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In Croatia, A Furor Over Nationalist's Call To Register 'Traitors'

Croatian Veteran Affairs Minister Mijo Crnoja has proposed creating a "registry of traitors" naming people who oppose nationalist values.
Croatian Veteran Affairs Minister Mijo Crnoja has proposed creating a "registry of traitors" naming people who oppose nationalist values.

At first, it seemed like an extremist politician's dream come true.

When the head of Croatia's Ministry of Veteran Affairs proposed last week to create a "registry of traitors" naming people who oppose nationalist values, a group of concerned citizens leaped forward to help.

The nongovernmental organization SKROZ raced ahead of Minister Mijo Crnoja to set up a website and save the newly elected, nationalist-dominated government the trouble and expense of doing so itself. Then the group invited all Croats who felt they had betrayed their country to voluntarily register themselves as guilty.

However, the website came with a judo twist. The NGO, which advocates a diverse society, deliberately created a space where thousands of Croats could register their objections to exactly the nationalistic views espoused by Crnoja and other leaders of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which now dominates the government.

The HDZ, which led the country during the Balkan wars of the 1990s under the late Franjo Tudjman, became the senior partner in Croatia's ruling coalition after closely contested elections in December. The party is anti-immigrant, intolerant of diversity, and considers "traditional" Croatian culture, including a conservative interpretation of Roman Catholic values, superior to the cultures of neighboring states, particularly Serbia.

That is a vision of Croatia that infuriates many in the EU-member country who hope to move beyond the history of the Balkan wars and the enmities they created in the former Yugoslavia region.

'I Am A Traitor!'

"I am a Croat and I root for Djokovic!" one self-confessed "traitor" wrote of the world's top male tennis player, a Serb, as he registered on the opposition website, which opened almost the same day Crnoja made his proposal.

"I care for frail people and animals, I'm not a racist and I like Christianity but sometimes I like Buddhism and I practice yoga," said another, listing her reasons for "betraying" nationalist values. She added, "I was pregnant to the teeth when I got married."

More confessions came fast and furious, including disclosures like "I am a traitor because my first love was a wonderful Serb girl!" or "I am an uber-traitor because I read more than one book a year!"

As more than 7,000 people poured out their feelings on the website in less than a week, the minister who proposed the "registry of traitors" quietly withdrew his proposal. The Veteran Affairs Ministry said in a statement on January 26 that "the focus of the new veteran affairs minister and his associates will not be any kind of registry, but much more important existential, social, and health problems of the [veteran] population."

Balkan Culture Wars

Still, the flap offers a measure of just how deeply divided Croatia has become in the wake of its most recent elections.

The December vote failed to produce an outright winner, resulting in a ruling coalition that pairs the HDZ as dominant partner with a small pro-reformist party, Most (Bridge). On January 22, the parliament ended 14 hours of heated debate over who should head the new government by finally agreeing on a nonpartisan prime minister, Tihomir Oreskovic. Both the Most party and Oreskovic had refused to back the "registry of traitors" idea after it was put forth earlier last week.

The hard core of HDZ supporters comprises veterans of Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia, a war that included massacres of Croats by pro-Serbian forces but also saw the exodus of some 200,000 ethnic Serbs from Croatia amid Croatian military operations in 1995. With the party's resurgence has come a renewed debate over what kind of country Croatia should be: a purely Croatian nation, as many of the veterans fought for, or a diverse state open to other cultures around it.

"I read and write Cyrillic without difficulty," one man noted on the SKROZ website in a rejection of nationalism. His statement that he is comfortable with both the Cyrillic alphabet favored by Serbs and the Latin alphabet used by Croats was a way of saying he values the intertwined history of the many peoples who populate the region.

Then he went still further. "I also use the word 'drug'" -- or comrade -- "instead of 'prijatelj,'" or friend, he added, citing one word favored by Serbs and another by Croats, both of which have the same meaning. Serbo-Croatian, a combination of two dialects of the same mother tongue, was the common language of the former Yugoslavia prior to its breakup in the 1990s.

Such attitudes are exactly the ones that the nationalists appear to hope to stamp out.

"One should not conclude that this story about the 'registry of traitors' is simply inspired by anti-Serb [feeling]," says political scientist Zarko Puhovski in Zagreb. "The Croatian right in the last year or so has not been focused on Serbs, they are after local 'traitors.' They are exposing Croats who still have some sentiment for the ex-Yugoslavia."

The battle over what kind of society Croatia should be looks far from over. The December vote ended a four-year rule by a center-left coalition but left the country with a highly unstable governing coalition that faces a range of pressing problems.

The country has seen a fragile economic recovery since late 2014 after six years of recession following the global economic crisis of 2008. But it has been hard-pressed to deal with thousands of migrants who have sought to use it as a route farther west since Hungary closed its borders last year.

Both the uncertain economic outlook and the migrant crisis are believed to have contributed to the rise of nationalist sentiment in Croatia. But just how committed voters will remain to the new government remains to be tested.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondent Enis Zebic in Zagreb

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