When Croatia, a relatively new Western Balkan state became a member of the EU in July 2013, popular expectation was that the country would glide towards democracy and economic development, and act as an effective bridge between EU and other Western Balkan states like Serbia and Bosnia. The ghost of extreme nationalism, which started during the Second World War and then again violently rekindled during the Balkan wars of the nineties, was also expected to subside.
Unfortunately, a series of events over the past year following the November 2015 Croatian parliamentary elections, which led to another election in September 2016, are demonstrating the rise of extreme right-wing and nationalistic politics in Croatia. This brings about the question whether the EU needs to play a more assertive role when there is rise of far-right extremism in its periphery.
The ascend of Ustashanism and Fascism
The rise of the far-right parties in Croatia, like other Eastern European countries, is tied to extreme nationalism, fascism, and their immediate by-products like homophobia. In Croatia, the ghost of fascism and ultra-nationalism never really died, but public expression of these forces were limited for quite sometime. Therefore, a major public outcry followed when a swastika was sprayed on the soccer field in Croatia back in June 2015 before a Euro Championship qualifier match against Italy. Through that event the ascend of the fascist far-right was glaringly at display drawing the attention of the media and the public alike.
But the swastika in the soccer field was just another expression of a much bigger problem. Second World War era “U” or the “Ustasha” insignia, which has its roots in Croatia’s co-operation with the Nazi atrocities during the Second World War, is also becoming increasingly visible during various public celebrations and events, signaling rapid shift in sentiment towards the extreme right. Ustasha is the Croatian fascist movement that nominally ruled the Independent State of Croatia during World War II.
The far-right groups were visibly on the march when several of the HDZ or Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (“Croatian Democratic Union”) backed ministers of the new Croatian government formed after the November 2015 elections were discussed in the public for having deep ties to the “Ustasha” movement.
Mr. Zeljko Hasanbegovic the minister of culture within the HDZ government, was known for his open pro-Ustasha stance in the past. Mr. Hasanbegovic, along with war veterans minister Tomo Medved, were present at the unveiling of a monument for Miro Baresic, a self-proclaimed member of the Ustasha forces and a convicted assassin who murdered the Yugoslav ambassador to Sweden in Stockholm in 1971.
Mr. Hasanbegovic’s appointment as the Minister of Culture was widely criticized by the Croatian leftists and centrist parties, and may have played a role towards the quick fall of the HDZ government culminating in new elections to be held in September 2016.
The rise of the far right politics and the erection of a monument for Miro Baresic, was also accompanied by the overturning of the war crime verdict against controversial Croatian Catholic Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. All of these events strained Croatia’s relations with its neighbor Serbia creating an avalanche of fierce arguments between the two countries’ leadership.
Besides the rise of far-rights groups, the Croatia-Serbia relationship was already tense due to Croatia’s alleged attempts at stonewalling Serbia’s EU membership.
A pluralistic Croatia remains elusive
Amid a lingering economic downturn and benefits of entrance into EU not materializing fast, the rise of far right politics and flirtation with Ustasha gained ground in Croatia, dashing hopes for pluralism and diversity.
An article published in the Green Europe Journal states that, “Croatia has brought up generations of barely politically literate citizens, who often do not understand the very concept of human rights”. The article stated that almost 40% of the Croatians based on a survey believed that Croatians living in Croatia should have more rights than the members of other ethnic groups.
Obviously such ethnic nationalism and extremist views will make reconciliations among Croatia, Serbia and other Balkan states after years of gruesome wars fairly difficult. The rise of far-right parties in Croatia may mean future rise of similar forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and particularly in Serbia, given that these countries are also not immune to radical nationalistic politics.
So far, the EU’s policy towards thwarting emergence of radical nationalist politics in the Balkans, as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, did not go much further than mediating when things flared up too far; case in point — the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations. In essence, the EU’s policy seems as though its grand expectation is that once the Eastern European and Balkan countries join the union, extreme nationalism and fascism will make way for democratic and pluralistic societies solely based on their EU membership, without much interventions.
Having experienced what far-right sentiment can do after the Brexit saga, it may not be a bad idea that the European Union takes a second look in its response mechanism towards emergence of far-right politics, particularly among its newest member states like Croatia.