By Slavenka Drakulić, the author of the book They Would Never Hurt a Fly – War Criminals on Trial in The Hague (THE GUARDIAN, 29/08/08):
Croatia is a «small country for a big vacation», as the ads tell you. But beyond the marketing and optimistic reports of millions of holidaymakers spending their «big vacation» there, there is less cheerful news, casting an unpleasant shadow over that small tourist paradise on the Adriatic.
This summer Dinko Sakic, the 86-year-old former commander of Jasenovac, the notorious second world war concentration camp, was buried in his Ustashe uniform, the Croatian equivalent of the Nazis. After the war, Sakic emigrated to Argentina but returned after Croatian independence in 1991. He was welcomed back like a celebrity. In his interviews, Sakic repeated that he regretted nothing. What Sakic should have repented was that tens of thousands of inmates in Jasenovac were murdered under his command. He also personally executed two Jewish prisoners. Franjo Tudjman’s government showed no will to put Sakic on trial until Israel signalled it was perfectly willing to try him there. So in 1998, Sakic was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years. At his funeral a Dominican priest, Vjekoslav Lasic gave a speech in which he advised Croats to admire Sakic and to take him as an example.
Efraim Zuroff from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre protested to Croatian president Stjepan Mesic. There ended the scandal.
Then, a few weeks ago, Zvonko Busic, a 62-year-old Croat who served 32 years in US prisons for terrorism, was welcomed at the Zagreb airport by pro-Ustashe supporters who hailed him with the traditional fascist salute. Busic had hijacked a TWA passenger plane in 1976 on the way from New York to Chicago, intending to throw leaflets describing the discrimination against Croats in Yugoslavia. A bomb planted at the same time by Busic at New York’s Central Station exploded, a policeman was killed and three were wounded. But in Croatia he was considered a hero and a martyr «for our cause»; the victims, just a misfortune. He was compared to Begin, Arafat, Mandela, Che Guevara and Tito.
As if this pair were not enough, the country has been further split by the pop singer Marko Perkovic Thompson, whose audiences, dressed in clothes adorned with Ustashe symbols, habitually raise their hands in a fascist salute – some even shout «Kill Serbs». Should his concerts, inciting nationalist hatred (which is forbidden by law) be banned or not? Recently President Mesic did not attend a tennis tournament because Thompson was due to play in the same town. However, the Croatian Helsinki Committee – for human rights! – defended the singer’s right to perform. Mayors of Croatian cities are divided: for some, Thompson is a patriot; for others, a promotor of fascist values.
It’s interesting that the common denominator of these three is not only the rehabilitation of fascist ideology, but the apparent unwillingness of legal institutions such as the police and the public attorney’s office to react to them. Indeed, how could they, when even some ministers attend Thompson’s concerts?
The dilemma of whether the law should be enforced or not is absurd. If anti-fascism is stated in the constitution of the new Croatian state, if the law prohibits the inciting of national, religious and racial hatred, then what’s the problem? The problem is the Croatian attitude to its own past. Documents and declarations are one thing, but reality is another. In reality, before its 17 years of independence, Croatia was an independent state only once: between 1941 and 1945 – when it was ruled by a Nazi puppet government.
This is the history that the Croatia of Franjo Tudjman fell back upon, and the same sentiments continue. In spite of political speeches denouncing episodic revivals of this infamous heritage, the general attitude here is that fighters for the «national cause» can not, by definition, be criminals. It is not the crime that counts, but the intentions behind it. This is the same logic that turns war criminals from the Balkan wars, such as Mirko Norac, into heroes.
Croatian politicians, especially the prime minister Ivo Sanader, loudly promote European values and declare their commitment to join the EU. While such un-European behaviour as war crimes, terrorism and fascism might be legally banned, they are, in practice, tolerated and even nourished. Does the EU need this Croatia – a country that is showing the world only its pretty summer face, but keeping its dubious values hidden?