Zagreb, Croatia – Frano Cirko sat in an upscale cafe in the Croatian capital and took sips of an espresso as he boasted of founding the country’s version of the “alt-right” movement.
The alt-right is a loosely knit coalition of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis who campaign for an exclusively white ethnostate in North America.
Placing his coffee cup on the table and folding his hands, the 28-year-old said he founded the far-right Generation of Renovation party in February 2017 with the hopes of creating a Croatian version alt-right and the anti-immigrant European Identitarian movement.
Last year, two months after Generation of Renovation’s establishment, the party was able to land councillors, including Cirko, in a pair of neighbourhoods in western Zagreb.
While Croatia’s mainstream political establishment has drifted further right in recent years – a process that has seen the normalisation of neo-fascist themes – Cirko and his fellow party members decided to start the new party after pre-existing far-right groups effectively collapsed during parliamentary elections in 2016.
“They have an old methodology of political work,” he told Al Jazeera. “They always talk about the second world war and the Homeland War [the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s].”
Yet, Sven Milekic, a Zagreb-based journalist at Balkan Insight, rejected the notion that Generation of Renovation represents a break from the country’s traditional far right.
“When you look at their programmes, rhetoric and membership, it’s the same guys who used to look like neo-Nazis,” he told Al Jazeera.
Explaining that Cirko’s party has failed to gain much currency in the country, Milekic explained: “In Croatia, it’s very hard for new parties to step on the same. People are quite conservative in the sense of their political choices.”
The party claims to have around 200 members.
While it has struggled to build a presence in the streets, it quickly gained notoriety for its excessive promotion of hate speech and xenophobia online, as first reported by Balkan Insight in May 2017.
The Generation of Renovation party has coopted the American alt-right’s Pepe the Frog, a meme described as a hate symbol by the US-based watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Cirko cloaks the party’s far-right ideology in campaigns against youth emigration and in support of youth-focused employment policies.
“Old right-wing politicians are only fighting against communists, which is OK, but they aren’t fighting against the socialist way of economy and how the state is working,” he says, alluding to the flight of many young Croatians to other European Union (EU) states for employment after the country joined the 28-member bloc in 2013.
Cirko described Generation of Renovation as a youth-focused party that opposes Croatia’s membership in the EU and calls for the abolition of income taxes.
“We are fighting for the interests of our generation … We are not guilty for our situation,” he argued. “We have the right to resist this situation in politics and [economics] because we were [forced] into it.”
The party also opposes same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights.
Yet, researchers and critics have pointed to the party leader’s long history of neo-fascist activism.
Cirko, who has in the past been photographed performing Nazi salutes, is a former member of the hardline, far-right Croatian Pure Party of Rights.
He has worked to build ties with several far-right and neo-fascist groups across Europe, including Hungary’s Jobbik party, the Latvian National Alliance, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and VMRO – Bulgarian National Movement.
“We found Hungary as the first and strongest Croatian ally in our neighbourhood,” he explained. “Jobbik’s only step after this is to come to power.”
Founded in 2003, Jobbik has made waves time and again owing to its intense Euroscepticism, anti-migrant policies and anti-Semitism.
Although it has recently attempted to rebrand itself, critics point to Jobbik’s neo-Nazi roots.
Pressed on his views, Cirko employed ultranationalistic tropes, such as the notion that Croatia should be a strong country that commands influence in the world.
Although Cirko claims his party doesn’t harbour the intense anti-Serb xenophobia that is widespread in many of Croatia’s right-wing and far-right parties, his actions suggest otherwise.
During rallies and other public events, Cirko and his fellow party members regularly wave flags bearing symbols affiliated with the Ustasa, the World War II-era fascist party that oversaw the Nazi-aligned Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945).
In November 2017, a day after Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak drank cyanide poison upon being convicted for war crimes during the 1990s Yugoslav wars, Generation of Renovation held a ceremony and erected an altar for the late war criminal.
“We have come to pay tribute to our general, Slobodan Praljak, in gratitude for all he has done for us and for all of the Croatian people,” Cirko addressed the handful of supporters. They held a placard that read “hero”.
Although publicly approving of, celebrating or minimising war crimes is forbidden under Croatian law, Cirko’s memorial was only one of several similar displays of mourning staged throughout the country following Praljak’s suicide. Some of those events were attended by government ministers.
While noting that the potential of growing far-right ideology is “dangerous”, the Anti-Fascist Network of Zagreb’s Josip Jagic said he doubts that a party such as Generation of Renovation can build a large base.
Jagic explained that the prevalence of Holocaust revisionism and other far-right characteristics in Croatia’s ruling right-wing party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has served as a barrier for far-right parties hoping to break into the country’s political mainstream.
“Because there is nothing remotely viable as a real opposition [to HDZ], which by some degree would contest the current relations of power in society, the establishment is pretty much secure,” he told Al Jazeera.
“That situation means you have no need for fascist outrage,” Jagic added. “We have to admit that the fascist activities have been until now on the margins.
He concluded: “It’s here, it’s dangerous, but it still doesn’t have the broad potential of fascism [elsewhere in Europe].”