Interview with PhD Robert Mikac, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb, and an internationally recognized expert in several different security areas, we spoke about how Croatia is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, EU’s response and what the world be like afterwards.
‘When we talk about the reaction to a crisis, it is multi-layered and significantly different depending on the angle from which you look at it and analyze it, and to which part you refer.’
Professor Mikac, before we start talking in more detail about how Croatia and the whole world are struggling with the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, can you explain what in fact a crisis is? How do we define it, or, according to which parameters?
Crises are states, conditions and beliefs in which objectively, and/or, subjectively our regular functions, way of life and activities are disturbed to a greater or lesser extent. They are characterized by common features: the threat to acquired values, insecurity and the time pressure under which decisions need to be made. There are a number of classifications according to which we can classify crises and deal with them, and they are conditioned by four reference levels of crisis analysis. The stated levels are: the state, organization as a business entity, group or society, and the individual. In crises it is also necessary to point out that these are subjective constructions because it is very difficult to clearly distinguish them conceptually, theoretically and empirically from other similar and complementary terms and concepts, such as an extraordinary event and catastrophe when we talk about concepts, and concepts that directly or indirectly deal with crisis and emergency management and are very similar or complementary.
In addition, the science that deals with this area is still a relatively young discipline so when we talk about crises, we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. But in order not to claim that everything related to crises has a negative connotation, it should be pointed out that every crisis is also an opportunity to correct certain things (laws, procedures, ways of coordinating and communicating, the public procurement process, etc.) and that one should never miss the opportunity to learn during and after the crisis and each time come out of it more capable in view of the next or similar crises.
How is crisis management regulated in the Republic of Croatia? How does the existing legal framework reflect on the operational and tactical level?
The Republic of Croatia has a lot of experience when it comes to dealing with and dealing with crises in practice, but, normatively, we do not keep up with previous experiences and the international practice. When we talk about the sectoral approach this is where we stand better than when it comes to issues concerning cross-sectoral activities. Each sector has regulated the crisis area in its own way and is quite successful in dealing with it. The Internal Security Sector, the Civil Protection Sector, the Water Management and Flood Defense Sector, and Fire Interventions are just some examples of tasks done very well within their jurisdiction – where we must be aware that absolute security does not exist and that every incident cannot be stopped and/or prevented or that an emergency situation cannot be prevented from turning into a crisis.
Intersectorally it was only in 2017 that we adopted a definition of the crisis for the first time in the Homeland Security System Act and opened up the space for regulating this area. Thus, we operationalized the strategic vision from the National Security Strategy from 2017 into a normative solution. The Law on the Homeland Security System has set the framework and direction for the development of this area for the future but there is still a lot of work ahead of us to turn the strategic vision and normative solution into an effective crisis and emergency management system at the intersectoral level. What is important is that everyone looks at this area in their own way and it will be very difficult to find people and experts in Croatia who will have the same opinions when it comes to issues such as crisis, crisis management and crisis communication. This also presents a good side of things because each discussion can open up new perspectives and views that need to be analyzed and we should see how best to turn them into solutions that we will all benefit from.
‘As far as the public health part is concerned Croatia has reacted very well, from the preparation to the immediate management of the situation and through various accompanying events.’
The Republic of Croatia was hit by a pandemic during very difficult times that spanned the presidency of the European Union, the threat of a new wave of refugees, etc. Can you explain this situation a bit?
In a very short period of time Croatia found itself exposed to several different crises in terms of their character, consequences and the necessary capabilities to respond to them. At the time we assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union – which is our first such experience – the Union itself was (and still is) in a deep structural crisis on several different levels: the United Kingdom was withdrawing from full membership; there was a threat of a new migration wave in Europe; individual member states were pursuing internal policies contrary to the common positions and values of most other member states. These are strategic crises of the highest political level. Then, some Croatian strategic companies (which by definition can be classified as national critical infrastructures), such as INA, found themselves under serious cyber attacks that lasted for weeks and in which they suffered significant economic damage, as well as domino effects and numerous other actors associated with them. At that moment, we, as well as the whole world, were hit by the COVID-19 crisis and the earthquake in Zagreb, its surroundings and parts of Zagorje, on March 22, 2020. So, in a very short period of time we found ourselves in several parallel crises, all of which are different in nature and have different consequences.
All of the above has led to the engagement of significant resources of our country, and some have had to deal with two or more crises at the same time, which put all those involved in front of great challenges. This number, diversity and dynamism of crises from the international strategic level to the tactical one, in various parts of our country, has led to a situation in which the whole country, its political and professional part, are facing temptations that I guess they never thought could exist – and everything happened to them within a few weeks. Many larger countries, which have a longer tradition of dealing with crises, and more significant resources, would have faced numerous challenges and problems in this set of circumstances. Therefore, generally speaking, we managed to get by without catastrophic consequences, and the analyses that need to be carried out should show how real the current and long-term damage is.
Looking back the Republic of Croatia seems to have reacted well already at the beginning of the spread of the pandemic. What has the Republic of Croatia done differently or better than other countries?
The answer to your question has two fundamentally different answers. One is related to the public health part, the other to the issue of several other, equally important sectors. As far as the public health part is concerned Croatia has reacted very well, from the preparation to the immediate management of the situation and through various accompanying events. The situation has been monitored since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in China, and especially since the first large numbers of infected people began to appear in Europe, primarily in our neighborhood, Italy. Therefore, the Crisis Headquarters of the Ministry of Health were activated at the end of January, and the Civil Protection Headquarters of the Republic of Croatia in mid-February, and both began working on preparatory actions for the crisis ahead which turned out to be the right decisions because we were then ready to deal with the first case of a sick person in Croatia on February 25, 2020, and all the other cases after that. Activation of these two headquarters, their constant work and support of the institutions such as the Croatian Institute of Public Health, the entire health system, and then the activation of the entire civil protection system according to the depth criterion, enabled timely crisis management and the result you categorized as a good response.
As for the other sectors, and I am referring mostly to the economy, tourism and finance, they were definitely surprised by the crisis and already when it started happening they could not pick themselves together and start acting at the level of public health to start acting the way they would be expected to act in a crisis. As a result, a number of harmful consequences occurred that could have been less pronounced if these sectors were ready to face the crisis, if they had begun to prepare for the crisis at the first risk indicators, if they were better equipped and more organized for what was about to happen inevitably.
So, when we talk about the reaction to a crisis, it is multi-layered and significantly different depending on the angle from which you look at it and analyze it, and to which part you refer.
‘The European Union was late in its reaction. After a late reaction, and when the member states closed down and determined that each would try to deal with the crisis on its own, there was no longer an opportunity to change such a discourse.’
This crisis has clearly shown that different countries have responded differently to the crisis, mostly by closing in and taking care only of themselves. How do you interpret that?
Yes, states have predominantly decided to close down and try each to find the best path or solution for themselves to deal with the crisis. Those who reacted faster and earlier generally have better results in this crisis than those who either did not respond in a timely manner, or, sufficiently, or, with a sufficient number of measures. However, in-depth analyses of the success and purposefulness of the measures taken have yet to be carried out. Looking from a European perspective, Sweden reacted significantly differently than most other countries, hasn’t had worse results than others and in the long run we will see if their choice was better and more successful than that of countries that closed as much as possible, “shut down” the economy and significantly restricted the movement of their citizens.
Going back to the very approach of states to this crisis closure within their borders was a short-term solution because the challenge is global and the responses are local and uncoordinated. So, with this approach, some countries may have reduced the consequences of the first wave of coronavirus, but the question is whether they can react in the same way with the second, third and each subsequent wave of the coronavirus. Because if they chose the option of completely closing and stopping most economic processes every time this would very quickly cause the collapse of a significant number of economic branches and industries and have extremely severe consequences for the entire economy and citizens.
Therefore, next time, there should be a global reaction to the next corona wave, which is hard to expect, so, at least a regional one, at the level of the European Union and/or the whole of Europe.
What do you think about the reaction and moves of the European Union? Was the EU response timely and adequate?
I think that the European Union was late in its reaction. Ursula von der Leyen’s statement that politicians underestimated this crisis is also on this track. Which on the one hand we can understand because we are talking about a cumbersome mechanism that takes time to get up and running, but on the other hand it’s also a very expensive delay and a question of responsibility that will clearly not happen or be posed. Of its many integrations, the Union has started the integration in the field of security among the last, so it is still creating and developing its mechanisms in this area. But for an organization where human, financial and intellectual potential has never been at stake, much more is expected. The Union can be said to have unlimited resources and opportunities, so we should regret all the time lost in which crisis management mechanisms have not been developed, conceptualized and put in place that could and should have resolved crises like this one without too much effort.
After a late reaction, and when the member states closed down and determined that each would try to deal with the crisis on its own, there was no longer an opportunity to change such a discourse. The Union, therefore, turned to support processes, the coordination of certain activities, financial support and the search for its niche in this crisis. A much more appropriate role would be strong preventive action, elaboration of scenarios, creation of a unique situational picture of risks and processes, modeling of potential situations and imposing oneself as a leader who will manage the crisis from the center point, leaving states to resolve their own specifics.
‘You see that global forces are not ready – which is paradoxical, because they are capable – to try to solve any global challenge.’
The crisis has also revealed a number of shortcomings and weaknesses, not only in regards to responses by individual countries but also globally. Can you comment on that a bit?
Certainly, as every crisis reveals shortcomings and weaknesses. Since this is a global crisis of enormous proportions large problems and omissions are noticeable in proportion to that. At the beginning of the crisis many around the world hoped that this was an opportunity to sober up, return to true values and needs, cooperate and build a better world. But the course of the crisis illuminates and shows that we are not moving in that direction and that global disputes between major powers continue where every opportunity is a good opportunity to accuse the opposite side of just about anything, where everything is useful as ammunition in denigration. Such an approach is counterproductive to the pursuit of global dialogue and the attempt to address global challenges. You see that global forces are not ready – which is paradoxical, because they are capable – to try to solve any global challenge. For the rest of us, but also the inhabitants of these globally central states, this means that we are hostages of a small and narrow circle of people which do not allow us to live on a planet that would have significantly fewer crises than the number they create.
The duration of a pandemic cannot be predicted and, therefore, its consequences. What do you think the world will be like afterwards, what can we expect?
We can expect pretty much the same world after this crisis. We will return to old habits and lifestyles with a number of measures that will still be restrictively in force because a second wave of coronavirus could hit us very quickly. What would be useful is to do an in-depth analysis and see what we have done well, and what less well, at all levels – from the political to professional to us as individuals. But experience shows us that we in the Republic of Croatia have not been ready for such a thing so far, we have not done in-depth analyzes of previous crises and turned identified lessons into practice, changing the way we organize and act, all in order to be more successful next time in less time, by investing less financially and with less stress. Yes, we adopt certain things, it is more experiential, not procedural, and all such improvements are very slow processes that last too long. All of this should go faster, should be done more efficiently and more transparently.
Hence, my concluding thought is that if you are a realist, then you must also be a pessimist. Because in spite of outstanding achievements in certain areas, such as science and technological development, in other areas such as learning from experience, creating a better living environment, work-stimulating environment and all the way to establishing an effective integrated management system in crisis and emergency situations, we are significantly behind achievements that have quality. And we have no real justification for these delays.
Assistant Professor Robert Mikac, PhD, has both practical and theoretical experience concerning various structures in the security sector of the Republic of Croatia. During his career he performed various duties in Croatia and abroad ranging from the operative to the tactical and strategic level. He is an internationally recognized expert in various security areas. He specialized in the following areas: International Relations; International and National Security; Security and Strategic Management; Small Arms and Light Weapons; Crisis Management and Disaster Recovery; Civil Protection; Afghanistan; Privatization of Security; Critical Infrastructure Protection and Resilience; Migrations challenges; Project Management.
During his career in the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia he served as a soldier, non-commissioned officer and commissioned officer. He worked for two years in the unit for the protection of VIP persons, was an operational officer in the antiterrorist military police for five years and his last position was as military police company commander. During this period he worked on very demanding tasks and participated in the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan as a commander of the international military police platoon within the Kabul Multinational Brigade. For merit in Afghanistan he was awarded the NATO Medal and the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
After that he was the Head of the State Centre 112, the body responsible for monitoring, on a daily basis, of all emergency situations and conditions in the state and its neighborhood, and coordinating activities of emergency services. At the time, he was a member of different working groups of the Government of the Republic of Croatia engaged with developing several national security strategies.
For two years he worked as an independent police inspector within the Ministry of Interior, primarily working on the harmonization of national regulations and legislation with the EU Acquis Communautaire during the accession phase of Republic of Croatia’s entry into the EU.
He then spent four years as a Commander of the Civil Protection of the Republic of Croatia and actively participated in solving numerous natural and humanitarian national and regional crises and disasters – from fires, floods to a major migration crisis in 2015.
Currently he is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb. From 2016 to 2018 he was the Head of military studies ‘Military Leadership and Management’, and from 2016 to 2020 a member of the Homeland Security Council of the President of the Republic of Croatia.
He has published two authored and four co-authored books in the field of security (in Croatian, English and Macedonian) and over forty scholarly articles. As of 2018 he is an editor in the publishing house Jesenski and Turk.