Croatia: Ustasa Symbols Ban

Questions raised over government plans to crackdown on those who glory in the country's fascist past.

Croatia: Ustasa Symbols Ban

Questions raised over government plans to crackdown on those who glory in the country's fascist past.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Moves by Ivica Racan's centre-left government to outlaw iconography glorifying Croatia's Second World War fascists are seen in many quarters as a cynical attempt to smooth Croatia's passage into the European Union

Draft laws will soon be presented to the Croatian parliament forbidding the display of symbols of the Ustasa, the pro-Nazi movement that governed Croatia under Axis protection from 1941 to 1945.

The proposed legislation is being presented as an attempt to combat a growing trend towards the public display of symbols and iconography lauding the bloodthirsty Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, NDH, and its dictator, or Poglavnik, Ante Pavelic.

But if the bill becomes law, analysts believe that the authorities are unlikely to enforce it, as this would lead to an open conflict with the radical right. The government's fear of such a clash has been very evident over its reluctance to extradite indicted Croatian army general Janko Bobetko whom nationalists consider a war hero.

Recent years have seen monuments and statues put up to celebrate the lives of Ustasa military commanders and the publication of pictures of Pavelic taking the Nazi salute. Ustasa songs are once more heard in sports stadiums and at pop concerts while market stalls sell a plethora of Ustasa T-shirts, badges, cigarette lighters and other NDH "souvenirs".

Such behaviour is to be outlawed by the proposed legislation - nicknamed the "law on de-Ustasa-ization" - which bans all acts or sale of merchandise "celebrating former fascist states or organisations".

Offenders caught publicly displaying "flags, badges, clothes, slogans, ways of salutation and other insignia of former fascist states" will be liable to the payment of fines and in more serious cases to jail terms of up to three years.

But even before the discussion has begun in parliament, the proposal has ignited a public furore, drawing criticism from legal specialists and right-wing politicians.

The former say it will be hard to put it into practice: that it will be virtually impossible to punish the hundreds of youngsters who turn up at pop concerts in black T-shirts decorated with the Ustasa "U" sign, let alone the thousands of football fans who sing Ustasa songs in the stands; and that attempts to prosecute offenders could trigger public demonstrations in support of Ustasa ideology.

Hard line right-wingers, meanwhile, have predictably countered with a demand for similar penalties for the display of Partisan and Communist symbols, such as the five-pointed star, the hammer-and-sickle and the singing of anti-fascist songs.

"These complaints are ridiculous," a well-known Zagreb intellectual, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR. "No one today in Croatia publicly displays the five-pointed star or the hammer-and-sickle, whereas there is a real flood of Ustasa symbols."

The centre-left government of prime minister Ivica Racan says the proposed law is based on the preamble to the Croatian constitution, which condemns the former NDH, and also mirrors the German penal code, which outlaws pro-Nazi demonstrations.

It says it was a response to appeals from human rights groups, various intellectual forums and independent media groups critical of the "re-Ustasa-ization" of Croatia under the government of former president Franjo Tudjman.

Tudjman's own position was, in fact, ambivalent. Though he fought against the NDH as a young man, as president he sometimes defended its legitimacy, describing Pavelic's Croatia as "not just a quisling creation, but also an expression of the centuries-old desire of the Croatian people for their own state".

Mirjana Kasapovic, professor of political sciences at the University of Zagreb, said the Communists vainly attempted to "de-Ustasa-ise" Croatia after the Second World War, attributing their failure to the fact that they merely replaced one undemocratic regime with another.

Analysts say the proposed legislation is little more than a cynical attempt by ministers to bolster their bid for European Union membership, as there's little evidence that they're prepared to take on the country's resurgent right-wingers.

Drago Hedl is a regular Osijek-based IWPR contributor.

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