Earlier this year, Croatians elected former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, a Social Democrat, as their president. The victory of Milanovic, who ran on a promise to make Croatia a more tolerant country and turn the page on its wartime past, was seen by many as a sign that the country was moving away from the far-right, nationalist ideas that have become prevalent in the region and beyond.
Milanovic, who dominated big cities but failed to have significant success in more conservative rural areas, however, won thanks in part to a split in the right. Moreover, he incorporated some right-wing elements in his campaign to attract conservative voters. Despite a Social Democrat’s ascent to the presidency, therefore, there is no reason to assume the country’s dangerous shift towards the right has come to an end.
During the presidency of Milanovic’s right-wing predecessor, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, some within Croatia’s political elite succumbed to historic revisionism and the glorification of war criminals for political gain. This allowed far-right narratives to move into the mainstream and contributed to the rising popularity of nationalist, xenophobic and racist ideas in the country.
Roots of ultra-nationalism
In 2019, there was a spike in nationalist violence and hate crimes in Croatia. A year earlier, a European Commission report warned that “racist and intolerant hate speech in public discourse is escalating” in the country, with the main targets being “Serbs, LGBT persons and Roma”. The report added that the response of the Croatian authorities to this worrying trend has been weak.
The ideas of ethnic supremacy that are gaining ground in Croatia today have their roots in Croatia’s War of Independence (fought between 1991-1995 amid the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s).
During Croats’ struggle for sovereignty against Yugoslav and Serbian forces, who had occupied a third of their country, thousands lost their lives and around 300,000 others were displaced. In 1995, Croatian forces regained control over all of Croatia with an extensive military operation codenamed Oluja (Storm) and paved the way for the country’s independence. Today, Croatia celebrates this operation as an act of liberation, but many Serbs regard it as an act of ethnic cleansing as the operation that freed Croatia also led to the displacement of Croatia’s indigenous Serbian population.
Bosnian-Croat forces also committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during their war against Bosnian forces.
In 1993-1994, the leadership of the self-proclaimed “Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia” embarked on a campaign to carve an ethnically pure Croatian mini-state in Bosnia and Herzegovina through violence and terror, with plans for Croatia to later annex the territory. This endeavour, which had Croatia’s support, triggered a war between Croat and Bosnian forces. During this war, Bosnian Croats forced Muslims from their homes and then shelled and besieged them for months.
While several high-level Croatian officials acknowledged and condemned these crimes in the past, some right-wing politicians in the country continue to downplay the devastating consequences of the troops’ actions. At times, they even glorify the war crimes Croatian fighters and generals committed in Croatia as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The current Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government and former President Grabar-Kitarovic who hails from the same party, for example, repeatedly expressed their support for Croatian war criminal Slobodan Praljak.
In 2017, Praljak, along with five other Croatian officials, was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for committing crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The court found that Praljak was part of the criminal enterprise that tried to ethnically cleanse part of Bosnia and Herzegovina of its Muslim population.
Praljak killed himself by drinking poison on the final day of deliberations at the ICTY. Following his death, then-President Grabar-Kitarovic described him as “a man who preferred to give his life rather than to live, having been convicted of crimes he firmly believed he had not committed”.
The former president had been praising the war criminal long before his death, writing in a statement in 2017, for example, that: “The contribution of general Slobodan Praljak to the defence of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina from Greater Serbian aggression and the defence of the Croat people’s survival in its historic locations during the Homeland War [Croatia’s 1990s war] is of great importance.”
Grabar-Kitarovic continued to praise him as a national hero until the end of her term as president. As recently as December 2019, she posted on social media a photo of Paljak alongside a photo of the Croatian flag and a cross, in an obvious attempt to court right-wing, nationalist voters.
Prominent politicians’ attempts to erase Croatia’s wartime crimes from the public’s memory and glorify brutal war criminals as national heroes contribute directly to the rise of far-right ideas and narratives in Croatia.
By not only condoning but also praising the crimes the Croatian forces committed against other ethnic groups, elites within the country are creating an environment in which more people feel comfortable voicing xenophobic, racist and hateful opinions.
This dangerous historic revisionism is not limited to the events that took place during the relatively recent Yugoslav Wars either. In Croatia, far-right elements are also attempting to revise the history of the second world war.
Downplaying the crimes of the Ustasa regime
The Ustasa, the fascist party that oversaw the Nazi-aligned Independent State of Croatia between 1941 and 1945, murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma as well as political dissidents in Yugoslavia during World War II. The party also oversaw the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp where, according to estimates by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 77,000 and 99,000 people were murdered.
The world remembers the Ustasa as an ultranationalist, violent, racist “terrorist” organisation that represents a dark era in Croat and European history. In modern Croatia, however, the brutality of the Ustasa regime’s actions has at times been downplayed by the media and prominent politicians, and the party is presented by many as a symbol of national might and pride.
The party’s salute, “Ready for [the] Homeland” (Za Dom Spremni) is still openly used among far-right nationalists. Holocaust denial, which comes hand in hand with the sanitisation of the Ustasa’s crimes against Croatia’s Jews, also seems to have become more permissible in the country.
Every May, thousands of far-right Croats gather in a field in southern Austria carrying Ustasa flags and insignia to commemorate the killing of thousands of Ustasas there by Yugoslav anti-fascists at the end of World War II. They claim, with tacit support from Croat politicians, that the annual event near the village of Bleiburg symbolises their suffering under communism in the former Yugoslavia before the country’s independence.
Ruza Tomasic, a conservative representative in the European Parliament from Croatia, for example, said in 2019 that the commemoration has nothing to do with extremism and that the massacre represents “a great tragedy”.
Normalisation of racism and xenophobia
These coddling attitudes towards the Ustasa regime, coupled with the narratives that undermine the crimes committed by Croat fighters during the Yugoslav wars, normalise racism and xenophobia.
Ultra-nationalism has become so accepted in Croatia that the country celebrated its 2018 FIFA World Cup success with a performance by a far-right singer, Marko Perkovic Thompson, at the Croatian capital Zagreb’s main square. He was invited to perform there directly by the football team and their coach.
Perkovic Thompson has repeatedly been accused of spouting nationalist propaganda and even has a song that opens with the line “Ready for the Homeland” in an apparent tribute to the Ustasa regime. His lyrics are replete with patriarchal imagery of the strong, genetically superior Croatian man, and often emphasise the unity between blood and church.
Perkovic Thompson’s concerts have been banned in several European countries, however, he continues to be treated as a “national treasure” by many in his home country, including former president Grabar-Kitarovic, who once said that his songs are “good for national unity”.
Today, Croatia is a crucible of hyper-nationalism. Some political elites in the country, including Grabar-Kitarovic, have not only failed to condemn far-right views, but also created an environment where far-right activists feel empowered to spread their divisive and dangerous ideas. The election of Milanovic as president, given the overwhelmingly right-leaning nature of his campaign, is unlikely to change the dangerous course the country is on.
To leave the politics of hate behind, Croatia needs to urgently renounce war criminals and bring an end to the rise of fascist nostalgia. It also needs to take immediate action to counter the normalisation of racist and xenophobic views among the population. The failure to do so could have appalling consequences not only for Croatia but the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.