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20 Jun 16

Defending Hooliganism Does Croatia No Favours

Christian Axboe Nielsen

The politicians and commentators who defended the fans’ misbehaviour at St Etienne are symptomatic of a wider problem in Croatia.

Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic (middle) celebrating her victory on elections' night in January 2015 with Velimir Bujanec (left). Photo: Facebook

Last Friday, a group of hooligans threw flares onto the pitch in France, interrupting the match between Croatia and the Czech Republic.  This was far from the first time that Croatian football supporters had created such disturbances.  Nor have problematic episodes in Croatian football been restricted solely to unruly fans, as the incident involving former player and current Croatian assistant trainer Josip “Joe” Simunic amply illustrates.  Croatia has been subjected to numerous fines and sanctions, and now UEFA must again decide how to punish the Croatian national team.

Taken on their own, these incidents are bad enough.  But the real scandal here involves the reaction of certain Croatian political leaders and commentators to these episodes, and the response on Friday was a case in point.  Barely had the whistle been blown on the match in St Etienne before the political flares were lit by nationalist commentator Velimir Bujanec on his show “Bujica” in Osijek.  Sitting well over a thousand kilometres away from the stadium, Bujanec used his clairvoyance to conclude that no true Croat patriots could possibly have been behind the incident, and that it must have been caused instead by pro-Yugoslav elements who have never come to terms with Croatia’s existence as an independent state. Bujanec bizarrely conjured to life the zombie of ORJUNA [the Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists], which, for the record, has not existed since 1929. [This undead beast forms a coalition with Bujanec’s perennial bugbear, Udba, the Yugoslav State Security Service, which Bujanec and his believers think has not been dispatched from Croatia’s political scene.]  Moreover, Bujanec ominously warned that he would soon reveal the identities of those spectators who had thrown flares onto the pitch.  When you see the surnames of these people, it will all be clear to you, he promised. 

[Mario Mazic of the Zagreb-based Youth Initiative for Human Rights, the only person mentioned by name by Bujanec, is already the recipient of a veritable torrent of threats and insults via social media.]  So not only did Bujanec, sitting in Osijek, claim to know the political affiliation of the perpetrators in St Etienne, he also purported to know their individual names. Quite a feat!

All of this could perhaps be dismissed as the ravings of a deranged ideologue with a troubled past – the Glenn Beck of Croatian talk shows.  Yet, there are two simple reasons why Bujanec’s comments are representative for the Croatian political right today, including the leadership of the Croat Democratic Union, HDZ.  First, a mere 18 minutes after Bujanec had invoked ORJUNA, President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic posted on Facebook a paraphrased [though unattributed] version of Bujanec’s “analysis.”

Similar remarks were soon flooding the comments sections of prominent Croatian newspapers and social media, as Bujanec’s minions went to work. 

It should be noted that Bujanec sat in the VIP section at the inauguration of President Grabar Kitarovic, and the two have been photographed together. The Foreign Minister, Miro Kovac, and many prominent personalities close to the recently collapsed government have also been a guest on Bujanec’s show.

Nationalist singer Marko Perkovic Thompson (left) and Bujanec  as VIP guests on president's inauguration in February 2015. Photo: Facebook

Secondly, Bujanec once again had prominent guests in the studio: the historian and former presidential candidate Josip Jurcevic and the academician Josip Pecaric. 

Jurcevic has a track record of publishing works that explore repression and crimes against Croats while simultaneously also publishing works that deny Croatian crimes, whether during the World War Two or during the 1990s, against others. 

A mathematician who dabbles in history, he regards any criticism of Croatian nationalism as unwarranted and has, like Jurcevic, dismissed the systematic and mass atrocities at the Ustasa concentration camp Jasenovac as a “Serbian myth.” 

Pecaric is among those Croats who wishes the Croatian Army to use the Ustasa salute ‘Za dom spremni’ [“Ready for the Homeland”] which he and Jurcevic characterize as an old Croatian salute.  And Jurcevic also concocted a harebrained calculation according to which 89 per cent of crimes in “contemporary” Croatian history were committed by communists, while only 0.13 per cent [!] were committed by the Ustasa.

This degree of denialism speaks volumes about Jurcevic’s and Pecaric’s “scholarship”; perhaps Pecaric lent Jurcevic a hand with the math?  Predictably, therefore the rest of the show was devoted to an exploration of Bujanec’s “analysis,” which both guests chose to treat as fact rather than speculation. 

Ironically, the only participant in the show who refused to support unhesitatingly Bujanec’s analysis was Joe Simunic, who was interviewed over the phone. Given what is known about Simunic’s views and his past problems with UEFA – which Pecaric during the show ever so subtly compared to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – he was most likely being careful in order not to incur new sanctions.

Croats have indeed been the victims of many crimes in the 20th century, and no one should cast aspersions on these victims or deny Croats the right to pay homage to them.  But with their paranoid and delusional fantasies of exclusivist competitive victimhood and continued persecution, actors like Bujanec, Jurcevic and Pecaric deny the many other non-Croat victims in modern Croatian and Yugoslav history and reject or belittle all those many incidents in which Croats were perpetrators – first and foremost during the so-called Independent State of Croatia. 

Moreover, they do a disservice to Croatia by signalling that Croats can never be held responsible for anything. This abrogation of responsibility is all the more pathetic given that it is taking place not in 1991 but in 2016, a quarter-century after Croatia achieved its independence. 

They and their supporters might finally try to understand that political maturity involves taking responsibility for one’s own misdeeds and acting robustly to prevent their recurrence.  By contrast, societies that shirk confrontation with unpleasant, traumatic and violent episodes in the past are much less likely to enjoy leadership that will recognize and tackle serious economic, social and political challenges in the present. 

Christian Axboe Nielsen is an associate professor of Southeast European Studies at Aarhus University.

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