In Loving Memory of Potemkin

The mayor attempts to cycle down the brand new bike lane…
Photo by Goran Mehkek / Cropix, source:

A few days ago the ambassadors of Denmark and Sweden took part in an opening ceremony of a photo exposition showing how cycling became a fundamental part of Danish culture and life. Exactly one day before the event footways in the area were decorated with a few hundred meters of fresh paint in the form of a bike path. The bike path was so useless and obviously done with no planning to speak of that it immediately became a laughing stock, both for the media and citizens: it was so obviously bad that the mayor felt forced to admit it, to say that that the responsible people will be sanctioned and that the city will have to fix it.

A few weeks ago, a cyclist protest took place in front of a police station: the cyclists were there to demand that the city council and police come to some sort of a solution about bike lanes and driving on footways. When the group of about a thousand cyclists got there, to their surprise, they could see a few hundred meters of what looked like freshly painted bike lanes on the footways in front of the police building. The only difference between the new strips of yellow paint and proper bike lanes was that the new “bike lanes” were not connected to anything, i.e. they started at one point on the footway and ended on another without really allowing cyclists to get anywhere.

On July 7th 2006, an old statue of Nikola Tesla was taken from the R. Bošković institute and placed near an intersection in Zagreb’s city centre. Immediately prior to the unveiling ceremony (of a statue which the public could already enjoy for decades?), a new layer of pavement was lain over the intersection and surrounding signalisation freshened up. Apparently, the only reason was to make the ceremony look better on cameras.

The A. Starčević dormitory when students were moved (above) in and one day before the President's visit (below)
The A. Starčević dormitory when students were moved in (above) and one day before the President’s visit (below)

A few years before that, the A. Starčević dormitory in Zagreb went through a thorough renovation. To the surprise of many students, instead of starting work while students were not in the dormitory, the entire summer passed with no activity on the construction site. Some months later, in spite of the fact that heavy construction was still under way, students were moved in and for months they lived in mud, jumped between puddles and were disturbed by heavy construction work. Than one day the President of Croatia was supposed to come to the grand opening of the renovated complex and the day before that every pair of hands was mobilised to lay fresh pavement up to pavilion entrances, drain the puddles, put new washing machines and TVs in salons etc. Immediately after the president left, the washing machines and TVs were taken back and construction work during over the following months.

All of the above examples are little modern instances of the original archetype of “Potemkin villages”. Legend has it that minister Grigory Potemkin – in charge of the 18th Century Russian Crimea military campaign – constructed hollow façades of entire villages to impress his empress, Catherine the Great, and enhance his standing in her eyes. Given that a violent death would not be a very surprising outcome in case the empress found out, Potemkin appears to have been quite a gambler…in difference to our public officials, but I will come back to that in a minute.

In these four and countless other examples, the administration’s behaviour is worrying and problematic in four different ways. First, their behaviour clearly shows that they react, rather than plan. There is a reason why e.g. the concept of a “traffic study” exists: traffic studies are ordered to better understand how traffic works in a certain area and how it could be made to work better. Steps are then taken to implement those plans in a systematic fashion. What we see from the above examples is that rather than plan and act accordingly, Zagreb’s city council likes to improvise at the latest possible moment, and produces results whose quality, not surprisingly, leaves a lot to be desired.

Second, the administration has bad intentions: it acts not to meet citizens’ needs, but to avoid shame in front of a diplomat or to deceive the media and the public. In a society which suffered so intensively because of a general lack of transparency – especially in the public sector – public servants who intentionally misinform the public have to be quickly and severely sanctioned or removed from office in case they are judged inadequate to meet their responsibilities.

Third, the whole charade comes at the public’s expense. When e.g. the intersection in front of Tesla’s statue was “cleaned up”, the clean-up was limited to 200 square meters instead of a systematic, wholesome renovation of the streets in question at the appropriate time (i.e., not when a statue was erected), as would be the more efficient way to do it. The difference in cost and quality is taken out of tax payers pockets and out of funds which otherwise might have had the chance of improving other public services.

Fourth, and most worrying is that it is now taken for granted that there are no sanctions and no names mentioned: there is never talk about the specific chain of responsible people who caused damage. These people now use public money to cover up their own incompetence or lack of interest and never have to answer for it, let alone suffer any consequences. In effect, the implicit message they get is that that is exactly the way the system works and that what they are doing is business as usual.

When names start to surface – not necessarily of the mayor or the PM, although they too sometimes have to answer, but rather of officials at the operative level – and when the first sanctions are applied, than we will see change. Then, when children are taught about “Potemkin villages”, it might not be so easy to find ample examples so close to home.


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