Croatia cannot hope to enter European mainstream unless the government overcomes its ambivalence towards the extreme right.


Croatia cannot hope to enter European mainstream unless the government overcomes its ambivalence towards the extreme right.

Saturday, 2 March, 2002

Croatia: Ustasha Legacy Alive and Kicking

The censoring of a documentary featuring eye-witness accounts from victims of the Second World War Ustasha regime in Croatia, has led to charges that the government will go to any lengths not to upset the far right.

The popular political strand "Latinica" had scheduled a programme on the issue of whether Croatia should outlaw the use of Ustasha and Nazi symbols. Two hours before the programme was due to air on February 18, programme makers were told it was to be pulled and replaced by a film.

The order to censor Latinica came directly from Jasna Ulaga-Valic, editor-in-chief of Croatian state television, HTV, on the basis that the Croatian government, army, defence ministry or any other individual could legitimately sue HTV over the contents of the programme. "I've taken this decision with a heavy heart," she said. "However, as the director of programmes, I chose not to expose the audience to rash or thoughtless viewpoints or to run the risk of possible legal charges."

The most "contentious" element of the programme concerned the parallels it drew between the 1940s and 1990s. The Ustasha movement, headed by Ante Pavelic, established an independent Croatian state in 1941- in practice, a brutal client state of Nazi Germany. Bjanka Auslender, a Sarajevo-born Jewish woman, told how 41 out of 44 of her family members had perished at the hands of the Ustashas. While Auslender described her deportation to a concentration camp in Djakovo, images of Bosnian Muslims being deported to a camp outside Mostar during the 1990s flashed across the screen.

The Mostar camp had been set up by leaders of the self-proclaimed government of Herceg Bosna, a rogue Croatian mini-state in Bosnia which enjoyed the financial and military backing of then Croatian president Dr Franjo Tudjman. The Latinica feature concluded with reporter Elizabeta Penic observing that 50 years after the slaughter of Jews by the Ustasha, "Tudjman's notorious regime again sought to address the issue of minorities with the use of concentration camps".

Vesna Ulaga-Valic insists that prior to deciding to take the programme off the air, she sought to discuss the report with the presenter and editor of Latinica, Denis Latin. As the invitation was made only two hours before the programme was due to be broadcast and Ulaga-Valic had not previously requested any changes to the report, Latin refused.

Known for his courageous stance on taboo subjects such as Croatian war crimes committed during the Fatherland War, as Croatia's war of independence in the early 1990s is known, Latin was declared Journalist of the Year in 2001 by the Croatian Journalists Association.

It seems highly unlikely that the Croatian government, the army, or the defence ministry would have sued HTV over the content of the Latinica report, if only because Prime Minister Ivica Racan's government has been so eager to show the international community that it is different from the Tudjman regime and respects the freedom of the press. Had the show been broadcast, however, the Racan government would undoubtedly have penalised the editor-in-chief, probably by removing her from office.

For her part, Ulaga-Valic was probably aware that it would not be in the government's interest to ignore the controversial feature, so she banned the show in order to protect her own position. The Ustasha legacy is still potent in parts of Croatian society and the extreme right would have used such a "provocation" to mobilise its many followers against the authorities. The Croatian authorities appear not to feel strong enough to sustain whatever blow they might receive from the right.

Under Franjo Tudjman, the extreme right were not only tolerated, their views were even sometimes reflected by the president himself, whose earlier notorious comment that he was fortunate not to be married to a Jew or a Serb damaged Croatia's reputation abroad and also instilled fear among many citizens. When the Racan government came to power in early 2000, many expected that the new authorities would make a radical break with Tudjman's regime and ban the use of Ustasha and Nazi insignia and symbols.

On the contrary, there are regular neo-fascist incidents and events in Croatia today, ranging from the raising of a monument in Slunj dedicated to Ustasha war criminal Jure Francetic in June 2000, to the mining of a monument to the victims of fascism in Zagreb's main Mirogoj cemetery in February 2001. Such incidents take place unimpeded, with the perpetrators never identified or brought to justice.

This explains not only why a large part of the public believes that a law prohibiting the use of Ustasha and Nazi symbols and the promotion of fascism is necessary, but also why such a legislation has little chance of being adopted by parliament any time soon.

If the authorities do not overcome their ambivalence towards the extreme right, critics warn, Croatia cannot hope to enter the European mainstream. One of the six parties in the ruling coalition has already left in protest at the government's reluctance to grapple with the legacy of the Tudjman era. Parliamentary deputy, Damir Kajin, of the Istrian Democratic Alliance, summed up the frustration of many. "With censored television shows, Croatia stands little chance of waving goodbye to its OSCE observers, let alone joining the European Union," he said.

Drago Hedl is IWPR's project editor in Croatia

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