On Friday, Croatia commemorated Victory Day with nationalist fervor. Visitors to Europe's Adriatic playground are increasingly confronted by the radical right-wing symbols that have become a part of everyday life.
Croatia, "full of life" as posters advertise, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually for Adriatic Sea sun and fun. The fact that most tourists cannot speak Croatian is not a problem: Waiters and shop assistants generally speak English or German.
In fact, a lack of language skills might be an advantage for tourists seeking carefree relaxation. That would make much of the graffiti on the streets indecipherable so as not to interfere with the otherwise idyllic atmosphere. "Serbs should hang" is a common tag, as is "Death to the Serbs." Frequently there's just the big U of the fascist World War II Ustasha regime or the associated battle cry of "Za dom spremni" (ready for the homeland). But not speaking Croatian won't shield tourists from all of the swastikas that greet them on their way to the beach or to romantic dinners.
This ugly side of paradise is most visible around August 4 and 5, when the country celebrates the anniversary of the 1995 Oluja (Storm) military operation and Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders. During the Oluja, the Croatian army captured Serb-controlled areas within a matter of days. A large number of Serb civilians were murdered during the operation, which also forced an estimated 200,000 Serbs out of Croatia. Each year, the event, which is seen as the official symbol of Croatian liberation, is commemorated in the tiny city of Knin, accompanied by nationalistic fervor and demonstrations of military might - it makes for a good opportunity for neo-Ustashe to show themselves.
Physical violence rarely occurs on the streets, but nationalist rhetoric and overtly neofascist symbols are everywhere. "Right-wing extremist iconography is part of everyday life in Croatia," said Boris Raseta, a publicist and political analyst from Zagreb. "Even 20 years after the war, Croatia is living in an atmosphere dominated by wartime rhetoric," he added. "Independent Croatia grew out of a right-wing political movement. And patriotic rhetoric is still the measure of all things here."
'About 5 percent'
Croatia's problem is that the right-wing minority is emboldened, the Zagreb political scientist Zarko Puhovski said. "As in other European countries, only about 5 percent of voters openly defend right-wing positions," Puhovski said. But Croatian politicians show no desire to put extremists in their place.
President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, for instance, publicly appears with known right-wing leaders and even accused war criminals, and she occasionally goes off on hate-filled tirades in TV interviews. She only distances herself from extremists when foreign pressure leaves her no other option. Then there's Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic, who participated in the August 1 dedication of a monument to Miro Baresic (pictured), a terrorist killed in the war with Serbia, and allowed himself to be photographed with people bearing neofascist symbols. In general, politicians do not even leave soccer matches or cancel events when crowds begin chanting right-wing slogans.
Many top politicians are even proud to declare themselves fans of the controversial singer Marko Perkovic, whose band name, Thompson, references the machine gun he used against Serb fighters during the breakup of Yugoslavia. He has repeatedly made headlines by flirting with neofascism, which has led to a number of his concerts being canceled in countries such as Germany. He often starts those concerts with that old Ustasha cry "Ready for the homeland."
A preferable narrative
During World War II, the Ustasha regime collaborated with Nazi Germany to abuse Serbs, Jews and communists and even erected concentration camps; now, that government is portrayed as the "patriotic defender of Croatian interests in difficult times." This revisionism began with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the founding of an independent state in the early 1990s, when the government of President Franjo Tudman attempted to rehabilitate the country's fascist past. Even then, though, such efforts were never as open and aggressive as they are today. And now, with Hasanbegovic heading the Culture Ministry, a self-declared radical revisionist has for the first time made it to the highest levels of government.
Puhovski, the political scientist, believes that revisionists and extremists draw the bulk of their support from the less-wealthy and less-educated population. "They say: 'They may go a bit too far, but they are our boys, and they are thinking in our direction,'" Puhovski said. If that is the case, then right-wing extremism has become a cultural norm. The neo-Ustashe have become socially acceptable.
The political analyst Boris Raseta isn't quite ready to call the moment fascist. "One should be careful about using such terms," Raseta said. Fascist gangs are not yet patrolling the streets of Croatian cities, he said, and people are not yet being beaten up. "If things get that far, which is conceivable in this heated atmosphere, then we will have need of such terms," he said.