COMMENT: Croatia’s disconcerting turn

COMMENT: Croatia’s disconcerting turn
"Did one of your ministers just give me a Nazi salute?"
By Alex Young in Belgrade May 10, 2016

When Prince Charles visited the Balkans in mid-March, there appeared a much shared internet meme of him alongside Croatia’s new prime minister, Tihomir Oreskovic. In the image, the prince, raising his glass of plum brandy, turns to Oreskovic and enquires how one says cheers in Croatian. “No idea” was the response from Canadian-educated Oreskovic, who is believed to have spent only two years of his life in Croatia. Fluency of the mother tongue is usually a prerequisite for holding high office, but not in the case of the EU’s newest member state.

Thrust upon Croatia by its governing coalition, Oreskovic apparently first met many of ‘his’ ministers when chairing his inaugural cabinet meeting. A compromise candidate, Oreskovic was installed upon the insistence of the newly-formed Bridge of Independent Lists (Most), who refused to back the Croatian Democratic Union’s (HDZ) Tomislav Karamarko. Once Croatia’s interior minister and a former head of its intelligence services, Karamarko was heavily bruised by his Patriotic Coalition’s failure to capitalise on deep-seated dissatisfaction with the incumbent government during the 2015 general election. Many even called into question Karamarko’s leadership of the HDZ.

The uneasy relations of Karamarko, the first deputy prime minister, with both PM Oreskovic and Most’s leader, Bozo Petrov, the second deputy prime minister, weigh heavily upon the current ruling coalition. With Karamarko stamping his authority on the country’s political narratives, there are fears that Oreskovic lacks the necessary legitimacy or standing to stem Croatia’s rightward turn. And as nationalist panderings grow, so there is a sense that the HDZ and Karamarko (who has long professed a desire to rule in the manner of wartime president, Franjo Tudjman) will be the ones to ultimately benefit electorally.

Croatia’s culture minister, Zlatan Hasanbegovic – once a member of the Croatian Liberation Movement, founded by Croatia’s World War II fascist dictator, Ante Pavelic – has courted the most criticism and controversy. Already widely renowned for his anti-semitic views prior to his appointment by the HDZ, his revisionism of the World War II Ustasha regime’s genocidal crimes, particularly those committed at the Jasenovac concentration camp, has attracted criticism from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Several organizations representing Jews, Serbs and anti-fascists subsequently boycotted the official Jasenovac commemoration and organized an alternative gathering at the Victims of Fascism Square in Zagreb.

Hasanbegovic has also been blamed for the country’s deteriorating media situation, which prompted some 200 journalists and activists to protest outside the Ministry of Culture on World Press Freedom Day. State funding for non-profit media has been slashed. Journalist Sasa Kosanovic was fired from Croatian Radio Television (HRT) for his involvement in a documentary about alleged war crimes during Croatia’s Operation Storm in 1995 (which led to the expulsion of most of the country’s remaining Serbs). The former head of HRT, meanwhile, was replaced in March by a candidate favoured by the government, with some 70 other removals of HRT staff having since followed. Such politicization of the media space has begun to attract international criticism and concern.  

Hasanbegovic is not the only politician promulgating a vision of Croatia grounded in denials of its past. The former minister for veteran affairs, Mijo Crnoja – forced to resign in January following various fraud allegations – proposed the creation of a “register of traitors”, listing those who’d betrayed the country during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. The idea was mocked by Croatian art collective SKROZ (‘Totally’), who created a parallel register to which thousands added their names. 

Neighbourly relations

This new “old politics” has heavily impacted on Croatia’s neighbourly relations. It continues to frustrate Serbia’s efforts to open negotiations on Chapter 23 of the EU acquis on spurious grounds. Meanwhile, ructions related to the refugee crisis led to Serbia reciprocating a Croatian ban on the entry of cargo traffic. Croatia’s minority Serb population is enduring increased tensions associated with the use of the Cyrillic script in the town of Vukovar in the east – tensions which have only been heightened since the acquittal by The Hague Tribunal on war crimes charges (including Croatia-specific indictments) of Serbia’s Vojislav Seselj (leader of the far-right Serbian Radical Party).

Whilst optimists hope that Croatia’s positive growth figures can limit the influence of such retrograde tendencies, a lack of fundamental reform (especially to its public administration and local government) leaves the country vulnerable to a HDZ-oriented nationalistic shift. This is especially so now that the country’s EU membership has freed it from the shackles of the EU accession process. No longer does the country have to demonstrate good behaviour in order to join the club. Inequality is rising and the country’s population is dwindling. The Catholic Church has returned to prominence, lobbying for the Croatian Nazi supporter, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, to be canonized.

Croatia is the latest EU member state to shift to the right, becoming in the process the likeliest candidate to imitate the illiberal democratic means of its counterparts in Hungary and Poland. Legitimation of the likes of Hasanbegovic and Crnoja is a firm slap in the face of the very European values to which Croatia only recently subscribed. The tensions emerging within the Croatian government will surely result in a government or coalition reshuffle, if not even new elections. And in a context of rising nationalist sentiment, a Karamarko-led HDZ will be well-placed to capitalise.

Whilst technocrats such as Prime Minister Oreskovic may reassure the markets, they’ll do little to reassure those concerned by Croatia’s deteriorating political dynamics and culture.