Re-Visiting Croatian Nationalism

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 30 Sep 2008

Jan Oberg

Or, how nationalist can a country be that wants to join the European Union?

I’m checking in at the reception of a hotel in Slavonia, Croatia. On the desk is a brochure about the local zoo with a tiger on the front. The receptionist, a kind man around 30, tells me what else to see in town and I ask him with a smile whether the name of that tiger could be Tudjman , after the late President of Croatia. “I mean, Tudjman fought for the Croatian nation as a tiger for its babies”. He looks surprised and then raises his index finger: “Oh not at all, sir, President Tudjman is not a tiger for us. He is our god.”

In August I drove 3 200 kilometres around Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. I wanted to see the places where TFF teams and I worked in the early 1990s in Eastern Slavonia, Western Slavonia and Krajina. I wanted memories, names and incidents to come alive in the places that, at the time, were called UN Protected Areas, UNPAs.

I wanted to re-visit the villages, houses, churches, cafés, towns and the places where we negotiated our way through checkpoints, were arrested, shot at, did seminars, met crying old people and international peace-keepers during those mad years in the war zones.

And of course I was curious to experience how Croatia and Bosnia have managed to re-build themselves and develop after more than 10 years of relative peace.

It wasn’t one of these 5-10 interviews-per-day mission. It wasn’t meant to be. The experiment was to go to places and see how, by being there, stopping the car, walking around, taking pictures, it would come alive again – all that I may simply have forgotten, deliberately stored away and unconsciously repressed. And of course, driving through the mind-boggling natural, or “scenic,” beauty of major parts of these countries.

After Denmark where I was born and Sweden where I have lived more than half of my life, I’ve considered former Yugoslavia my third country ever since I enrolled for my first course at the Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik in 1974 – the director of which was Johan Galtung.

Let me now proceed and deal with the question raised above – just how strong should nationalism be – or be allowed to be – in today’s Europe? The young receptionist must have been about 10 years old when the wars broke out, and I was amazed to learn from him that he would consider Tudjman god.

Let me state – admittedly in no diplomatic terms – that I find Croatia’s visible nationalism rampant, ill-considered and quite disgusting. The collective psychological reservoir from where it comes, combining the aggressive and the infantile in one, should be a cause for concern to anyone around. Had Serbia or Russia displayed anything the like in 2008, they would have been even more isolated and talked down to by the West.

Having said that, I do respect that Croat citizens feel happy that they got out of Yugoslavia and that they see it as a war of liberation. I do understand that they have been filled with so much wartime propaganda that they honestly believe that everything bad in those days were caused exclusively by the Serbs, Milosevic in particular, and they were the innocent victims who won the moral and military victory at last.

But even so, it is simply too much. The visitor is bombarded all the time and everywhere with Croatian nationalism – even now this many years after the war and the independence. Let me give you quite many examples of how it imposes itself on you.

First, there are municipal, regional and national emblems and flags everywhere. Everywhere! Public buildings, private houses, flats and shops. People wear sporting gear, t-shirts, socks and caps with the national red-and-white checkerboard pattern which is hardly distinguishable from that of the Ustasha fascist regime of Ante Pavelic during World War II.

Well, let us not even mention the surreal kitschy objects in tourist kiosks; there is none on which that checkerboard has not been fixed. When you travel on a Croatian Airlines flight, you are likely to get a little dry brown biscuit with a message that this is a special Croatian favourite dating back to the thousand year old culture (cf. also some of the Croatian commercials on CNN International). Well, that is if you get to the airport in time.

Croatia has been working on a new language and refuse the term "Serbo-Croatic" language. So they have “Croatized” a lot of words to separate themselves from what they spoke before. So to get to the airport is not that easy because the signs don’t tell you “airport” or “aerodrom” as they used to; now the Croatian word for that is “zracna luka”.

Each people of course is unique, but Croats are uniquely unique! The national history also has it that Croats invented the tie – an assertion that seems to build on the fact that the German word for tie is “Krawatte” and it is close to the Croatian name of Croatia, Hrvatska.

Then there are the churchyards and memorials. Take Vukovar where a huge Arlington-like memorial has been built a bit out of town. Hundreds of crosses in lines with no names but with Croatian flags in front of every and each cross. The only people to be remembered are Croats and all who died were Croats irrespective of whether perhaps they may have been of mixed nationality, felt like something else but Croats or may even had registered themselves as Yugoslavs at the time.

That memorial is very well kept, blessed with a huge modern sculpture and a flame. But drive a few kilometres back to town and look for the churchyard and memorial for the fallen Serbs. That has no elegance, no well kept lawns and no sculptures. But also no flags.

The Serb churchyard with people who died many years before the dissolution wars of Yugoslavia in Vukovar makes a sad view. Knocked over and broken gravestones, high grass and weed, gravestones that have been sprayed with submachine-gun bullets. I silently wonder how many times can a dead person or family be killed?

Since there are so few and almost only very old Serbs left here and fewer returnees, how could they have been kept in a better shape? And to be sure, a Catholic church now towers over this wilderness of the dead. No one in this Croatized municipality seems to have the idea, or decency, to keep churchyards tidy and revere the dead citizens, at least not if they are not Croats.

I am sure that official Croatia subscribes to the principle that we are all born equal. And that citizens have equal rights. But have no illusion about practise. Even after death, people’s dignity and equality is completely disregarded here.

If you are interested in whether or not there are hopeful signs of re-conciliation and of some lessons learnt from the war – well, come and see for yourself. Virtually all the international government missions and civil society organisations have left Croatia. From their elegant offices and assemblies in Brussels and Washington, bureaucrats and diplomats believe the official Croatian government story and diplomats nowadays don’t muddy their shoes by going to the field and see for themselves. Perhaps they know what they’ll find and conveniently prefer to stay away?

Next, there are all the changes of street names and squares. In the majority of towns and villages I drove through, the main square and street is now “Trg Dr. Franjo Tudjman” or “Dr. Franjo Tudjman ulica” – or some other nationalist, historical figure. This psychological offensive against any non-Croat in this country goes hand in hand with the post-war statutes of Tudjman on main squares.

In Vukovar, just opposite the Dunav Hotel, for instance, the land that used to host a small memorial park for Serb war victims has been flattened and replaced by a statute of Tudjman, the father of the country. He can see his mirror image in a glass building on the other side of that square – one of the few that have been built since 1995 in this God-forsaken ghost town of ruins, surreal evidence of past glory and amazing natural beauty.

In Pakrac in Western Slavonia, the small Tudjman memorial park and statute stands opposite a house ruin on a corner through the windows and roof of which now grows huge trees. So, Croatia has funds for Dr. Tudjman, the old war criminal, but not for rebuilding the town for its citizens.

On August 5, I had dinner at a restaurant near Osijek, waiters and waitresses and the few clients glued to the television screen. I see war film, parades, tanks, Tudjman and flags, flags… had forgotten that it was August 5 a national holiday, Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day.

What is celebrated is the allegedly largest land offensive in Europe since World War II, Operation Storm conducted by the Croatian Army in 1995.

The operation drove more than 200 000 Croatian Serbs who had roots 400 years back in Croatia’s Krajina (border areas) and, thus, not “occupiers” as media at the time would have us believe. Then EU envoy, Carl Bildt, now foreign minister of Sweden, has called “Storm” ‘the most efficient ethnic cleansing we have seen in the Balkans.’ Many who were too old to flee were murdered. In addition to this mega crime, a few days later in Operation Flash, the little newly recognized state ran over all UN peacekeeping missions and sent the world organization running and then proceeded to cleanse Western Slavonia of the “cancer on the Croatian belly” that Serbs had been called by prime minister Hrvoje Sarinic.

This sort of thing is celebrated in today’s Croatia. The former president of the country, an anti-semitic, semi-fascist with nationalist ethnic cleansing on top of his agenda – together with militarism, nepotism and favouritism – is paid homage to on every street corner and revered as Father of the Nation!

Would it compare to flags, parades and personality cult for Milosevic the “nationalist” in Serbia and Karadzic, the “bucher” in Bosnia? Celebrating the Srebrenica Massacre as National Day? If so, what would the international so-called community, Brussels and Washington say? Bomb them again, or what? Tudjman was very lucky to die in cancer before he could be brought to the Hague – if at all, for he was ‘our son of a bitch’ in the West.

The Serbs have made up the account with their terrible wartime leaders. When will the Croats with theirs? For mass-killing is a crime and ethnic cleansing is something we – in the name of civilisation and humanity – don’t celebrate. Or do we, in Europe?

If this is European civilization by the year 2008, that civilization is in decay. If this shall be accepted in today’s EU, neither Croats nor the rest of Europe have learned anything from history and we may therefore well see it repeated some time in the future.

In 95% of the media coverage of Milosevic, he is described as a nationalist. But those stating that he was a nationalist doesn’t have clue about Milosevic, a man who gladly sacrificed Serbs when it suited his own power and his games with other Yugoslav top leaders; at least Tudjman had one principle, namely to defend Croats everywhere.

I believe it is fair to say that the politically convenient and media-conveyed silence about Croatia’s past, the rampant nationalism of its Father and its leaders and people up till this very day is one convincing evidence of the thoroughly bad conscience about all this in Europe and the US.

And that is exactly why it shall be pointed out again and again. Croatia’s omnipresent human rights violating nationalism is one thing. The EU and US cover-up of it is – actually, even more morally repugnant.

Croatia must do away with its nationalism – the outward visible and the inward psychological it reflects. It must abolish it senseless celebration of its war crimes and invite, really welcome, those innocent people its dark nationalism cleansed away. Only then should it be considered a candidate for EU membership.

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