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Croatia: Far Right Punishes Sanader

Spate of incidents linked to premier’s efforts to boost European Union membership prospects.
By Drago Hedl

Croatia’s attempts to distance itself from its Ustashe past and move towards European Union integration appear to have triggered a backlash from far-right elements within the country.


On January 9, an unidentified group erected a memorial to Jure Francetic and Mile Budak - notorious for their involvement in Croatia’s home-grown fascist movement, which seized power under Nazi auspices in 1941 and was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma - in the village of Solin, on the outskirts of Split.


A couple of days earlier, a large poster of fugitive war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina appeared in Kastel Stari, just outside the Dalmatian port. This followed the destruction of a statue of Yugoslavia’s communist leader Josip Broz Tito in his northern Croatian birthplace of Kumrovec, an act condemned by the authorities as “political and cultural vandalism”.


Analysts believe that right-wing extremists have carried out the acts to “punish” Prime Minister Ivo Sanader for what they see as his “betrayal” in removing statues of Francetic and Budak from a town in central Croatia.


Sanader’s centre-right government is due to begin negotiations for EU membership on March 17, and analysts believe that the decision to take down the statues was an attempt to dispel the belief that Zagreb condones displays of public sympathy for fascism or its symbols.


Just before Christmas, the authorities also moved to take down a large portrait of Gotovina which had hung in the centre of Zadar since the indictment against him was unsealed in 2001.


Police sources told IWPR that officers took the portrait down under cover of night, to avoid any clashes with the fugitive general’s supporters.


The issue of cooperation with the Hague tribunal - key to EU membership - has long been a difficult one for Croatian governments, which have come under pressure from nationalist elements and members of the public who see indictees as “war heroes” who should not face trial for their actions.


Political analyst Davor Gjenero said the extreme right’s alleged attention-seeking activities demonstrated the level of their anger against Sanader for his hostility towards the Ustashe era, and his cooperation with the tribunal.


“Indirectly, their messages are directed [towards Brussels] as well,” he said.


For Sanader, the goal of EU membership and its financial benefits must be balanced with the risk of offending right-wing factions of his Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party – many of whom side with extreme nationalists who oppose the tribunal.


One HDZ official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “His opponents in the party - most of whom sympathise with the actions of the radical right - criticise him for being too lenient with Brussels and for not taking enough care to protect national interests.”


The need to appease right-wing elements within his party has been cited as the reason why the authorities permitted a pro-Ustashe demonstration in Zadar last month, when Second World War veterans marched through the city carrying portraits of fascist leader Ante Pavelic.


This was in stark contrast to the reaction when a group of Serbian students unveiled a portrait of the Forties-era Serb Chetnik commander Draza Mihajlovic in the middle of Zagreb. Two of the students were jailed for 15 and five days respectively.


Analysts point out that, in spite of the high profile publicity stunts carried out in recent weeks, the far right is yet to capture a sizeable political constituency.


In Croatia’s recent presidential election, anti-European and anti-Hague candidates Ivic Pasalic, Ljubo Cesic Rojs and Tomislav Petrak won less than two per cent of the vote each.


Pasalic, a former adviser to the late president Franjo Tudjman, who now leads the small Croatian Block party, told IWPR that his party and the right-wing movement in general had nothing to do with the vandalism.


“[It has been] organised by provocateurs - the leftovers of the old Yugoslav military secret service or state security - who are now trying to portray right-wing parties as being as anti-EU,” he said.


But Andjelko Milardovic, head of Zagreb’s Centre for Political Research, said, “This is a conflict of two concepts – the pro-European option led by Sanader’s government and the radical populist right, which opposes it.


“The same has happened in other transition countries such as Slovakia but in Croatia it has a more radical form.”


Milardovic added that as matters stand, the radical right was failing to make much political headway.


“The fact that more than half of the population supports the country’s [bid for EU] membership suggests that the radical nationalists will not be able to obstruct that path,” he said.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek


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