Political Musical Theatre: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Croatian Patriotic Music and Narratives of National Regeneration

For both contenders in the run-off of the Croatian presidential elections, Ivo Josipović and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, music has played some part in their life stories.

Josipović, a social democrat who became president in 2010, is famously a working composer as well as a politician and lawyer and a former director of the Music Biennale Zagreb, a respected festival of contemporary art music.

The musical link for Grabar-Kitarović, a career diplomat who entered Croatian politics in 2003 as a parliamentary deputy for the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is more indirect: born in 1968, she owes her unusual first name to the Cajun folk song ‘Colinda’ (an adaptation of a black Creole dance from Louisiana), which was re-recorded by several US and Canadian pop artists in the 1960s before being covered in Croatian by Zdenka Vučković in 1967.


Grabar-Kitarović’s extremely close victory over Josipović on 11 January (receiving 50.7% of the vote to Josipović’s 49.3%) was hailed by HDZ supporters in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but interpreted by others including Croatia’s own foreign minister Vesna Pusić as a potential ‘return to the nationalism of the 1990s’ which Grabar-Kitarović would have to avoid in order not to destabilize Croatia.

Pusić, the leader of the Croatian People’s Party (HNS) and a core member of the centre-left Kukuriku coalition which has held parliamentary power in Croatia since 2011, has been a consistent critic of the form of nationalism that HDZ’s founder and Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tuđman, represented in the 1990s. The sociology papers on democracy and nationalism that Pusić published during the 1990s set Tuđman and HDZ in the context of what she saw as a broader trend in the politics of post-socialist eastern Europe. Soon after HDZ had attempted to shut down the independent Zagreb radio station Radio 101, for instance, Pusić wrote in a 1998 article for the Journal of Democracy:

All the new rulers in postcommunist Eastern Europe came to power with two slogans emblazoned on their banners. One read “Democracy,” while the other demanded “Justice for the [Croatian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, or Bulgarian] People.” For the Croatian (as for other) nationalists, this “historical justice” was the real taproot of political legitimacy, and grounded their right to rule. They had no democratic credentials, and no plans to deepen democracy once they came into power. Their emphasis instead was on the claims of nationhood. […]

The HDZ increasingly treats Croatia as a party-state. Leaders have repeatedly emphasized that they regard the HDZ as capable of encompassing the entire political spectrum, thus eliminating any need for political opposition. President Tudjman continues to pour contempt on the opposition, calling it a herd of “grazing cattle” in a 1995 speech. Both he and his party have been high-handed and autocratic enough to alienate a large portion of the populace.

Comparing Pusić’s and Grabar-Kitarović’s views on the politics of the 1990s could hardly give a clearer illustration of how far memories of Tuđman’s politics are divided in Croatia. For Pusić, the decade was a time of political alienation for which Tuđman and his party should be held responsible. Grabar-Kitarović’s victory speeches, meanwhile, implied that national unity was a value that Croats needed to rediscover in order to reunite the country. Giving her official victory speech, surrounded by her campaign team and volunteers, she began in a less specific way that still communicated recognisable keywords of the Croatian right:

Let us start as early as tonight to work for the improvement of our dear Croatian homeland. I would like to thank above all my dear Croatian Democratic Union, with which I have stood even in the hardest times. I will have to leave the party membership now, but my values, the values of the family, the homeland, love towards the homeland, towards our émigrés, of faith and togetherness, that stays in me, and that is how Croatia will move forward. Let us come together, let us be together!

Halfway through, however, the speech took a specifically revivalist turn directly linking her programme with an imagined political unity and with the HDZ’s contemporary interpretation of Tuđman, before turning into one of the most striking moments of political musical theatre that Croatia has witnessed for some time:

We all want a better Croatia. And this contest of ours, this programme of ours, everything we have done before now, everything has led up to our finally being able to focus on what matters to the life of Croatian people in Croatia, to the life of our émigrés, to the life of the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We have all striven for that, and I call on us all to unite, I also call on those who voted for Mr Josipović to be part of our team, to be part of the movement for a better Croatia because there has been enough division. There has been enough!


There has been enough of ‘mine’ and ‘theirs’, ‘ours’ and ‘yours’. You are all mine, my dear Croatian citizens, let us go together. A hard task awaits us. Let us unite, let us unite our patriotism, love and faith in this Croatian homeland of ours, let us get ourselves out of the crisis, let us finish the path we began under the first Croatian president Dr Franjo Tuđman, let us bring Croatia into prosperity.

(Shouts of ‘Franjo, Franjo’!)

This state, this people, can…

(The team begins singing, and she joins in, the patriotic song ‘Zovi, samo zovi’: Call, just call / all the falcons will / give their lives for you)

Thank you for these words of patriotism, of faith in yourself, because a people that does not believe in itself, that does not respect itself, will not respect others either. But let nobody understand this as a threat; loving what is ours meaning that we respect what belongs to others; but let us fight for Croatian national interests because this is Croatia!


(Even readers who don’t speak Croatian are quite welcome to interpret the section of the speech between approximately seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half minutes as the closest thing to a Croatian version of Madonna’s performance in Evita that you are likely to see today.)

Later that evening, Grabar-Kitarović visited the camp outside the Ministry for Veterans that a group of disabled Homeland War veterans set up in October to protest the long delays in their health care. Describing it as her ‘first working visit’, she repeated her commitment to the legacy of Tuđman and promised that ‘nobody is going to call the Homeland War a civil war’.

Pusić’s comments on Grabar-Kitarović’s victory suggest that she sees the new president as directly re-evoking the 1990s. So, too, does this graphic that circulated on social media after the victory speech, in a comment on the current political climates of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia as well as Croatia:

The style and language of Grabar-Kitarović’s speech, however, suggest a subtly different dynamic: less a direct evocation of the 1990s, and more a revival of the manner in which the 1990s were already being idealised by politicians and cultural workers in the early/mid 2000s – when the most lasting contributions to nationalist discourse in Croatia were being made by popular musicians.

The ‘Zovi, samo zovi’ moment itself unfolds in a similar way to its use by audiences greeting patriotic musicians such as Miroslav Škoro or Marko Perković Thompson, such as this moment from Thompson’s concert at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb in June 2007:


As performers and songwriters, Škoro and Thompson both took on activist roles in support of the early 2000s veterans’ movement, against the centre-left president and prime minister (Stipe Mesić and Ivica Račan) who had come to power in 2000, and in defence of the ‘truth’ about the Homeland War, which they (like the early 2000s HDZ and its rivals on the right) believed was being betrayed by Croatian politicians co-operating with the Hague Tribunal over the indictments of Croatian Army officers. Škoro’s 2005 song ‘Svetinja’ (‘Sacred thing’) depicted a Croatian nation beset by internal betrayal, and called for the three values of ‘faith, love and the homeland’ (‘vjera, ljubav, domovina’) to be held sacred:


Thompson has frequently associated himself with a similar triad, ‘God, the family and the homeland’ (‘Bog, obitelj i domovina’), as in this 2007 interview during the promotion of his album Bilo jednom u Hrvatskoj (Once upon a time in Croatia):

The most important things in my life are God, family and homeland, and in fact in that order. Every man who has these values in himself is a rich man.

Thompson has contributed, just as much as HDZ’s own efforts, to memorialising Tuđman as a founder and defender of the nation. For instance, concerts on his 2002 tour (at the height of the protests in support of the indicated generals Ante Gotovina and Mirko Norac) began with a special video commemorating Tuđman’s role in liberating the ‘holy Croatian soil’ (‘Sveto tlo hrvatsko’):



Thompson’s calls for national unity, however, do not extend to those he has viewed as ‘Yugo-communists’ – among them, those who have described him as ‘a fascist’ or ‘a Nazi’ for his use of symbolism associated with the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during the Second World War. Controversies about Thompson’s views on the NDH have recurred every few years since he became a star in 1992, symbolising  the wider controversy over how contemporary Croatian public memory should treat the past of a state which claimed to express Croatian sovereignty and which persecuted hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma, socialists and homosexuals between 1941 and 1945.

Calling on the nation to ‘unify’ cannot overcome the fact that Thompson remains a divisive figure in Croatian politics and culture and has exacerbated this division through identifying political opponents whom his public statements suggest do not deserve to belong to the nation; but then much the same could be said of Tuđman himself.

Politically and economically, however, the mid-2000s Croatia in which Škoro and Thompson re-idealised Tuđman’s 1990s is not the Croatia in which Grabar-Kitarović, Josipović, the former HDZ official Milan Kujundžić and the young left-wing activist Ivan Vilibor Sinčić contested the 2014 presidential election.

HDZ’s myth of itself as carriers of an infallible tradition of leadership inherited from Tuđman was punctured by the corruption trial of Ivo Sanader, the HDZ prime minister between 2003 and 2009 – all the more reason, perhaps, for a presidential candidate such as Grabar-Kitarović to reach for a consciously re-imagined past.

Meanwhile, new student, environmentalist and anti-austerity movements in Croatia – the milieu from which Sinčić emerged as a surprise third-place presidential candidate in 2014 – had directly articulated critiques of the neoliberal political consensus they held responsible for Croatia’s debt crisis and spiraling rates of unemployment.

Igor Štiks and Srećko Horvat argue that the new Croatian protest movements, and their counterparts in post-Yugoslav successor states, are symptoms of a fundamental democratic deficit in contemporary south-east Europe (and indeed in Europe as a whole):

Post-socialist citizens […] today feel largely excluded from decision-making processes: most elections have turned out to be little more than a re-shuffling of the same political oligarchy with no serious differences in political programmes or rhetoric. Many lost their jobs (during the “privatisation” campaigns) or had their labour conditions worsen and their pensions evaporate; most of the guaranteed social benefits (such as free education and health care) progressively disappeared. In addition to that, citizens are highly indebted, owning money to foreign-owned banks that spread around the Balkans and that control its whole financial sector. After the series of devastating wars across the former Yugoslavia that claimed up to 130,000 deaths in the 1990s, the last decade brought about another wave of impoverishment, this time managed by “euro-compatible” elites ready to implement further neo-liberal reforms portrayed as a necessary part of the EU accession process.

But others, too, have felt equally left behind by the processes through which successive Croatian governments have integrated the state into the European Union – among them the members of the veterans’ movement who welcomed Grabar-Kitarović to their protest camp after her victory; the rural communities that now ‘affirm themselves as “sites of resistance” to urban neoliberalism’, as Michaela Schäuble writes (p. 275) in her recent ethnography of post-war rural Dalmatia; or, indeed, the many Bosnian Croats eligible to vote in Croatia’s elections to whom Grabar-Kitarović also successfully appealed.

After several years without recording new material, Škoro and Thompson both released new albums in 2013–14 containing songs that framed contemporary conditions within the narratives of unity and betrayal they had developed in 2000–7. Miroslav Škoro’s 2013 single ‘Zašto lažu nam u lice’ (‘Why are they lying to our faces?’) revisits his frequent theme of everyday village life but in a context where (the end of its video states) 110,000 people have emigrated from Croatia between 2001 and 2012:



Thompson’s 2013 album Ora et labora (Latin for ‘Work and pray’), meanwhile, emphasised God as an agent of national regeneration (with lyrics for one song written by the Bishop of Šibenik, Ante Ivas), aimed to comment directly on Bosnian politics with another song that aimed to claim areas including the Lašva Valley and Posavina as the historical ‘cradle of Croats’, and for the first time directly incorporated a speech of Tuđman’s (his November 1996 speech accusing ‘Yugo-communist remnants’ of continuing to oppose Croatian freedom and independence) into one of his own songs (framed as a message of defiance against campaigners who had opposed him performing in the Pula Arena).

Love, faith, family, homeland, and even a falcon or two; if Grabar-Kitarović had a bingo card based on the most commonly used phrases in lyrics from the mid-2000s wave of patriotic popular music, it would be pretty much filled in.

Indeed, a few days before the run-off election Thompson wrote Grabar-Kitarović a public letter of support which explicitly attached his defiance of ‘Yugo-communism’ to her campaign (and implicitly challenged Sinčić’s call for voters to abstain), ending with a quotation from his 2007 song ‘Duh ratnika’ (‘The warrior’s ghost’) which had depicted Thompson receiving a message from the ghost of a Croatian soldier who had been killed in the Homeland War:

I call on you all to vote, not just to vote yourselves, but to encourage others to vote as well […] Let us send those remains of Yugo-communism into oblivion and finish what we started in the 1990s.

Let us vote for Mrs Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, separate the wheat from the tares, and begin to realise our dreams.

‘I would give everything to see her, proud and beautiful like in my dreams’



Is Pusić right, then, to be alarmed by Grabar-Kitarović’s rhetoric of national regeneration and the way in which it has been expressed?

For the historian of fascism Roger Griffin, any combination of the call for national renewal and an exclusionary definition of the nation would be a troubling sign. Griffin has argued that the ‘mobilising myth’ of fascist ideology, in Mussolini’s Italy and elsewhere, was a fusion of ‘an organic, illiberal conception of the nation which celebrates the collective energies of the “people”’ and what he terms the myth of ‘palingenesis’, that is, ‘rebirth’ or ‘renewal’:

These two components crystallize in the image of the rejuvenated nation rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the decadent order which has suffocated the true life of the people […] even a relatively unsophisticated analysis of any Fascist text of substance will reveal a recurrent set of images and themes relating either to the condemnation of the decadent, liberal nation of decline, weakness, crisis, anarchy, or to the celebration of the reborn, post-liberal nation of regeneration, strength, stability, order which Fascism aspires to be creating – and very often to the gulf which divides the ‘old’ Italy from the ‘new’. (p. 7)

At a time of systemic and spreading crisis, within political and socio-economic systems that have failed to provide liveable lives to increasing numbers of the population, calls for renewal in themselves are not inherently a fascist theme, or even a right-wing theme; social-democratic versions of the call to work together to rebuild the country on a different basis can equally easily be imagined (consider, for instance, how several recent British film-makers have attempted to turn Labour’s 1945 nationalisation programme, the Dagenham equal pay strikes of 1968 or the solidarity between striking Welsh miners and London gay and lesbian activists during the 1984–5 miners’ strike into symbolic political resources for today), not to mention, of course, calls for solidarity and resistance across national borders, which imply a more radical redefinition of the boundaries of community and citizenship.

Calls for national regeneration imply a narrative about what has gone wrong and how to fix it; it’s on the basis of this narrative that one can evaluate Grabar-Kitarović’s victory speech, or any other. What do they identify as having gone wrong, and – equally importantly – which people or what forces do they hold responsible? And how, finally, do they propose to solve it? Answering these questions can reveal much about how a speaker – or a singer – approaches the matter of who has full rights to belong, and who doesn’t, within the community they claim to address.

Reviving Tuđman’s 1990s through a lens which was already re-idealised in the 2000s has clear advantages for Grabar-Kitarović – indeed, after the Sanader trial, was perhaps the only way that HDZ could win a presidential election in 2014. Tuđman’s unwillingness to concede ground to the opposition outside or even inside HDZ and his own privatisation scandals had already brought on political and economic crises by the mid-1990s; HDZ had little to gain, and much to lose, from reminding voters of the whole decade in its full complexity.

Yet neither could Grabar-Kitarović present herself unproblematically as Sanader’s political heir, despite their shared commitment to integrating Croatia into Euro-Atlantic economic and diplomatic structures.

Was any narrative even left apart from the story of the 1990s along the lines through which it was already being re-imagined in the 2000s? This picture, though illusory, is much more comforting – unless, of course, one is or might be a ‘Yugo-communist’.

Grabar-Kitarović’s public statements during her first week in office have left her in a position where she has appeared to reopen multiple questions, from the constitutional status of Croats in Bosnia to potentially even how Croatia views the status of Vojvodina within Serbia. Coming from a former Assistant Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy at NATO, they lend themselves to being read less as diplomatic gaffes, more as a further form of political theatre. Yet how far her presidency succeeds in improving conditions as she has promised – and who it succeeds in improving conditions for – will depend only partly on the president’s public face and just as much on what happens on the presidency’s back stage.


Catherine Baker is the author of Sounds of the Borderland: Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia since 1991 (2010) 


Cover photo: YouTube

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Catherine Baker

Catherine Baker is Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull. Her research interests include the cultural politics of nationalism, media and conflict, in the Yugoslav region and elsewhere, and the history of the Yugoslav region in postcolonial context. Her books include Sounds of the Borderland: Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia since 1991 (2010), The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s (2015), and an edited volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (2017). She blogs at http://bakercatherine.wordpress.com and tweets at @richmondbridge.