Croatia’s Far Right Weaponizes the Past

Croatia’s Far Right Weaponizes the Past

The European Union’s newest member, Croatia, has an unabashed and strong-willed fascist in its new cabinet — one who makes the right-wingers in power in Hungary and Poland look like wimps. The contested figure is Zlatko Hasanbegovic, a 42-year-old historian who became culture minister in late January after the country’s latest election produced a new right-wing ruling coalition.

Hasanbegovic had been a prominent figure in a small ultra-rightist party that openly extols the fascist World War II-era Ustashe movement (He left the party and is now unaffiliated, though he has never renounced it). As a historian, his work focuses on downplaying the crimes of the Ustashe and cautiously rehabilitating its ideas. Unlike the right-wingers in Poland and Hungary who are eviscerating their states’ democratic structures, the Croatian nationalists are waging their war within the realm of political culture — for now. Their goal is to lay the groundwork for an eventual assault on the country’s liberal democracy. 

Hasanbegovic’s appointment in the new government — a gesture to the country’s powerful far-right forces — provoked protests and sharp criticism, not least from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a prominent Jewish human-rights organization. But since taking office, Hasanbegovic has done nothing to blunt his radicalism, cutting funds for progressive groups and independent media and endorsing a revisionist documentary film that denies the scale of the crimes committed by Croatia during its alliance with Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

The “culture war” that Hasanbegovic is waging on behalf of Croat ultra-nationalists is steeped in the bloody history of the Balkans — but has disturbing implications today. The Ustashe movement that he champions came to power in the spring of 1941, declaring an independent Croatia just as the Nazis invaded and dismembered the multiethnic kingdom of Yugoslavia of which it had been a part. The Catholic fascists led a short-lived state that was essentially a puppet of the Third Reich, yet they went about the business of murdering Jews, Serbs, and Roma (Gypsies) so cruelly that they prompted objections from even the German SS. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the total number of those murdered by the regime was 377,000 to 397,000. Most were Serbs, though the figure also includes the majority of the 40,000 Jews on Croatian territory. More than a quarter of these victims perished in the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp in central Croatia. (The photo depicts soldiers of the Black Legion, an Ustase infantry unit active during World War II.)

In 1991, Croatia declared its independence from a collapsing socialist Yugoslavia, marking the first time since the Ustashe’s defeat in 1945 that Croats could claim their own state. But today’s Croatia is smaller than the World War II-era version, as it does not include all of neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nationalist radicals, including many from the North American diaspora, backed Croatia’s annexation of large swaths of Bosnian territory once war broke out in 1992. 

Hasanbegovic belonged to those radical circles as a young man, and at the time even wore the cap and insignia of the Ustashe, which was documented in a photograph printed this year in a Croatian weekly. Yet in contrast with the more moderate nationalists who merely wanted to slice off a chunk of Bosnia, Hasanbegovic and his cronies demanded all of it, just as the Ustashe had. They justified this by arguing that Bosnia’s Muslims were actually Croats, too, but Croats of Islamic faith. Hasanbegovic himself is a Muslim, his parents originally from Bosnia. As such, ironically, he is the only minority member in the current Croatian government, and a Muslim in a nation whose national conservatism is closely aligned with the powerful Catholic Church.

Thankfully, Croatia was thwarted from carving up Bosnia during the ethnic wars of the 1990s, but its far right lived on in a country where many were receptive to its message. The mainstream nationalist party is the Croatian National Community, or HDZ, founded by independent Croatia’s first president and hero, Franjo Tudman, who died in 1999 (before he could be indicted for war crimes by a U.N. tribunal).

After a period of moderation in the early 2000s, the HDZ swerved sharply to the right again, bringing many of the extremist national splinter parties under its wing, including Hasanbegovic’s former party. The ranks of the far right in Croatia are so well stocked that it can bring 5,000 supporters onto the streets of the capital city of Zagreb, as it did in January, some of them chanting the slogan “For the Homeland Ready,” the Ustashe version of the Nazis’ Sieg Heil. 

“The HDZ was completely out of ideas and constructive policies, so it took in figures like Hasanbegovic as part of an ideological offensive,” Croatian philosopher Zarko Puhovski said. This offensive appears to have succeeded, with the HDZ winning the October 2015 election, though, lacking a majority, it had to form a coalition government with a small moderate party. “Hasanbegovic was chosen as culture minister by the HDZ,” Puhovski said, “to give the illusion that the party could make a difference in Croatia without having any real policies to, for example, fix the economy.”

“They have no vision of the future,” said Croatian journalist Jerko Bakotin, referring to the HDZ and extremists such as Hasanbegovic, “just of the past. A very, very dark past.” But unlike many other Croatian politicians, Bakotin argued, Hasanbegovic is “a true ideologue.”

“He’s not interested in getting his hands on the money,” he says, referring to the corruption rife in Croatian politics. “He believes deeply in his mission.”

Once in office, Hasanbegovic has wasted no time restoring nationalist culture to prominence. His culture ministry has deprived small, independent media and civil society groups of state funding. In public television, critical voices have been pushed out, and many programs given starkly nationalist slants. One independent journalist and author, Ante Tomic, was physically assaulted at a literary festival in the southern port city of Split. Though the culture ministry condemned the violence, Hasanbegovic warned the reporter than he’d do better to moderate his tone in the future to make such attacks less likely. “We find it disturbing that a government minister publicly justifies violence against a journalist,” said Aude Rossigneux of Reporters Without Borders, an NGO that monitors press freedom.

This was a prelude to the minster’s recent praise of Jasenovac: The Truth, a TV documentary produced by a political ally, Jakov Sedlar, about the World War II concentration camp. The pro-Ustashe film claimed that “only” “over 20,00 to 40,000 victims” perished in Jasenovac, instead of the 100,000 claimed by mainstream historians. This claim enables extremists like Hasanbegovic and Sedlar to argue that Jasenovac was not a “death camp,” but an ordinary concentration camp in which some prisoners died. Hasanbegovic, who attended the film’s debut with other cabinet members, commented afterward: “Such films are useful because they speak about a number of taboo topics. This is the best way to finally shed light on a number of controversial places in Croatian history.”

“This is a major and well-planned project that is turning the most basic truths about the Second World War on their head,” opined the leftist newspaper Novisti.

In response, Croatia’s Jewish and Serbian organizations said they will not attend the commemorations at the Jasenovac memorial this spring. (Before he came to office, Hasanbegovic said he favored canceling the commemorations altogether.) Moreover, Croatia’s Serb minority, about 4 percent of the population, is complaining about harassment on the streets as bad as that during the wars of the 1990s.

While deeply concerned about Croatia’s rightward drift, some observers say the Croatian right won’t be able to assert its power over the entire state the way Prime Minister Viktor Orban has in Hungary. “The right and the far right together in Hungary account for well over three-quarters of the voters,” said Nenad Zakosek of the Zagreb office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German NGO. “Here society is split. There’s no mandate to go that far.”

Moreover, there has been no indication that Croatia is willing to take up arms again in Bosnia in the name of the Bosnian Croats. But the far right — extremists such as Hasanbegovic and his ilk — has never given up this dream of a greater Croatia, and claims that it never will. For now, the new government in Zagreb is flexing its muscles in the region by blocking the path of its old foe Serbia into the EU. On April 7, Croatia refused to endorse the EU’s otherwise unanimous recommendation to open talks with Serbia on reform of the judiciary and human rights, a crucial step on the path toward Serbia’s eventual membership.

Progressive forces will have to fight back, Zakosek says. “In the past we thought [there would] be a steady progression to an ever more democratic, modern society, and during the EU accession period there was this progress. But now there’s regression, and the EU can’t do much about it now that Croatia is a member of the EU. It’s lost its leverage.”

The Croatian right may not have the clout, for now, to follow in the footsteps of Hungary and Poland as it might like to. That’s why the culture war of Hasanbegovic and the far right is all the more foreboding. They’re preparing the ground for the future.

Photo credit: Unknown Croatian military photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

Correction, May 7, 2016: Croatia’s Serb minority is now about 4 percent of the population, not 12 percent, as the article originally stated. The 12 percent figure is based on a pre-war 1991 census.