does fighting for those ideas make you unpopular with the governing authorities in Croatia? We have there a coexistence of organized crime and political corruption, and we do not have an independent judiciary. The political establishment controls the media, blocks judicial reform and the separation of powers, and continues to plunder without any punishment.
Croatia is largely Catholic, at least nominally. What kind of influence does the Catholic Church play there? The Catholic Church has not been favored in recent years because of its alignment with the political establishment, which has been very corrupt. A huge amount of taxpayers’ money goes to Catholic churches in a nontransparent way.
And what about your own beliefs? Faith and religion skipped a generation in Croatia and the entire Balkans. My grandparents had faith. My parents, not. And the third generation, that’s me, is finding itself. I became a Protestant with Joel, and I know where my value system stands. There is a void in Croatia, and for the Protestant church there is great opportunity.
Joel, the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe brought with it an emphasis on trusting the Bible rather than church hierarchs, and that eventually led to the rule of law and the development of liberty rather than arbitrary rule by kings and princes. What happens to law and liberty when there is not that underlying theological base? There’s significant dependence upon the state and the governmental apparatus. That is why there is such fawning for the European Union. But it’s also disturbing when churches of any category receive government funding to be legally recognized. It makes it very difficult for church leaders to stand up and say, “We want real reform because we have issues to deal with like youth unemployment and poverty.”
And a huge percentage of your young people are unemployed? In Croatia, around 53 percent. In Bosnia, 60 percent. Other countries are a little better.
Natasha, what do these unemployed young people do all day? There’s a huge apathy, as members of an entire generation waste their most promising years. They lose the skills and knowledge they gained through education, and as time goes by it’s much harder to find a job in the profession for which they studied. Then they will be forced to do some other—let’s call it professional—work, work they otherwise would not be eager to do.
“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings” is a maxim traced back to Chaucer. Do idle hands in the Balkans lead to terrorism or drug smuggling? The Balkans have the trafficking of humans, arms, drugs, even organs, with proceeds of crimes going to terrorist groups that are attacking us in the West.
Joel, should the United States and Western Europe send more aid to the Balkans, or is part of it going to oligarchs who deposit it in their own bank accounts? Over a decade we have seen the United States, the European Union, and other countries like Switzerland and the Nordic states invest over $100 billion into the Balkans, and billions have left those nations and gone into financial institutions in Austria, Lichtenstein, and beyond.
How much sex trafficking is there? Human trafficking is a $32 billion criminal industry that gets at young people who do not have hope and good jobs. They get into it not knowingly, but through believing the promise of a good job in a different country. Many children are exploited in prostitution on the Adriatic Sea, especially during the peak season.
Natasha, I can see why talking about these things makes you persona non grata in your native land. We’ve seen in the last 20 years the colossal corruption facilitated by money laundering via Austria’s and Lichtenstein’s banking and corporate institutions.
Joel and I became enemies of the state at the time when we started bringing the facts about corruption to the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. But this is something we could not ignore.
What’s the solution? Aid is certainly not the answer. Throwing money to corrupt networks is not the answer. It is important to raise leaders that are principled, to identify individuals that can create real changes from within, and to help establish the rule of law. If we find a mechanism to bring back the monies that have been deposited in the banks in Lichtenstein or Austria, that would mean a lot, not just for taxpayers but also to establish protection of property rights. Without that foundation, we cannot seek investments to come from foreign investors because they fear losing it.
Joel, what do you think will happen? Unreformed governments are blocking independent voices, calling reform-oriented leaders “enemies of the state,” and having fraudulent elections as in Croatia, which had 1 million illegal voters in a country of 4 million. So, as we look at what happened in Ukraine, we may easily see a Balkan uprising.