Over the weekend, a group of far-right protesters in Croatia burned copies of the Serb minority newspaper Novosti in front of the publication’s office in Zagreb. The far-right group had a chilling warning for Milorad Pupovac, the leader of the Serb National Council (SNV) that publishes Novosti: it would be “dangerous” for him if the fascist Ustaša slogan za dom spremni (for the homeland ready) was removed from a Croatian Defense Forces (HOS) plaque near the WWII Jasenovac concentration camp, as he and others have suggested. On Monday, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović drew criticism and further attention to the issue when she described za dom spremni as “a traditional Croatian greeting“.
Pupovac, who in addition to serving as the president of the SNV is the leader of Croatia’s Independent Democratic Serb Party and a member of the Sabor, has been an outspoken critic of the plaque.
Balkanist spoke with Milorad Pupovac, leader of Croatia’s Serbs, about the controversial plaque, the intense public and media scrutiny he and his party have faced in recent weeks, and Croatia’s current ruling coalition, of which he and his Independent Democratic Serb Party are a part.
Balkanist: You and your party have recently been subject to intense public and media scrutiny in Croatia due to your stance on the HOS plaque in the vicinity of the Jasenovac Memorial Center. What’s your response to this?
Pupovac: The plaque is found on the side of a building where the heads of the Ustaša concentration camp in Jasenovac were based. The fact that it was placed there represents the symbolic return of the Ustaša to the location of the Jasenovac concentration camp, and the connotations that this has go beyond the complex itself. For us, this represents an intense form of desecration; it defiles a place that was the site of the most monstrous crimes committed during World War II in Croatia and on the territory of occupied Europe. Therefore, any civilized government, any government that feels a moral obligation towards that level of suffering should feel that it’s imperative that the plaque to be removed. Such plaques should not be allowed anywhere in Croatia, especially not in the vicinity of Jasenovac.
Balkanist: How does this fit into the platform of the political party you represent?
Pupovac: We are a party that has an anti-fascist political orientation, with a tradition that draws heavily on the anti-fascist tradition of Croatia and the former Yugoslav federation. Because of this aspect of our political philosophy we have a special sensitivity to the desecration of places that have seen a lot of suffering at the hands of fascist movements. We are sensitive to the relativization of crimes committed by fascist formations, in this case Ustasa formations. Our party is actively involved in confronting historical revisionism and confronting the denial of crimes committed during the Second World War – it’s one of the key components of our political engagement.
Balkanist: What is the current situation regarding the plaque?
Pupovac: The plaque will be removed in the coming weeks, and the government has agreed on the procedure for the plaque’s removal. The procedure, as it stands now, will give those who put the plaque up the opportunity to remove it on their own initiative and replace it with a different plaque that is acceptable. If this is not done, then government institutions will step in.
Balkanist: If these symbols are under consideration to be made illegal and be banned in Croatia, why has a situation arisen in which these symbols, primarily symbols associated with the NDH, are being placed in public areas and used by political and veterans’ organizations in Croatia?
Pupovac: With regard to the veterans’ organizations, some of them, during the war in Croatia in 1991-1995, used symbols of the NDH as a part of their brand and image, and this was primarily something done by the HOS formations. Unfortunately, they were then able to formalize these symbols and make their crests and emblems “legal”. The current HOS emblem, with the slogan Za dom spremni on it, was registered in 2001 during the mandate of a coalition government which included SDP and other liberal parties, including HNS. Therefore, this plaque that bears the symbol of the HOS has the legally and officially accepted emblem of the organization on it, an emblem that was accepted by the government in 2001. We are paying the consequences for that today.
This legal discrepancy between what are considered legally accepted symbols and the laws that sanction the greeting Za dom spremni lead to complicated situations. So on the one hand you have the fact that in Metkovic, during an event on the Neretva River, you saw ships with the Za dom spremni greeting on their flag disciplined by the police within a short period of time, or people being arrested for chanting “Za dom spremni” on the anniversary of Operation Storm this year. On the other hand, you have this situation, where these veterans’ organizations with a legally recognized logo putting up this plaque in the most sensitive location in Croatia.
Now, two things need to be done. First, we need to remove that greeting from the emblem in the area of Jasenovac. And second, the legal framework in Croatia has to be changed so that it bans any action which glorifies the Ustasa regime or movement or the NDH.
Balkanist: What do you think the reactions to the establishment of such a legal framework will be, keeping in mind what the reactions have been to the issue of the plaque?
Pupovac: It will surely cause certain reactions, just like the issue of Jasenovac has. You do not need to look much further than at the statements made by certain political representatives such as Zlatko Hasanbegovic and others, and there is no doubt that such a thing would pass without reactions. On the other hand, the governing coalition and the government need to defend the fundamental values of Europe after WWII, the fundamental values of today’s Europe, as well as that which has been formalized by legal precedents in Croatia – which is the sanctioning of the Ustasa slogan Za dom spremni. The removal of the plaque itself would not be without precedent, as was demonstrated by the case of the removal of the plaque bearing the Za dom spremni slogan on a monument dedicated to members of the HOS in Split.
Balkanist: Would you agree with the assessment that your position on this issue, or rather the position of your party, is being used as a reason to incite offensive rhetoric against the Serbian minority in Croatia?
Pupovac: Unfortunately, yes. Situations such as this or reactions to this situation often lead to an increase in anti-minority rhetoric, especially with regard to the Serbian minority. An anti-Serbian atmosphere and anti-Serb sentiments become more widespread, and we see an increase in attacks against our representatives and our organizations, which sometimes take the form of insults and threats in various forms, so we see a wide range of negative reactions. But we see this as a continuation of a certain wave of Croatian politics and public discourse that became particularly evident in 2014 and then in the years that followed, until the fall of the government led by Tihomir Oreskovic and Tomislav Karamarko. This “current” of political thinking in Croatia wasn’t really halted until Andrej Plenkovic’s government was formed. Now that mainstream political rhetoric has shifted slightly, certain segments of Croatian society, including certain elements from the Catholic Church, certain political circles, certain veterans and veterans’ organizations, want to rekindle the rhetoric from the 2014-16 period, and they tend to do so by demonizing both the political representatives of the Serbian minority as well as the Serbian people.
Balkanist: What is the current situation with regard to the Serbian minority in Croatia and how do situations like this affect the ability of your party to work on improving the living situation and advancing the rights of Serbs in Croatia?
Pupovac: Situations like this negatively affect the way Serbs feel in Croatia, the extent to which they feel safe here, and their belief in a perspective and a future in Croatia – especially with regard to their children. On the other hand, this taxes the relationships between Croats and Serbs and contaminates the general atmosphere in Croatia. It also adversely affects the relationship between Croatia and Serbia, as well as general relations between Croats and Serbs in the region.
But more importantly, this negatively affects the things that Croatia should be dealing with instead, such as the strengthening of the rights that Serbs have lost over the years in Croatia, the continued implementation of laws and the constitution, the continued implementation of international agreements such as the Erdut Agreement, and other agreements which are tied to fulfilling and respecting the rights of Serbs in Croatia.
Balkanist: How do the goals and the platform of your party fit with the goals and the platform of your coalition partners – one can presume that when you entered into the coalition that SDSS is part of at the moment that you did this with the conviction that you could best serve the interests of the Serbian minority in Croatia?
Pupovac: There are two things that need to be said in this context. We entered into that coalition because we wanted to help swing the government of Croatia more towards the center, in contrast to the heavily right-wing government that existed before it. We wanted to prevent heavily right-wing tendencies, or ultra-conservative and – not rarely- pro-Ustasa tendencies from dominating the Croatian government.
On the other hand, we entered the coalition because we agreed with Prime Minister Plenkovic that certain important issues be incorporated into the government program, issues that are important for all national minorities, including the Serbian minority. These include questions such as adequate education for minorities, language rights, and especially the question of development in the communities where minorities live – and this has become a part of the official government program, these 16 points that were agreed upon in the negotiations prior to the formation of the government and these issues are important to members of Croatia’s national minority groups.
So all of that has been agreed upon, including the issue of participation of minorities in institutions of government, from the local to the national level. The problem is that “scandals” like this, the plaque and the strengthening of historical revisionism, and of ethnic and religious nationalism, hamper this whole process and therefore it was only a question of time until issues such as the plaque in Jasenovac would cause discord in Croatian society and need to be resolved.
Balkanist: Incidents like this one often negatively affect the relationship between Croatia and Serbia. I presume you are aware of the manner in which your stance on the issue of the plaque has been perceived in the Serbian media, and that it has been reported on widely. How would you comment on that?
Pupovac: It is sad there seems to be no way for us to overcome the experiences of our recent wars, and the traumas associated with the recent wars, which sometimes leads to a return to “wartime rhetoric” in the public sphere – as was the case in Croatia in 2014 and 2015. We believe it’s imperative that Croatia and Serbia sit down and discuss the unresolved issues between them, which actually mostly involve the position and the situation of the Serbian minority in Croatia. There hasn’t been a serious conversation for a long time. The upcoming talk between Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic could bring certain improvements to the situation, especially if the governments on both sides are included, because the current situation is frustrating not only for Serbs in Croatia but for the entire population of both countries.
Balkanist: But just to clarify – how would you comment on the fact that your clearly progressive stances are used by unprogressive actors in Serbia, which definitely do not agree with your progressive opinions with regard to anti-fascism primarily and other opinions, which republish your statements in the media merely because you are, in a way, opposed to the general views of the Croatian government and mainstream opinion in Croatia – and therefore in a sense offer them a “jab at the Croatian government”?
Pupovac: With regard to the way my statements or our statements are received and reverberate in Serbia or elsewhere in the region, we are aware of the fact they are interpreted in a way that is different from what we would like. We are aware that they can often be made confrontational and retaliatory, and we cannot control whether our statements are used for this purpose.
On the other hand, I know that there is a readiness for these difficult questions to be discussed, and for us to sit down and agree on how to deal with the past in a way that will change the current situation, in which both Croatia and Serbia are hostages to ethnic nationalism and the constant return to the past.