Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zagreb Race Hate Trial

The Croatian government attempts to stem a growing tide of racial hatred.
By IWPR

In a landmark court case in Croatia, a townhall official has been put on trial for spreading racial hatred against the country's minority Serb population.


Gordana Dumbovic, deputy mayor of Petrinja, about 50 km south of the capital, Zagreb, is accused of using racially inflammatory vocabulary during the local election campaign in May.


The schoolteacher and member of the far-right Croatian Party of Rights is alleged to have said Serb returnees were "neither human nor even animals, as animals don't deserve to be compared to them".


When Franjo Tudjman and his right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, was in power, such remarks were more likely to result in promotion than prosecution.


The issue of the Serb returnees remains a top topic in Croatia. From the start of the conflict in the former Yugoslav republic in 1991 between pro-independence forces and the Yugoslav army, and the conclusion of hostilities in 1995, some 300-350,000 Serbs left the country, of whom about 80,000 have subsequently returned.


As the struggle intensified against both the Yugoslav army and paramilitary Serbian groups, extreme, hate-filled language against the Serb minority became increasingly common. In some quarters, it almost became an official ideology.


One prominent HDZ official, Sime Djodan, acting as Tudjman's envoy at the traditional Dalmatian folk tournament known as the Sinjska Alka in 1991, suggested Serbs had pointed heads, implying that their brains were small.


Three years later, at the same festival, the then minister of defence, Gojko Susak, greeted the crowds with the same Fascist salute used by the Croatia's pro-Nazi Ustashe rulers during the Second World War.


Susak cracked a joke about the exodus of more than 200,000 Serbs in 1995, following Operation "Storm", which broke the back of the Serb revolt in the republic. "Our fathers," he said, referring in familiar fashion to the Ustasha officials who persecuted the Serbs living in Croatia in the 1940s, "urged them to go and they did not want to go. Now we told them to stay and they left."


In fact, several hundred Serbs did stay, of whom some 600 were killed after the Croats re-entered the territories which from 1991-5 had been under Serb control.


Even then, Croatian legislation provided for legal sanctions against those who disseminated racial hatred. But there was no question of Djodan and Susak going on trial. Instead, it was the journalists, intellectuals and opposition politicians who opposed such language, who were put under pressure.


Some went on trial, such as Viktor Ivancic and Marinko Culic, two journalists from the opposition, Split-based newspaper, Feral Tribune. Both men went before the courts in 1996 for opposing Tudjman's plan to build a joint memorial for victims and supporters of the Ustashe regime at Jasenovac, a former concentration camp where tens of thousands of Serbs, Roma, Jews and anti-Fascist Croats were killed. An earlier monument at Jasenovac erected in the Communist era commemorated only the victims.


When the judiciary, in February this year, charged and arrested General Norac for allegedly committing crimes against Serbian civilians in Gospic in 1991, the case immediately became a rallying point for right-wing discontent.


Tens of thousands of their supporters joined demonstrations in Split in February in support of Norac, singing hostile songs about the leadership of President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan.


The right is growing in strength, largely as a result of the coalition government's inability to improve the country's dismal economic climate. They were also helped by the fact that many disappointed voters simply abstained in the May local elections.


Norac's arrest has not been the only such case to galvanise the right. When police recently arrested two former soldiers in Bibinje, near Zadar, for crimes committed against Serb civilians in Operation Storm, the local mayor publicly told the police they would not be allowed to enter the municipality again.


In Split, Croatia's second largest city, a candidate of the Croatian Pure Rights Party is expected to become the new deputy mayor. At a municipal meeting at the end of August, Luka Podrug - like Susak - has publicly used the old Fascist salute and has also said he would like to see Prime Minister Racan's Social Democrats banned.


He has also threatened to drive Semina Loncar, a local human rights activist, out of the city.


Podrug is also a strong supporter of General Ante Gotovina, another Hague indictee, who remains at large. Government supporters fear Gotovina's arrest could bring the far right on to the streets.


The right, meanwhile, enjoys the support of many popular sports stars. Igor Stimac, a famous football player from Split, has already warned that if there is another war "he will be in the front trench". As Croatia faces no external threat, the war in question can only be a civil one.


Another pillar of support for the right are the ex-servicemen's associations, which are dissatisfied over the government's cooperation with The Hague, and over cuts in welfare benefits to ex-soldiers.


As fears grow that the war of words between the far-right and the government is spiralling out of control, democratic public opinion has been reassured by the administration' s support for the court case in Petrinja.


Racan told parliament on September 19 that he condemned Dumbovic's behaviour unreservedly. We need to "raise sensitivity towards hate speech regardless of where it is coming from," he said.


Goran Vezic is a journalist with the independent news agency Stina in Split.