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21 May 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 2:38pm

Make Croatia great again: how fascism emerged in the EU’s youngest state

In the Croatian heartlands, economic decline has combined with fears over migration from the Middle East.

By Joji Sakurai

On 14 May, thousands of Croatians gathered in a field in southern Austria to observe a Catholic mass held to honour fascist soldiers killed at the end of the Second World War. Black flags rippled in the breeze, bearing the salute “For the homeland, ready!” associated with the Ustashe regime – a Nazi puppet state that sent tens of thousands of Jews, Gypsies and Serbs to be executed in the death camps.

Among the VIPs in the ceremonial front row sat Branimir Glavaš, a convicted war criminal from the 1990s Balkan conflict. A short distance away was Zlatko Hasanbegovic, Croatia’s new culture minister, and near him Tomislav Karamarko, leader of the right-wing Patriotic Coalition that came to power in January this year.

The attendance of senior government figures at an event that has long been a rallying point for pro-Nazi Croatians is one of the starkest indications yet that the European Union’s newest member state has lurched dangerously to the right. The shift follows similar moves towards right-wing authoritarianism across eastern Europe, as in Poland and Hungary. In the latter, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has drawn condemnation from the UN for his hard-line anti-migrant stance, deemed necessary, he has said, “to
keep Europe Christian”.

In Warsaw, Jarosław Kaczynski, the arch-conservative leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, seems to have adopted Orbán as a role model in his efforts to wrest control from the country’s democratic institutions. Across the EU’s youngest member states, it seems, the far-right has returned to the mainstream.

Zlatko Hasanbegovic is an unreformed Ustashe revisionist. During an interview on public television last year he said that anti-fascism was “a platitude” that had “no basis in the constitution”. Aside from a few intellectuals and activists, Croats seemed not to care. Hasanbegovic has led a crackdown on the independent press, stripping public funding from non-profit media and drawing accusations of “political cleansing” after the removal of dozens of journalists from state-run TV.

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“Democracy? We don’t have it, actually,” says Saša Lekovic, president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association, when we meet in his office off Marshal Tito Square in the nation’s capital, Zagreb. “Officially, of course, we have a parliamentary system. But we’re approaching the same level as Poland and Hungary . . . What you’re seeing is a trend.”

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Zagreb – in contrast to the country’s popular beach paradises – is a city of crumbling facades, rusting balconies and aggrieved graffiti. Economic decline following the EU accession in 2013 has provided fertile ground for the rise of nationalist conservatism. Only last year did the economy emerge from a six-year recession. Unemployment stands at 17.5 per cent, with youth unemployment at 40 per cent. Public debt is 87 per cent of GDP and continues to grow. The migrant crisis, which has forced large numbers of Syrian refugees to cross Croatia since 2014, has hardened entrenched nationalist tendencies.

Right-wing sentiment is strongest in Croatia’s rural hinterlands, still scarred by the Balkan wars. But almost equally troublesome is a prevailing apathy among the country’s young urban elite. Asked what they thought of having a fascist sympathiser in government, most people I spoke to in Zagreb simply shrugged: an indifference that springs from their sense that it makes little difference who is in power. Left and right are united in kleptocracy.

Thirty-eight year old Thomir Durkan arrives at Zagreb’s Café Godot at 11am to drink beer and chain-smoke. “Unemployed,” he tells me, when asked what he does for a living. I ask what he’d like to do if he had a job. “Actually, I own a company,” he says, with a bitter grin. “Interior design. But there’s no work . . . So, I’m unemployed.”

Around the corner at Zagreb University, 24-year-old Katerina, an English student, tells me about her vision of the good life. “I just want to have a steady pay cheque,” she says. “A place to live. Bills paid. Something like that. Just the basics. I’d like to live without thinking whether I’ll have enough money to pay my bills or buy food tomorrow.”

In the Croatian heartlands, economic decline has combined with fears over migration from the Middle East, especially among the legions of Balkan war veterans who form the support base for the country’s new leadership. Many of these people remain consumed by the blood feuds of the Balkan wars and look back nostalgically to the Ustashe era as a time of simple pride and territorial integrity, before the damage wrought by communism. Croatia, like Poland and Hungary, has had only 25 years of democracy and authoritarian dynamics can seem reliable in troubled times.

“These authoritarian personalities emerge out of a crisis, offering a promise to overcome it,” says Gvozden Flego, a professor of social philosophy at Zagreb University. “‘If you follow me, things will be better,’ they say.”

Mirogoj cemetery, on the outskirts of Zagreb, is an arcaded 19th-century necropolis where fresh bouquets rest on pristine plots. It seems worlds away from the capital’s rotting buildings. In Croatia, it seems, people care more for the dead than the living.

And yet there are painful memories here: in the monument to the hundreds of Serbian children who died in an Ustashe concentration camp, for example, or the “Wall of Pain”, a memorial to Croats, both soldiers and civilians, killed in conflict with the Serbs.

There is also hope. Mirogoj is a place where people of all faiths and ethnicities are buried: Christians, Jews, Gypsies and Muslims. And Flego emphasises that – even as Croatia’s government stirs up wartime enmity – every side in the region’s conflicts nurses its tragedies. “Every victim is a victim,” he says. “We must have sorrow for everyone.”

“This is the real tragedy of the present moment,” he says. “We are turning our heads to the past, when we should be focusing on a better future.” 

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This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster