Vegans Convert Meat-Loving Balkans — By Staring Down Guns

Why you should care

From blocking trucks filled with animals for slaughter to taking on hunting groups, activists are turning Croatia into a vegan icon. 

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The guns were pointed at him, but Robert Međugorac wouldn’t budge. Minutes earlier, the 42-year-old father of five had heard gunshots shatter the Sunday-morning calm and had rushed out of his house with his roommate. Their neighborhood, near Zagreb airport, is popular with hunters. It’s legal to hunt there. But Međugorac and his friend stood in front of the hunters, daring them. The men with guns walked away. It was October 2017, and Međugorac, a vegan activist, had won that round.

Međugorac has been vegan for almost two decades. For the most part, it’s been a lonely journey, in a region notoriously unfriendly for the community. The seven nations that were split from the former Yugoslavia have the lowest density of vegan-friendly restaurants and food stores of all parts of Europe — and one-fifth the continent’s average — according to HappyCow, the global online guide to vegan and vegetarian food. Their local cuisines rely heavily on meat and dairy, and leather is a central component of fashion. Hunting is a popular hobby — and an industry.

Now, a growing vegan movement is tearing Croatia away from the rest of the region, and its own past, on animal rights, riding on global exposure the rest of the Balkans simply haven’t had. They’re physically blocking trucks carrying animals to slaughter, facing down hunting groups, ensuring ordinary Croatians can’t escape images of animal abuse and organizing public protests. On the internet, Facebook groups, YouTube videos and vegan blogs are drawing thousands of Croatians to a cause traditionally alien to them. Street activism is on the rise, and popular musicians and entrepreneurs are lending their voices, helping shine a light on the movement.

Unknown people contacted me to tell me I inspired them to make changes in their lives.

Mirna Lozić Mandić, vegan activist

The results of this burst of activism are showing up in myriad ways. Croatia now has five vegan-only restaurants for every million citizens, twice the average for the Western Balkans. Zagreb has more than 70 vegan-friendly restaurants, bars and shops, while Split and the coastal Dalmatia region have at least another 60. It wasn’t always this way. These restaurants have all come up since the turn of the century. And the targets of the vegan activists are taking note. The Sunday after Međugorac and his roommate stood between the hunters and their prey, activists gathered at the same spot, ready for a repeat.

“But hunters didn’t show up,” says Međugorac.

Guns aren’t the only threat Croatia’s vegan activists are willing to face. On a gray day, some 20 activists form a wall in front of the gate to a slaughterhouse as a truck ferrying animals tries to enter. “Stop,” one woman yells at the vehicle’s driver. He tries not to, but the activists stand unmoved. The driver brakes to a halt. The activists rush to the caged animals. One woman caresses a sheep. Another touches a cow and sobs, as the bewildered animal looks back at her. Eventually, they let the truck through. Forcibly trying to release the animals would have been illegal. But the activists had made their point.

Such vigils, unheard of in Croatia two years ago, are now regular. Activists held one outside a slaughterhouse in the central Croatian town of Sisak last November and have since led four similar protests in Vrbovec, northeast of Zagreb. Starting just last November, groups have already held four “Cube of Death” events — a popular tool of vegan activists globally — in Zagreb: occupying city squares and showing passersby videos of animal abuse. The port city of Rijeka witnessed a similar event this past spring.

And then there are strictly digital vegan proponents. In March this year, Mirna Lozić Mandić started a Facebook page and YouTube channel, where she shares vegan recipes and tips and tricks to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. In May, she launched a blog called VeggieTale Life, which has already recorded 4,000 visitors. Her mother, grandmother and sister have adopted veganism after her. Her sister now runs her own vegan blog. “Unknown people contacted me to tell me I inspired them to make changes in their lives,” Lozić Mandić says.

Veganism arrived in Croatia later than many other countries, says sociologist Dražen Šimleša of the Ivo Pilar Institute of Social Sciences in Zagreb. But that Croatia is now leading the region in bringing change is in keeping with its greater exposure to the rest of the world through tourism. In 2016, Croatia hosted 13.8 million foreign tourists, more than the combined number of tourists that visited the rest of its former Yugoslav colleague nations — Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo — according to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization. For sure, some of the vegan restaurants in Croatia, especially in tourist-reliant towns like Dubrovnik, are likely catering significantly to foreign visitors. But with international interaction has come a home-grown movement that is drawing popular local icons too.

Croatian rapper IFeel laces his concerts with vegan messages, both in his country and while performing abroad, such as during a 20-city tour of Europe in October and November last year. A video by innovator and entrepreneur Mate Rimac explaining his reasons for turning vegan has been watched more than 120,000 times since he put it up on YouTube in May this year. Street performances are an emerging tool too. Dressed in black, 52-year-old Sanja Puškaš and her friends last year lay around a table they had set up in a Zagreb city square, carrying posters with animal images and messages such as “Choose food without me.” The idea, Puškaš says, was to show that “people can eat better and healthier if they choose non-animal products.”

The country’s vegan movement has its own divisions — and not just on tactics against the meat industry. Some activists argue that keeping pets violates the rights of those animals, as owners often sterilize them or restrict their movement. Others believe maintaining pets keeps the animals safe. But Međugorac sees this debate as part of the movement’s evolution.

What stimulates people to turn vegan can vary from individual to individual, says Šimleša. “Some people will be stimulated by some radical activist move, some by a documentary, some others by their friends,” he says. Croatia’s vegan movement itself, though, is beyond needing stimuli. Not even guns are stopping it anymore.

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