The Zagreb City Assembly has just voted to rename Marshal Tito Square. In Croatia, anti-communist politics of memory are being used for the mobilization of the far right.
It’s official now: Zagreb’s Marshal Tito Square is no more. Late Thursday night, city officials voted to strip the central square in the Croatian capital of the name Josip Broz Tito, leader of socialist Yugoslavia. The new name will be Republic of Croatia square.
The initiative was spearheaded by Croatia’s most notorious far-right politicians and apologists for WWII fascism. The success of the initiative shows how much power they continue to wield over the political mainstream.
The Zagreb city assembly’s decision (29 deputies in favor of renaming the square, 20 against, with one abstention) was arrived at due to a demand made by the new right-wing party “Independent for Croatia”. Coincidentally — or perhaps not so coincidentally — the party’s name recalls that of the WWII Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which was governed by the fascist Ustasha movement. The leader of “Independent for Croatia” is former Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegovic, who has dismissed WWII anti-fascism as “a platitude… put forward by Bolshevik dictatorships”, attacked “unpatriotic” institutions, and written essays extolling the virtues of the fascist Ustasha.
During WWII, the Ustasha regime operated concentration camps for Serbs, Jews, and Roma, as well as Croats opposed to its policies. Tito’s anti-fascist partisans and their allies defeated fascism in 1945, and this victory became the symbolic foundation of the Yugoslav state.
The mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandic, has been in power for 17 years, and was re-elected in June, albeit by a much narrower margin than in years past. Bandic has steadily transformed Zagreb into his own mini-fiefdom, with a culture of corruption and patronage so vast and unabashed it’s been compared to Chicago under Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Finding himself without an easy majority in the new city assembly, the supposedly left-oriented Bandic turned to Hasanbegovic and his new far-right party for support. Hasanbegovic’s condition for joining the city government and giving Bandic the majority he desired was that Marshal Tito Square be renamed. Bandic, who had previously said he would put the renaming of the square to referendum, agreed to the conditions put forth by Hasanbegovic.
Many people in Zagreb were against the renaming of the square. Several days ahead of the vote, opponents of the proposal gathered in the city’s Victims of Fascism Square to protest what several described as widespread historical revisionism. Zagreb isn’t the only place in Croatia where Tito’s name is disappearing. In July 2017, the city of Karlovac renamed its own Tito Square. Local officials rechristened it Croatian Defenders Square to honor veterans of the 1990s War for Independence, fought against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Karlovac Mayor Damir Mandic explained that the name change was justified because Tito had “suppressed basic human rights”.
Hasanbegovic, for his part, described the renaming of Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb as “a matter of civilizational hygiene”.
On Thursday night, in front of the city assembly, Hasanbegovic had even stronger words to say on the subject. He pledged that future generations would be free of “Tito idolatry”, adding confidently that he was “certain that there will never again be a majority in this assembly which would support Tito”. Finally, Hasanbegovic called the decision “a small and late satisfaction for all the victims of wartime and post-war Yugoslav communist terror.”
But public opinion research reveals that the population has a somewhat more complex view of Croatia’s past and present political reality. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 23 percent of people in Croatia believe the breakup of Yugoslavia did more harm than good. People are also losing faith in democracy — especially younger people. New Pew research reveals that 55 percent of those over 40 believe democracy is the best system of governance, while only 50 percent of those between 18 and 39 do. In the 2015 report the Paradoxes of democratic potential of the contemporary generation, Vlasta Ilišin claims the situation is even more extreme among the 18 – 29 demographic: a full 63 percent said they were not convinced that democracy is the best system.
People are leaving Croatia in record numbers now. There are 331,000 citizens of Croatia living in Germany alone, out of Croatia’s total population of just over four million. The Central Bureau of Statistics recently reported on their numbers, and as of mid-July, 36,436 people had left the country. And among them, 46.7 percent were between the ages of 20 and 39.
Of course, Croatia is not the only country in the region indulging in WWII revisionism. A city councilor in Sarajevo recently proposed renaming the Bosnian capital’s Tito Street, calling the late Yugoslav leader a “criminal, dictator and leader of a totalitarian-communist-criminal-atheist system”. And a court in Belgrade is continuing to process a request submitted in 2015 for the rehabilitation of the WWII leader of Nazi-occupied Serbia, Milan Nedic.
Croatia has experienced a significant resurgence in right-wing sentiment in recent years. The renaming of Marshal Tito Square represents a clear continuation of right-wing efforts to rewrite Tito’s anti-fascist tradition out of the country’s history, and is a reminder that the right-wing revival is not over. Earlier this year, the head of the Croatian Film Center, Hrvoje Hribar, resigned following what he described as a long campaign of political pressure. Hribar said attacks on the film center started following its decision to provide funding for the production of a documentary about a mass killing committed by Croatian Army soldiers in Osijek in 1991. Hribar said the campaign against the film center was carried out by the ministry of culture while Hasanbegovic was still in power.
Anti-minority sentiment has been on the rise in Croatia, according to some troubling recent reports. The last annual report published by Croatia’s Serbian National Council (SNV) recorded a spike in hate speech, intolerance, and threats, with 331 incidents reported in 2016 compared to 189 incidents reported the previous year.
The 2016/17 Amnesty International Report noted that media and public officials “evoked fascist ideology from the past by promoting the use of inflammatory iconography and generally fuelling anti-minority sentiment.”
What seems certain is that what kind of country Croatia becomes will likely depend in large part on what kind of history it chooses.