Croatia’s nationalist revival points to role for far-right

A folk musician turned far-right political leader looks set to become kingmaker after Croatia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, amid a resurgence of nationalist fervour.

Miroslav Skoro, who sings of heroes defending their homeland, is head of the newly formed far-right Homeland Movement, which could potentially form a coalition with prime minister Andrej Plenkovic’s party, returning his rightwing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) to power.

Neither of the mainstream parties that have ruled Croatia since it declared independence in 1991 following the collapse of Yugoslavia, looks able to form a government alone. The HDZ, in power throughout Croatia’s turbulent 90s, and the left-leaning Social Democrats are predicted by opinion polls to win a quarter of the votes each. 

Observers say the most likely outcome of the election could be an uncomfortable coalition between the HDZ and Mr Skoro’s Homeland Movement, which would seek to push the HDZ further to the right.

Mr Skoro, who briefly served as an MP for the HDZ IN 2008, set up the Homeland Movement after running as an independent in December’s presidential election on a nationalist ticket and winning 24 per cent of the vote. He promotes an alternative to what he calls “corrupted conservatives” in the HDZ and promises to protect the interests of Croatian citizens from the “deep state”.

Opinion polls put the Homeland Movement on between 10-14 per cent — enough to win at least 15 seats in the 151 member parliament.

Commentators say Mr Skoro’s popularity comes from his willingness to talk openly about topics mainstream parties consider taboo, such as the number of Jews, Serbs, Roma and other non-Croats who were killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp during the second world war when the country was run as a Nazi puppet state under the Ustasha regime. Mr Skoro plays down the number of deaths.

“If you can flirt or these days be openly pro-Ustasha, you will get a big amount of the vote,” said Ivor Sokolic, who researches nationalism and post-conflict justice in the Balkans at the London School of Economics.

Near the top of Mr Skoro’s party list is Zlatko Hasanbegovic, a former HDZ culture minister who has referred to the defeat of the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia after the second world war as the “biggest national tragedy and defeat” for his country, a remark he has never recanted. 

“Croatia has moved for a number of years slowly and subtly towards the right, towards limiting women’s rights and minority rights,” said Mr Sokolic. “If [Mr Skoro’s] party has more say, the agenda will be quite dangerous and hard to backtrack from.”

Frustration with both mainstream parties and anger over corruption scandals that forced the resignation of nine HDZ ministers in the past four years had led voters to look to the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum, said Zarko Puhovski, professor of political philosophy at the university of Zagreb.

Historian Hrvoje Klasic said if the HDZ “agreed to put some extremists from Skoro’s movement in the government”, Croatia would become much closer to Hungary and Poland, referring to the populist governments in both countries promoting traditional family values and historical revisionism. “It would be a disaster for Croatia,” he added.

Since becoming prime minister in 2016, Mr Plenkovic has adopted a more moderate approach, shepherding Croatia through its recent EU presidency and pursuing membership of the eurozone and the EU’s borderless Schengen travel zone.

But according to Dejan Jovic, a professor of political science at the University of Zagreb, Mr Plenkovic has also allowed nationalist elements to blossom in his party in the hope of keeping them from jumping ship to fringe parties with more extreme views. 

A campaign poster for Andrej Plenkovic. The prime minister has come under fire from the far-right because his coalition includes a party that represents ethnic Serbs © Antonio Bat/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mr Plenkovic’s idea is “normalisation of nationalism” by adopting it and “attempting to moderate it in order to take it away from the hands of those who could use it in a more radical way”, said Mr Jovic.

“The war has never stopped in public memory”, said Mr Jovic. “A new generation of voters have been heavily influenced by the school curriculum which has been very much organised about glorification of the war of the 1990s,” he added. 

Mr Plenkovic has come under fire from the far-right because his current coalition includes a party that represents Croatia’s small ethnic Serb minority. Ethnic Serbs comprised 12 per cent of the population before the war, and now make up less than 5 per cent.

Anti-Serb rhetoric is widespread. Ivan Penava, the mayor of Vukovar, a city devastated by Serb forces during the war that still has a significant ethnic Serb minority, recently abandoned the HDZ to join Mr Skoro’s movement. 

In 2013, Mr Penava led protests against the use of Serbian Cyrillic script in Vukovar, which is considered a national right for minority populations above a certain percentage in the region. Signs featuring both languages are frequent targets of vandalism across Croatia. Since his election as mayor in 2017, Mr Penava has refused to implement the legally-mandated bilingualism. 

Mr Skoro, Mr Hasanbegovic and Mr Penava have all said they would be prepared to enter a coalition with HDZ but not if it were led by Mr Plenkovic as prime minister, or if it included any parties representing the ethnic Serb minority.

According to Mr Jovic, allowing members of the Homeland Movement into government would be risky for the HDZ. “They might want to play the role of vetoer and move the government towards anti-Serb, anti-minority, anti-gender equality positions.”

The question is whether HDZ will agree to Homeland’s demands, delivering a further boost to nationalism in a region still divided over the legacy of the Yugoslav wars.