Analysis 31 Aug 17

Croatia Fascist Slogan Threatens to Topple Govt

The slogan of the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement, ‘Za dom spremni’, remains so politically toxic that a dispute over a plaque bearing the words could bring down the country’s governing coalition.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
The Croatian Defence Forces' coat of arms with the 'Za dom spremni' slogan on the plaque in Jasenovac. Photo: Beta.

Croatia’s coalition government, led by the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, is once again facing a potential break-up, this time because of a plaque with the words ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’), a slogan used by the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement.

The plaque was unveiled in November in the town of Jasenovac, near the location of the biggest Ustasa concentration camp, commemorating 11 deceased members of the Croatian Defence Forces, HOS, the 1990s wartime paramilitary unit and party militia of the far-right Croatian Party of Rights.

It immediately caused negative reactions, not only from the opposition but also from the HDZ’s partner, the Independent Democratic Serb Party, SDSS.

The Ustasa killed over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists at the Jasenovac camp between 1941 and 1945.

The initial problem was that the slogan appears on the plaque as part of the officially-registered coat of arms of a war veterans’ organisation from the HOS, which was set up at the beginning of the Croatian conflict in 1991 and fought against rebel Croatian Serbs and the Yugoslav People’s Army before being integrated into the Croatian Army in 1992.

The Association of HOS Volunteers in the City of Zagreb was registered by Zagreb’s office for general administration and by the State Administration Ministry in 1998, with the words ‘Za dom spremni’ in its official coat of arms.

Two HOS veterans with the militia's flag on the day that Jasenovac victims are commemorated in April . Photo: N1.

The use of the slogan is not prohibited in Croatia, although various courts have established that it represents the Ustasa regime, and it is sometimes chanted at right-wing events and football matches.

Last December, after the dispute over the Jasenovac plaque hit the media, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said that the government would pass legislation to regulate the issue.

Plenkovic then announced that a special council, made up of experts, would be set up to come up with legislation regulating the use of symbols of totalitarian regimes.

To fulfil the task, the government set the Council for Dealing with Consequences of the Rule of Non-Democratic Regimes in March - although its members did not agree that it will discuss the ‘Za dom spremni’ issue.

Meanwhile the liberal Croatian People’s Party, HNS, said in June when it joined the HDZ’s coalition government that the plaque would be removed within a month – a deadline which expired in late July.

At that point, Plenkovic said that the government was waiting for a solution from the State Administration Ministry.

Legitimate insignia?

The Rafael Boban HOS unit in 1995 chanting that they are Ustasa and praising Ustasa leader Ante Pavelic.

The issue erupted again on Saturday when the HDZ’s Justice Minister Drazen Bosnjakovic said in an interview for daily Vecernji list that the plaque “won’t be removed before March”.

Bosnjakovic’s statement caused sharp reactions from the Serb SDSS and the liberal HNS, which insisted that the government resolves the issue within a month.

The governing coalition, which is constantly hovering just above the minimum majority of 76 MPs in parliament, cannot stay in power without support from the HNS’s five HNS MPs, as well as the three SDSS lawmakers and five other ethnic minority MPs who act in an informal bloc with the SDSS.

Plenkovic repeated on Tuesday that the government is working on the issue while bearing in mind its duty of respect towards the Jasenovac victims and the 11 fallen HOS members commemorated by the plaque.

“We’re looking for a solution where the content on the plaque won’t offend anyone’s feelings, and we will find the solution very quickly,” he said.

Zvone Curkovic, the former HOS commander in the eastern town of Vukovar, told public broadcaster HRT on Tuesday that the coat of arms is “legitimate insignia” recognised by the state, but that in the case of Jasenovac, an exception should be made.

“My personal position on the memorial plaque in Jasenovac is that the HOS needs to make a gesture and, only in Jasenovac, remove the insignia ‘Za dom spremni’ from that plaque… out of respect for the innocent victims [of the camp], no matter how many there were,” Curkovic said.

The logo of the Knight Jure Francetic HOS unit from Bosnia, with the Ustasa 'U'. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But Milijan Brkic, vice-chair of parliament and deputy president of the HDZ, said on Monday that “the HOS’s plaque was installed legally”.

Brkic insisted that it is “a wartime coat of arms of a legal unit from the Homeland War” – Croatia’s official name for the 1990s war.

He said that HOS veterans have as little in common with fascism as those who advocate the removal of the plaque have “with Croats”.

“They [who advocate the removal of the plaque] never even wanted Croatia; not only that did they not want it, they worked against its freedom and independence,” Brkic said.

Meanwhile the president of the network of HOS associations, Borislav Barisic, said on Monday that the HOS could not be described as “fascist and Ustasa” because it was formed in 1991, long after the WWII-era regime ceased to exist.

Barisic called on Plenkovic to protect the HOS associations or they would have to resort to calling for referendums or take their grievances to international courts.

Djuro Glogoski, head of the Association of 100 Per Cent Disabled War Veterans, who led a year-and-half-long protest in 2014-16 for more rights for ex-soldiers, warned meanwhile that veterans’ organisations have “options B and C in mind” if Plenkovic does not do something - a hint at renewed direct action.

Sympathies for the Ustasa

An Ustasa document from 1941 confirming that 199 Jews have been received at the Jasenovac camp, ending with 'Za dom spremni'. Photo: Telegram.

Since they were established, both the HOS and its political parent, the far-right Croatian Party of Rights, have shared certain symbols with the Ustasa movement.

As well as adopting ‘Za dom spremni’, they occasionally displayed photos of Ustasa leader Ante Pavelic in prominent places at their headquarters.

The acronym HOS itself is the same as the acronym of the Croatian Armed Forces – the name of the armed forces of the Ustasa-led, WWII-era Independent State of Croatia, NDH, an ally of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

HOS units were or still are named after prominent Ustasa commanders such as Jure Francetic or Rafael Boban, and on certain occasions, they sang Ustasa songs.

In 1992, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, a historian by profession, expressed his dissatisfaction with the HOS’s fascination with the Ustasa, which he saw as bad for Croatia’s international image.

“I know that among these young men there were Croatian fanatics, people who had Croatian ideals, but it surprises me that they are ‘falling’ for those who dress them in black shirts and fascist insignia from the World War II they lost,” Tudjman said.

Franjo Tudjman speaks about the HOS on a TV show in 1992.

“Where would Germany be if it continued the blackshirt traditions? This was one of the major obstacles for Croatia's international recognition,” he added.

Despite some claims to the contrary from far-right circles, ‘Za dom spremni’ was coined by the Ustasa movement in the 1930s, while it was active abroad, outside the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

In an interview conducted in 1957 but only published in Croat diaspora newspaper Croatian Guard in 1968, Pavelic said he wanted a slogan with a “militaristic meaning”.

He described how he was partly inspired by how the 11th-century Croatian king Petar Kresimir IV had used the word ‘ready’.

“Ready for what? For the thing which is the most sacred among earthly things: for home! A home is not just a homeland but a hearth, so its meaning is as twice as strong. This term is used throughout all of our history, and is also present in our patriotic poetry,” Pavelic said.

No specific ban

A member of the Rafael Boban HOS unit with 'Za dom spremni' insignia. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN.

Unlike German law, which bans the use of specific Nazi symbols and slogans such as ‘Sieg Heil’, Croatian legislation does not say precisely what is not allowed.

Article 325 of the Croatian Criminal Code specifies that people who “call for hatred or violence to be directed against groups… because of their racial, religious, national or ethnic affiliation” can be punished with a three-year prison sentence, while organisers of hate-mongering groups can receive up to six years in prison.

Article 325 also says that people who “publicly approve of, deny or significantly belittle criminal acts of genocide, acts of aggression, crimes against humanity or war crimes” can also receive up to three years in prison.

However, hardly anyone chanting ‘Za dom spremni’ or displaying Ustasa insignia is prosecuted according to Article 325.

Like Croatian football player Josip ‘Joe’ Simunic – who chanted ‘Za dom spremni’ along with thousands of spectators at an international match in Zagreb in 2013 – people are usually charged under misdemeanour legislation and given fines.

Croatian international footballer Josip Simunic chants 'Za dom spremni' with the crowd.

Despite the lack of specifics in the law, many legal experts and politicians claim that anti-fascism is enshrined in the constitution and therefore displays of support for the Ustasa can be prosecuted.

According to the constitution’s preamble, the country is founded upon the actions of Croatia’s Anti-Fascist Council in its opposition to the establishment of the Ustasa-run NDH in 1941.

With this in mind, in 2004, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader ordered the removal of a memorial dedicated to Ustasa commander Francetic in the town of Slunj.

Sanader said it was “contrary to the historical foundations of the constitution of the Republic of Croatia and [harms] the reputation and interests of the Republic of Croatia”.

Meanwhile the Croatian Ombudsman’ office said in February this year that the ‘Za dom spremni’ slogan contravenes the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the European Convention on Human Rights and Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Catholic priest Mato Mutinic and the Rafael Boban unit's commander Marko Skejo chant 'Za dom spremni' with the unit.

The Ombudsman’s office also cited a number of verdicts in which courts convicted people for using ‘Za dom spremni’ and defined it as “the official greeting of the Ustasa regime and the totalitarian NDH regime”.

Therefore, the Ombudsman’s office claimed, there is existing jurisprudence for such prosecutions. It also emphasised that some of these verdicts were confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

It also pointed to a conclusion made by Croatia’s parliamentary committee for the constitution, parliamentary rules of procedure and political system, which said that the plaque in Jasenovac “offends victims of the Ustasa camp and all victims of the Ustasa regime”.

However, in another example of the rival interpretations which have driven the dispute about the slogan, a magistrate’s court in the town of Knin acquitted someone in 2011 for chanting ‘Za dom spremni’, claiming that it was a phrase known “throughout all of Croatia’s history”.

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