Playing With Fire: Using Coordinated Nationalism for Election Success in Croatia

Faced with a political maelstrom, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic turns to the guaranteed recipe for success in the Balkans – nationalism. Hoping to conceal the failures of his government behind a scandal-ridden right-wing singer, he shows that he is made of the same cloth as many a politician before him. By Nikola Pavesic and Una Hajdari.


Croatian singer Marko Perković has been subject to controversy ever since he launched his musical career in 1991 during the war in Croatia. His followers and fans strongly identify with his extreme-right views, which glorify the Croatian nation and its history – particularly the WWII Nazi puppet state – at the cost of hate spewed at Croatia’s ethnic minorities and neighboring countries.

When Slovenian authorities announced on May 17th that his concert, which was supposed to take place three days later in Maribor, was cancelled – the mayor of the northeastern Slovenian town cited security risks and said that there was “no room for fascism” in his town – neither fans nor critics were surprised. Perkovic or “Thompson”, as he is known by the public, has relished from the “public persecution” he received throughout his career – his concerts have been cancelled repeatedly for the same reason.

Concerts in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands have previously been cancelled for similar reasons. As a matter of fact, his concerts in Croatia have been cancelled too, like the one that was supposed to take place in the Pula Arena in 2008. Thompson would often be satisfied with pocketing the cancellation fee and the solidification of his image as a martyr among Croatian nationalists.

However, the most recent cancellation has taken on a surprisingly political twist, coming from the head of the Croatian government. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković reacted to the Slovenian ban with a request for a formal explanation from official Ljubljana. Thompson’s concerts abroad have been cancelled many times before, yet it has never been the concern of a prime minister or president. Yet suddenly, a very moderate, proudly centrist right prime minister is concerned with the well-being of a singer with a “toxic” reputation. 

It is interesting to observe that the same prime minister is currently facing the largest political crisis of his mandate. The Croatian government suffered a terrible blow when news surfaced earlier this year of the five billion-euro debt accumulated by the country’s largest distributor, Agrokor, which accounts for 16% of its GDP and employs 60,000 people both in Croatia and in neighboring countries.

Plenković’s pleasant façade took another hit when he requested the resignation of three ministers from the governing coalition he heads on live television, after they refused to side with him on a vote of no confidence involving a scandal-ridden finance minister. As he scrambled to maintain the coalition’s parliamentary majority and keep his finance minister, he lost the support of a handful of right-wing parliamentarians from his party, including Zlatko Hasanbegovic. Hasanbegovic was himself the target of criticism from progressive movements and outlets in Croatia last year, when photographs of him wearing a WWII Ustasa hat appeared in the Novosti weekly.

At this point it is unclear whether Plenković holds a parliamentary majority. Put into context, it is clear that every second Plenković spends on air talking about Thompson is a second spent detracting attention from the miserable state his government finds itself in. In addition to that, it plays well into mobilizing the right wing of his party’s voting base in the midst of local elections by fending off suggestions that the current party leadership is too close to the center.

Plenković seems to be much better in handling the government crisis than his predecessor, Tomislav Karamarko, who was ousted from the party leadership after he was unable to deal with pressure from the junior coalition partner, MOST. However, the current PM is balancing on a tightrope. Local elections are happening now, and there will  likely be parliamentary elections in a few weeks – if his government doesn’t make it – and the stand-off and uncertainty is not likely to go away. Everything matters for Plenković at this point, including a healthy dose of “pretend nationalism”.

It is important to point out that such occurrences are not isolated events, nor is this a specifically Croatian phenomenon. Politicians on all sides are gathering support based on the nationalist tendencies of their subjects. The Serbian president-elect and current prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, uses every opportunity to nitpick Croatia’s domestic and EU policy whenever it seems like it could threaten the role of Serbia in the region – such as the increased militarization of the Croatian army or attacks on the marginalized Serbian minority in Croatia. In 2015, Vučić regaled the Serbian media with stories of how dozens of his family members were killed in Bosnia by Croatian fascists.

Slovenian provocateur extraordinaire and right-wing court jester Joško Joras, who lives on the disputed Slovenian-Croatian border, has also been attracting a lot of attention with his nationalist antics. In 2004, he was eventually visited by the conservative politician Janez Podobnik, unsurprisingly right before the 2004 Slovenian parliamentary elections, and was then arrested by the Croatian police during an illegal attempt of crossing the border. Equally unsurprisingly, the media was there too. The whole incident was, although silly in its nature, an overblown affair in both Croatia and Slovenia and it contributed to strengthening the lingering anti-Slovenian and anti-Croat sentiments in the respective countries.

Thompson, Joras, political plays and historical tales are just pawns in the games played by Vučić, Plenković, and Slovenian PM Miro Cerar, who find it necessary to inject their actions with what they must presume is nothing more than a bit of ‘healthy’ nationalism. A very “simple” game that allows them to float on top and score simple field goals when trying to make everyone look in the direction they want them to look. After all, in times of crisis the extremes and populism, especially those right wing, emerge and sway the attention of the general population.

This whirlpool of instability, nationalism and demagoguery is leaving a few questions open as politicians across the ideological spectrum are using an appeal to nationalist ideas. Playing ping pong with nationalism and demagoguery might be helpful to maintain power in the short term, but it is also the major obstacle to constructive solutions for regional cooperation. The downside is that as ideology, manipulated, is consistently losing its ideological anchor, the line in the sand might be crossed one day, and events might spiral out of control creating a dangerous scenario. Once again.


Cover photo credit: Buka

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