Analysis 06 Mar 17

Croatia’s Undemocratic Past Creates Present-Day Problems

It remains unclear how a new government-appointed body which will examine how to deal with the legacy of Croatia’s pro-Nazi and Communist regimes can resolve divisions over the country’s history.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Right-wingers used a fascist slogan at a march supporting US President Donald Trump in Zagreb last month. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Denis CERIC/DS

The newly-established Council for Dealing with Consequences of the Rule of Non-Democratic Regimes is not likely to be able to draft “comprehensive recommendations aimed at dealing with the past” as the Croatian government has said it would like, some experts have warned.

The government announced last Thursday that it was setting up the Council to work out a response to the question of how to deal with the enduring legacy of Croatia’s 20th Century non-democratic regimes: the WWII fascist Ustasa movement and its Nazi puppet-state Independent State of Croatia, NDH, and socialist Yugoslavia, led by the League of Communists.

“The starting point is a clean break from all totalitarianism,” said Andrej Plenkovic, the prime minister in Croatia’s centre-right government.

Plenkovic first mentioned setting up the body in December during a row over a plaque with Ustasa slogan ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’) which was installed in Jasenovac, near the site of the biggest Ustasa concentration camp, where over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists were killed between 1941 and 1945.

The use of the slogan has been a subject of repeated controversies in Croatia over the past few years. As Plenkovic pointed out, it also features on the official coat of arms of the 1990s paramilitary unit, the Croatian Defence Forces, HOS.

But even before its establishment was officially announced, one potential member of the Council, historian Hrvoje Klasic, said publicly that he did not want to be involved in the new body.

“Firstly, it is because I honestly think that history in a democratic society can’t be written with laws, and positions on historical events can’t be formed at political sessions or by political committees,” Klasic told BIRN.

“The second problem was the composition of the Council. If 15 or 20 historians, domestic and foreign ones, were called upon to discuss certain topics, some controversial issues, then a Council would make sense, although it still wouldn’t be able to come to an official truth,” he explained.

Klasic said that it was unclear what the Council would discuss, insisting that the facts about the World War II period and the Ustasa regime are already well-established, although the years during which Croatia was part of socialist Yugoslavia need to be discussed.

He argued that numerous controversies about Yugoslavia needed to be cleared up, considering the contradictions between the crimes it committed post-WWII and its authoritarian rule and how it raised living standards and created economic and cultural progress.

“However, I have to emphasise once more - every attempt, and there have been a lot of them in the last 25 years, to equate the NDH with Yugoslavia and the Ustasa movement with the Communist movement, is a clear example of historical revisionism and this won’t be accepted, no matter who forms the council,” he emphasised.

Unresolved disputes

A man at a concert by right-wing star Marko Perkovic Thompson poses in an Ustasa cap and holds the official Croatian Defence Forces flag with 'Za dom spremni' on it. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN.

As well as the heads of Croatia’s cultural institutions – the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts, the Miroslav Krleza Institute of Lexicography and Matica Hrvatska (‘Parent Body of Croatia’) – the Council will include six historians, of whom three have written either about the Ustasa period or about socialist Yugoslavia.

One of those historians, Ivica Lucic, served as an intelligence officer in the Bosnian Croat force, the Croatian Defence Council, in the 1990s.

The other members are former directors of the memorial site of the Ustasa concentration camp Jasenovac, Natasa Jovicic, professors from Croatia’s law schools– one of them former president of the constitutional court, Jasna Omejec – the dean of the Croatian Catholic University and two professors from Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Sciences.

The government abandoned its idea to include youth organisations – one of which was the Croatian Youth Network.

Karlo Kralj, the president of the Network, explained that his organisation “refused to take part in the Council’s work because it thinks that such a committee needs to include a far bigger number of NGOs”.

“Additionally, youth organisations shouldn’t be the only NGOs included, but also organisations working on the dealing with the past, if it wants to fulfil its purpose,” he told BIRN.

A Zagreb-based organisation that is involved with the issue, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, said on Friday that it welcomes attempts to deal with the past, but criticised the government for a lack of transparency in the procedure for electing the Council’s members, as well as over the body’s unclear goals – a critique mentioned by many.

The Youth Initiative for Human Rights expressed fears that the Council might change the official viewpoint that ‘Za dom spremni’ is a fascist slogan.

It also called on the government to discuss the more recent rule of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who they accuse of being responsible for multiple crimes during the 1990s wars.

Another organisation working in the same area, the Zagreb-based Documenta - Centre for Dealing with the Past, also has no representative on the Council.

“Although we welcome the dialogue about the past, we do not think that the Council can produce content that can… comprehensively address all the unresolved disputes. Therefore the purpose of the Council is not a good contribution to dealing with the past but a further delay to doing it,” Documenta said in a statement on Thursday.

Avoiding the issues

A plaque with the 'Za dom spremni' slogan near the Ustasa WWII concentration camp in Jasenovac. Photo: UDHOS Zagreb.

Kralj accused the government of setting up the Council as a “fig leaf” to avoid taking its own position on the recent controversies.

“I somewhat agree with certain voices that say that this Council won’t deal with the past. To quote a well-known saying: when you don’t want to commit [to something], form a committee,” said Kralj.

He cited instances in which the government was appeared to be somewhat reluctant to deal with cases of the far-right nostalgia for the Ustasa regime or when the plaque with the Ustasa slogan was installed in Jasenovac, near the site of the country’s biggest former concentration camp.

He also expressed concern that the term ‘non-democratic regimes’ could be used to suggest that there was little difference between the Ustasa regime and socialist Yugoslavia.

However, a future member of the Council, Tihomir Cipek, a professor at the Zagreb Faculty of Political Sciences, insisted that this was not going to happen.

“The thing we especially noted in the document of founding the Council is that there were different political regimes and we already made an agreement at the beginning that the fascist and communist regimes aren’t the same, especially because the communist regime went through a totalitarian and authoritarian phase,” Cipek told BIRN.

Cipek said that dealing with the past was an important issue because “nowadays, Croatia’s fascist past is knocking on its door” - although he admitted that he was also quite sceptical about what the Council can achieve.

He said he agreed to take part because he felt “the moral obligation to join” as an expert, although he doubted whether the Council will manage to agree on certain disputed historical issues.

He suggested that the Council could, for example, warn about instances in which “certain controversial persons with only high school [education]” are cited as experts.

This was a reference to the case of Roman Leljak, a Slovenian self-proclaimed expert on crimes committed by WWII anti-fascists and the Yugoslav secret service, who was invited by the junior government coalition partner, the Bridge of the Independent Lists, MOST, to give his opinion to the Croatian parliament on opening of confidential Yugoslav-era files.

Cipek emphasised that the Council will insist on respect for human rights in its approach to history, but denied that the new body would become a sort of ‘Ministry of Truth’ - a reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘1984’.

He also insisted that the government did not “in any way impose and suggest what the Council should discuss, [or] what it should confirm or dispute”.

The Tito question

Josip Broz Tito (centre) with US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Carter White House Photographs Collection.

Cipek said particularly disagrees with the idea expressed by another Council member, historian Ante Nazor, who told N1 TV on Friday that Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito should not have squares and streets named after him in Croatia due to his “co-responsibility for massive killings, especially of his own people”.

He argued that the council should not discuss the renaming of streets and squares dedicated to Tito, and said he was against any renaming without the consent of local authorities.

Nazor, the head of the Croatian Memorial-Documentation Centre of the Homeland War (the name used in Croatia for the 1990s war), declined to confirm whether or not the Council will push for the renaming.

“We [Council members] are asked not to talk too much about concrete cases… I won’t go into details… We’ll see,” Nazor told BIRN.

He argued that the Council could have a positive effect on public discourse.

“I expect that it could affect the atmosphere in society and discussions that aren’t based on scientific facts,” he said.

Cipek also insisted that Klasic was wrong to say that the Council will “discuss historical facts”, as it won’t decide what is the historical truth.

The Council’s president, Zvonko Kusic, who is also the head of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts, expressed yet more scepticism about the new body’s potential influence on society.

Kusic told N1 TV on Thursday however that any step towards a situation in which historical topics “don’t dominate the public sphere” will be a success.

He explained that the Council is only an advisory body to the government, but it would do what it could to ensure that “these tensions which burden society… are minimised”.

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