Croatia: Right Lose Influence

Right-wing nationalists in Croatia fail to capitalise on the government's dismal economic performance

Croatia: Right Lose Influence

Right-wing nationalists in Croatia fail to capitalise on the government's dismal economic performance

Wednesday, 14 November, 2001

After months of rallies and hostile demonstrations, the forces of the Right in Croatia still lack a strategy and an ideology that will enable them to recapture power from the left-of-centre coalition that defeated former president Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, in the 2000 elections.

The most recent protest was held on October 20 in the centre of Zagreb. It followed the Right's failure to muster a million-strong rally in Split in August, which was cancelled at the last minute when it became clear the expected crowds would not materialise.

The Zagreb rally was all too typical of these events. Poorly attended, it was marked by a mixture of bluster and threats aimed at the President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan.

One of the speakers, Mirko Condic, leader of the Headquarters for the Protection of the Dignity of the Homeland War, a war veterans' group, said, "When we get power, we will put Mesic and Racan on trial."

The problem for the Right is that there is no sign of such a transfer of power taking place in the near future, in spite of the government's failure to tackle Croatia's glaring economic problems.

The Right has adopted a few core issues in its campaign to unseat the Mesic-Racan government. These are opposition to cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, defence of the status of war veterans' groups and absolute support for the record of the independence struggle against the Yugoslav army from 1991 to 1995, known as the Homeland War.

The nationalist Right - like its Serbian counterpart - views cooperation with the tribunal as treasonous. They bitterly oppose any moves to examine Croatia's own war record and fiercely deny the legitimacy of attempts to charge Croats with war crimes in domestic courts.

In fact, the Racan government's cooperation with The Hague tribunal is patchy, and in the interests of preserving public order, the authorities allowed one accused general, Ante Gotovina, to disappear after his indictment was made public in July.

The issue of veterans' associations is another stick the Right has taken up to beat the government. The Racan administration has cut ex-soldiers' pensions by an average of 20 per cent since it took power at the start of last year, amid reports that some were receiving more than five times the average monthly salary of 1,000 German marks.

The Right strongly takes their side, and they and the war veterans are locked into a defensive alliance with each other. Increasingly sidelined by Racan's government, ex-soldiers have turned to the HDZ and other right-wing factions as their only hope of recovering the standards they grew accustomed to in the Tudjman era.

The main man behind the Right's strategy of concentrating on The Hague tribunal and the war veterans is Ivic Pasalic. This hawkish member of the HDZ was a close confidante of President Tudjman. Pasalic is also a discreet sponsor of other right-wing pressure groups, such as the recently-founded Croatia True Revival party, HIP.

Another key figure is Tudjman's son, Miroslav, who surprised observers when he won 7 per cent of the vote in the May elections for the Zagreb city assembly.

While attacks on Hague judges are often popular, it is questionable whether opposition to the tribunal and defence of the Homeland War will be enough in themselves to propel the Right back into office.

One of the Right's problems is the lack of a coherent, disciplined organisation. Without Tudjman's strong hand, the HDZ has developed into a collection of factions, which is prone to splits.

When Mate Granic, the former foreign minister and a key player in the moderate wing of the HDZ, lost the presidential race to Mesic, he simply left and founded his own party, the Democratic Center.

Apart from structural problems, the HDZ lacks a clear ideology. It is still groping to find a right-wing programme that will suit circumstances in Croatia, a country with little historic tradition of democratic conservatism.

At the moment, it offers insults and threats but few new ideas beyond raw nationalism. Such a programme, which offers nothing to Croatia's 23 national minorities, is not enough to regain power.

Although local elections in May 2001 revealed a right-wing shift, this was largely due to voters abstaining rather than an actual shift in this direction. There is still no sign that this will translate into victory for the Right when Croatia next goes to the polls.

Finally, the parliamentary Right is tarred by association in the public mind with the violent actions of neo-fascist groups, such as the recent skinheads' attack on a Liberal youth club in Zagreb.

Such actions, aimed at intimidating people and creating a climate of fear, do not translate into votes. The fact that this attack took place on the day President Mesic was visiting Israel and apologising to the Knesset for the crimes of the Croatian fascist Ustashe in the Second World War was especially ironic.

The government has its own weak points. Its handling of public relations remains poor. Racan, head of the Social Democrats, shows scant respect for the opinions of the four other parties in the coalition.

Instead of activating his reformist partners and allowing them to help the government, he devotes more energy to trying to control them and exact promises of unconditional obedience.

But the Right's ideological and structural weaknesses are more serious than those of the government. As a result, the Racan government still has time to work on the fundamental reforms Croatia needs to rescue its economy before it faces a serious electoral challenge.

Andrea Feldman is an historian and the international secretary of the Liberal Party in Croatia.

Israel, Croatia
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