Croatia Recycles Its History: A Cautionary Tale for the European Union

Tanya Domi and Reuf Bajrovic

When Croatia became the newest member of the European Union on 1 July 2013, its entry—the first ever by a single country—was hailed by overwhelming majority of observers as an important step in the democratic consolidation of the Western Balkans. The prevailing narrative was that Croatia would export democratic values to the region and that its success would act as an inspiration for its neighbors to move past the burdening legacy of the wars of the 1990s.

Less than six months into its membership, it seems that Croatia is not the next Estonia but the next Hungary of the European Union.

The outcome of Croatia’s December 1st ballot initiative that proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman places Croatia in the company of Hungary and four other EU members—Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—all former Communist states, as well as countries like Belarus and Ukraine in effectively banning same sex couples from civil marriage.

The overwhelming support for the amendment shocked the established political class. The ad-hoc conservative group “In the Name of the Family” led by right-wing businesswoman, Zeljka Markic, blindsided the ruling parties with more than enough signatures to get the referendum onto the ballot. Joining forces with a far-right political party, Markic repeatedly issued a conservative trope to voters, indicating the referendum’s aim was to “protect children and families.”

Strong conservative and traditionalist political beliefs remain deeply embedded within the Croatian electorate and throughout the region. Rights of homosexuals are particularly opposed by super majorities throughout the Western Balkans according to the 2010 Gallup Balkan Monitor Survey data report.

In that sense, Croatia is not much different from its neighbors. But other disturbing developments make this referendum a more troubling event.

Efforts by conservative veterans’ associations and other right-wing groups to ban the use of Cyrillic letters in the eastern city of Vukovar—the symbol of the country’s war 1991-1995 for independence—are sending a disturbing message to Croatia’s minority Serb population. As it stands now, right-wing groups seem to have collected enough signatures to organize a referendum on the use of Cyrillic letters.

To add insult to injury, Croatia’s national soccer team’s recent qualification for the World Cup was celebrated by tens of thousands of fans chanting “For the homeland, ready”—a salute of the World War II era pro-Nazi regime which ruled Croatia and collaborated with Hitler’s Third Reich and was also used by extreme nationalist groups during the 1990s war.

The situation escalated when the Croatian police decided to ‘call in for questioning’ Matija Babic, the country’s leading journalist and owner of the most read news portal and a vocal critic of Croatia’s increasingly nationalist tendencies. Protesting the recent developments, Mr. Babic and published an authentic Nazi-era photograph of the Croatian Catholic Church priests using the Nazi right hand salute, as well as a photo superimposing a swastika on the Croatian flag. The State Prosecutor now wants to punish Mr. Babic for breaking the country’s law on the flag.

But it is not just Croatia’s domestic affairs that are a cause for concern. Its foreign policy is once again focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina at a time when this troubled neighboring country is trying to address its own war legacies. The European Union has conditioned Bosnia and Herzegovina to change the discriminatory aspects of its Constitution under which Jews, Roma and all other citizens who refuse to identify with any of the three major ethnic groups cannot seek the highest elective offices in government. But instead of concentrating its efforts on helping Bosnia and Herzegovina’s disenfranchised groups secure equal treatment under the law, Croatia’s efforts in Brussels are consumed by the narrow priorities of two Bosnian Croat nationalist political parties.

All this smacks of the 1990s and rolls back democratic gains made under previous president Stjepan Mesic, who once made Croatia a role model for aspiring EU members in the Former Yugoslavia.

Precedents for these troubling trends are unfortunately present elsewhere in Europe. Hungary is a case in point.

Following his election in May 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the conservative Fidesz party lurched rightward when he rolled back media laws and protections to journalists. In the face of strong criticism by the international community, Orban only doubled down in 2012 by adopting a new constitution that stripps some 300 faiths and religious institutions of their legal status. The constitution and related new laws also limit the scope of the constitutional court and violates the independence of judges, the central bank and the governments’ data-protection agency. Even the EU had no choice but to act, issuing a 30-day warning to Hungary to amend several controversial laws to avoid being taken to the European Court of Justice.

Against this backdrop, the extreme right Jobbik Party has escalated its use of hate speech, recently calling Jews a “security risk” and recommending that all Jews living in Hungary should be registered. Jobbik’s numbers of elected officials have more than doubled since 2006, making it Hungary’s third largest party.

Britain, France, and Austria have also been challenged by the growing popularity of the far-right movements, exposing minorities to escalating hate speech and attacks.

The response of the official Brussels to this troubling pattern across the EU has not been very vocal. The whole world has suffered greatly in the last century every time Europe went down the path of self-destruction. Older members of the EU might think of themselves as stable democracies in a stable neighborhood. But the troubling developments coming from its newest member may be a good reason for some much-needed self-reflection. Else the message sent to minorities is that their rights are protected for as long as an aspirant needs to demonstrate its EU worthiness. Once it enters, all bets are off.

Tanya Domi is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute

Reuf Bajrovic is the President of the Emerging Democracies Institute in Washington, D.C.