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'Nationalists On Both Sides' Fuel Row Over Jasenovac Commemoration


The "stone flower" memorial at Jasenovac has served for decades as a gathering place for people to pay their respects to victims of the fascist Ustashe regime. (file photo)

Judging by the correspondence between Belgrade and Zagreb in the past few days, one could be forgiven for thinking that World War II has only just ended.

The latest strain in relations between Serbia and Croatia is connected with the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where around 100,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascist Croats were killed by the Ustashe regime, a World War II-era quasi-protectorate under Fascist and Nazi patronage.

A "stone flower" memorial was built at Jasenovac in 1966, which for decades served as a gathering place for people to pay their respects to the Ustashe's victims and to reaffirm their commitment to ensuring that such crimes were not repeated.

However, for the third year running, the annual gathering has fragmented into rival commemorations. The Jewish community, antifascist groups, and the Croatian government paid their tributes to the victims on separate days, with the first two choosing to boycott the official event. Meanwhile, Croatian President Grabar-Kitarovic visited the site independently, a few days before the others' ceremonies.

The Serbian community, for its part, marked the camp's liberation in the village of Mlaka, near Jasenovac. The memorial liturgy and the consecration of the Church of St. Elijah were officiated by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej and the metropolitan of Zagreb-Lljubljana, Porfirije.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin (file photo)
Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin (file photo)

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin had meanwhile been banned from attending the event at Mlaka after claiming prior to the commemoration that his right to travel to Croatia was not up to the Croatian government but "would be decided by the supreme commander of Serbian armed forces, [Serbian President] Aleksandar Vucic."

That assertion was seen as incendiary by the Croatian government, which immediately sent a protest note to the Serbian Embassy in Zagreb to the effect that Vulin was no longer welcome in the country.

The decision to ban Vulin from the memorial event was made by the Croatian Foreign Ministry on April 21.

Diplomatic Incident

It followed another diplomatic incident between the two countries last week, when the controversial leader of the Serbian Radical party, Vojslav Seselj, allegedly trampled on a Croatian flag, prompting a visiting Croatian delegation to leave Belgrade.

The rebukes from Belgrade over the snub of its minister came swiftly.

Vulin called it an attempt by Croatia "to silence those speaking about the crimes committed there." He told Serbian state television RTS: "The most terrible truth about Jasenovac is not just what happened but the fact that Croatia today refuses to repent for the crimes."

On April 23, Vucic said that he "did not understand" Croatia's decision, adding, "Serbia will probably react with reciprocal measures." He added that the Belgrade would formulate its response on April 26 but that one option was to build Holocaust memorials in Serbia with lists of all the victims of the Ustashe regime.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (left) with President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (left) with President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, also expressed her disappointment with Croatia's decision to deny Vulin the right to visit the country. But she struck a more conciliatory note. "These are not European values," she said, "but Serbia's main priority is regional stability, and for that reason we remain open to dialogue."

The exchange of diplomatic barbs between Zagreb and Belgrade has only turned up the heat on an issue that has been simmering for some time, reflected in the rival commemorations.

While the minister was banned from the Orthodox memorial service at Mlaka, Jewish groups have been boycotting the official event for three years.

Fascist Slogan

In an interview with the N1 TV channel, the president of the Zagreb Jewish community, Ognjen Kraus, cited the Croatian government's refusal to ban Ustashe symbols or the slogan "For the home[-land] -- ready!" ("Za dom -- spremni!")

"It's been getting worse for some time, because of a failure to do something that should have been done a long time ago," Kraus said. "The real significance of that salutation ["Za dom spremni!"] was never officially explained. It was never unequivocally acknowledged that all racial laws and other official documents issued by the NDH" -- the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet-state during World War II -- "were undersigned with that slogan."

He added that every order sending individuals to concentration camps also ended with that phrase. The words were effectively a death warrant for tens of thousands of people.

So, more than seven decades after the liberation of Jasenovac and the victory over fascism, the president of the Jewish community is forced to issue repeated requests for the government to ban the symbols of a murderous regime.

"We call on the government and parliament to pass legislation forthwith banning Ustashe symbols and slogans," pleaded Kraus. He also said that the Jewish community could not abide attempts to relativize the crimes of the Ustashe regime by invoking the actions of the partisan liberators of the country, or by claiming equivalence between the pro-Nazi NDH and the anti-fascist Socialist Yugoslavia.

'Not Good For Society'

The efforts by the Croatian government to combat the glorification of the Ustashe state have been criticized by some as too little, too late -- leaving it open to charges of hypocrisy from victims' groups.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, has pledged to do everything in his power to ensure that there will be no separate commemorations in the future because "it is not good for our society." He promised to work on bridging those divides. However, he did not seem inclined to defuse tensions with Serbia over this year's commemoration.

Serbian Prime Minister Brnabic said it was "unfortunate" that her Croatian counterpart had so far not returned her call, which indicated a lack of desire to resolve differences through dialogue.

She added that "nationalists on both sides are harming their respective countries" and that Serbia and Croatia needed to take a "time-out," and return to building the region's future, rather than dwelling on the past.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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    Gordana Knezevic

    Gordana Knezevic writes the Balkans Without Borders blog for RFE/RL. She was the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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