A short overview of recent developments in Croatian politics for those unfamiliar with the struggles currently taking place
By Andrew Hodges
In a referendum held in January 2013, the citizens of Croatia narrowly voted to join the EU. EU membership had been a clear goal for much of the Croatian political elite from the end of the nineties wars onwards, with the mainstream Croatian political elite seeking to distance themselves from the label of Balkan and promote (Central) European belonging. However, the vote in favour of joining was lower than expected as the EU’s future was, at that point, unclear. One reason for such uncertainty was the situation in Greece, with worrying predictions made about Croatia heading towards a similar scenario, and no guarantee that joining the EU would help improve the situation.
More generally, South-East Europe has felt the effects of a protracted economic crisis from roughly 2008 onwards. This economic crisis hit the Western Balkans in many ways deeper than Western Europe as the region was considered a relatively risky investment. This led to worse conditions on loans and servicing debts, and serious problems with debt repayment when sources of cheap credit dried up. Croatia has fared particularly badly on this count compared to its neighbours (e.g. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina) as they borrowed extensively on international financial markets (rather than the IMF’s relatively low interest rates and possibilities of extension), with a series of short-term debts coming up for repayment at the same time, creating massive public debt.
Furthermore, the unpegging of the Swiss franc from the euro resulted in massive household debts as many people had taken out loans and mortgages in Swiss francs. Consequently, around 10% of the population of Croatia now have their bank accounts blocked due to failure to repay household debts.
Whereas before joining the EU, the Brussels elite was able to impose sanctions and further conditions e.g. on human rights legislation, following Croatia’s accession and thanks to the EU’s weakened political force, there has been a reluctance to directly criticise the sometimes controversial actions of Croatian politicians. As a result of this, EU accession has accelerated a slide further to the right among the nationalist elites in power.
A Slide to the Right
In 2012, a right wing civic initiative called ‘in the name of the family’ (u ime obitelji) - with close links to certain Catholic organisations - collected names calling for a referendum on defining marriage in the Croatian constitution as exclusively between a male and a female. The run up to this referendum resulted in a massive outpouring of homophobia and cemented a political division between a more conservative and a more socially liberal Croatia. The coming to power of a coalition of centre to far right parties (the ‘Patriotic Coalition’) at the end of 2015 accelerated this process, while other events in the meantime have also played a role.
These have included a protest which many war veterans attended, contesting the use of Cyrillic script (understood as Serbian) in a city (Vukovar) where a massacre took place during the recent war. This massacre was undertaken by the Yugoslav army, which was dominated by Serb identified people and so the use of Cyrillic in public space is viewed as an act of symbolic violence by some Croatian nationalists.
More recently, Croatian war veterans put up a tent in front of the town council offices, making a series of demands to government, such as lobbying for veterans in Herzegovina to receive state benefits. This slide to the right intensified when the ‘Patriotic Coalition’ and especially the notorious culture minister, Zlatko Hasanbegović, widely considered to be a holocaust denier, removed funding for progressive non-profit media and prevented them from applying for EU funding. He publicly called antifascism a ‘platitude’, and funded a controversial film about the WW2 concentration camp Jasenovac, which redefined it as primarily a work camp in which certain minorities died.
In late Spring 2016, this coalition fell apart with mass protests taking place throughout Croatia, and especially in the centre of the capital city Zagreb, following conservative attempts to block school curriculum reform and the deputy prime minister (Tomislav Karamarko) being caught up in a corruption scandal. However, the same two main parties (HDZ and Most) won the next election on a more moderate right wing platform with the MEP Andrej Plenković in charge. With this new government, the atmosphere has become less tense. On the one hand, there is a feeling that the worst has passed, particularly in comparison to events taking place elsewhere in Europe and the USA.
On the other hand, Plenković’s government is not undoing the damage wrought by the previous government, and is instead taking a softer approach which has consolidated the mainstreaming of revisionist narratives of the WW2 ‘Independent State of Croatia’, which whilst far from independent (being under Axis rule), has come to be viewed by a loud and dangerous minority as a period in which there was a Croatian cultural renaissance. One key right wing figure in the current government is the minister Ivo Stier who, whilst responsible for human rights, has a number of connections with far right political groups.
More generally, these recent developments have led to a strengthening of right wing voices in public institutions which are increasingly creating problems. These include finding bureaucratic reasons to disqualify projects and remove funding for initiatives not considered to be ‘ideologically suitable’ – i.e. in their view, either left or liberal - in public institutions, including university research. However, this is leading to a backlash of increased politicisation and large scale social ideological divisions between a so-called black (socially conservative, in its extreme openly fascist) and red (left-wing) Croatia.
The Left’s Response
For a variety of reasons, not least recent experience of war and virulent anti-communism on the part of nationalist political elites, the Croatian Left has not developed into a mass movement of the kinds seen in Greece and Spain. However, over the past six or seven years, as the effects of the crisis have been more heavily felt, an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with the elites and the stories told about this new ‘independent’ Croatia has emerged. Left, including radical left political options, have resurfaced after a dormant period. This has happened both in the form of popular initiatives, such as the student blockades at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and more recently in the form of political parties and initiatives challenging the nominally left – i.e. socially liberal and often neoliberal - SDP (Social Democratic Party) who form the opposition to the ruling HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union - nationalist and conservative with a mixture of populist and neoliberal economic policies).
This is taking place in the context of a wider political crisis in the Balkan region, with several states (Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) under heavy duress and potential political crisis. However, there is hope for two key reasons. First, in comparison to Poland and Hungary, the last two conservative governments in power did not command an easy majority in parliament, with the right wing HDZ and social-democratic SDP receiving roughly an equal number of votes. Their grasp on power is therefore easier to break. Second, more recently, wide popular opposition has emerged against the right wing governments. This, and the emergence of numerous direct and participative democratic experiments, suggests that people won’t simply sit back and accept these changes and many are now fed up of years of corruption, high taxes, and increasing public debt perpetuated by a nationalist political elite which has effectively lived off the divisions created during the recent wars.
Two of the next possible battlegrounds include a fight for university autonomy amidst attempts to transform one university (Hrvatski studiji) into a department, following an attempt to integrate the Catholic University with the state Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, which has traditionally been viewed as one of the most liberal and progressive faculties.
The second possible battle concerns womens’ right to have an abortion, which is under attack by Catholic political lobby with regular masses being organised by Catholic groups in front of hospitals. Whilst it is unclear how the situation will develop, the lack of a clear consensus or strong government majority coupled with the increased politicisation and protests in response to the string of attempts to redefine the political mainstream and historical consensus surrounding the Second World War suggests that more protests are on the horizon.