Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
The Party of Rights in Croatia traces its lineage back to Ante Starcevic, who is sometimes referred to as the father of Croatia. In 1861, when his country was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Starcevic co-founded the Party of Rights as a vehicle for creating an independent Croatia. The long “springtime of nations” was still in effect, and many independence movements at the time aimed to break out of an empire that was called “the prisonhouse of nations.”
But independence didn’t come with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead, Croatia joined together with other southern Slav nations to create Yugoslavia. Only with the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 did an opportunity for a sort of independence arise. Under Ante Pavelic, this “independent” puppet state of the Nazis ruled for four brutal years. Like Slovakia, independence for Croatia had a most unfortunate link in the mid-20th century with fascism, persecution, and war crimes.
As Marcus Tanner writes in Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, Ante Starcevic would never have endorsed the actions of the Ustase, not least because Pavelic ceded Dalmatia to the Italian fascists. “It is also hard to imagine him condoning Pavelic’s policy of annihilating the Croatian Serbs simply because they were Orthodox,” he writes. “Apart from the fact that his mother came from an Orthodox family, Starcevic shared the anti-clerical sentiments of the radical middle classes of the nineteenth century and they thought a Croat’s religious affiliation was irrelevant.”
Daniel Srb, the current leader of the Croatian Party of Rights, resents having his party associated with the Ustase. He also insists that his party treats people on the basis of citizenship, not ethnicity. “We, as a political party, do not separate the population according to ethnic origin,” he told me in an interview in Zagreb last October. “Very often we are labeled in public as a party that does exactly that. But we treat political attitudes according to political principles. In my speeches, I have never addressed people according to their ethnic origins. I always speak exclusively about Croatian citizens.”
As the leader of the party since 2009, Srb has had to confront three major challenges. The first is the party’s legacy from the 1990s, when it fielded a paramilitary force during the conflict with Serbia, butted heads with the government of Franjo Tudjman, and was led by a politician with an iffy reputation. The second challenge is the downward trajectory of the party’s popularity. In 1992, it attracted more than 7 percent of the votes in the parliamentary elections, but by 2011, it was down to 3 percent.
The third challenge is the unpopular positions that the party takes. For instance, it has been a lonely voice opposing Croatia’s entrance into the European Union. Daniel Srb cites this example as evidence that the Party of Rights is not a populist party.
“We think that under certain conditions the Croatian economy will not develop in the best possible way as a member of the EU,” he told me. “Ultimately, I believe that the way of spending money in the European Structural Funds benefits first of all the most influential EU countries and does not benefit to the same extent the development of Croatia. After entering the European Union, Croatia will in the long run lose any opportunity to influence its own future. Historically we have had very bad experiences along these lines. Croatia came under the control of the Hapsburg monarchy, and then the Hungarian monarchy, and lost all possibility of making decisions regarding our future. The same will happen with the European Union.”
Croatia is still on track to join the EU this July. Slovenia is now backing its neighbor’s accession after the resolution of their banking disagreement. And the European Commission is already preparing to expand the EU budget to take into account Croatia’s entry. The more difficult question – the degree of control that Croatia will retain as an EU member – remains unanswered.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard the news about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
At that time, I was here in Zagreb, at the end of my studies. Professionally, I am a mechanical engineer, and I was studying here in Zagreb, finishing up my diploma. When I was a student, in that time of communism, I just wanted to get out of Yugoslavia. At that time for me Germany was an interesting country. But when the Wall fell and new winds came through this area, then I saw other possibilities for living here. I believed that life could be much better than during the communist period.
Did you think that the fall of the Berlin Wall would have a major impact on Yugoslavia?
Yes, I was quite sure about that. In 1989, the first two political parties were established here in Zagreb, in a legal grey zone we can say. But it sent a very strong political message to everyone here. People at that time believed that new political parties meant that democracy will come. But the question of what would happen with Yugoslavia was something that people didn’t have the courage to talk about frankly. People in Croatia hoped that Yugoslavia would break apart and Croatia would be a free country, but they didn’t have the courage to talk about it. It was a very, very serious question. If you uttered a few words about this issue, you could spend a long time in jail. So, even in 1989, this was not a question you could talk about openly.
It was around that time that Franjo Tudjman created the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). What did you think about that, and did you consider joining that party at the time?
In 1989, many people in Croatia wanted to be part of this new democratic process, and I would say that I was also thinking about joining this movement. I’ve never been a member of HDZ. I joined first the Croatian Party of Rights, but the Croatian Party of Rights was established a year after, about 6-7 months after HDZ.
And what attracted you to the Party of Rights?
I don’t know how much you know about Croatian political history. The Croatian Party of Rights is 150 years old. The foundation of the political agenda of the Croatian Party of Rights was the creation of the independent state of Croatia. So, this process started 150 years ago, at the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The party was forbidden in 1929 with the introduction of the January 6th dictatorship of King Alexander. The party was only re-established in 1990. I’ve always supported the idea of the creation of an independent state of Croatia, and I saw an opportunity for that in 1990.
At what point in your political development, did you decide that an independent Croatia was necessary? Was it part of your family history? Or was it something that you developed as a student?
In communist times, Croatia was economically more developed than any other part of Yugoslavia except for Slovenia. Independence was therefore an opportunity for us in Croatia to do better than the rest of Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia, and ultimately this turned out to be true. Secondly, we thought that it is the right of any nation to have its own country. We thought, and I personally thought, that at the time of Yugoslavia we were living in a prison house of nations. And this was the basic reason why I considered the Croatian Party of Rights to have the clearest political objectives and attitudes regarding what needed to be done in Croatia. And at that moment, what was needed was the preparation for defense.
Did you think that independence would necessarily lead to war?
At what moment did you think that would be the case? Was there a moment in 1989 or 1990?
There was a long historical period during which Serbia based all its interests and policy on Croatian economic power. I read a wonderful sentence about this in a work by John Kenneth Galbraith. He described at that time the relationships inside the Soviet Union. He said that for many nations that were in the Soviet Union, it was very difficult to accept the fact that the decisions about them and their future would be made by those who are more powerful because they are more numerous, like the Russian nation. The Lithuanian nation has a very rich culture and tradition, and it was experiencing this as an offense to its national pride, the fact that a country at a different cultural developmental level was actually managing its country. We had the same situation in Croatia. These were the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, the Nobel Prize winner, and I felt this deeply at that time, in the 1980s.
You come from a town that was, or is still, ethnically diverse, and I’m wondering how the experience of growing up in Osijek contributed to your worldview. Many people say that during the Yugoslav period, throughout Croatia and ethnically mixed areas, people basically got along reasonably well. Was that your experience as well?
Yes and no. My family is an old Osijek family. A large part of the families in Osijek typically have a certain German ethnic affiliation. The Germans were the majority until the Second World War. Afterwards, the Serbian nation came to live in the city of Osijek, and also the villages around Osijek, which at the time were ethnically pure German villages. So the Germans were forced to leave and then the Serbs from different poor areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina moved in. This hypothesis that everybody got along is actually not true.
I don’t know if you know this, but the Germans across the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia experienced a genocide. They were sent to concentration camps in which they stayed until 1948 when those camps were shut down. All their property was confiscated: their land, their houses, everything. Large parts of the population, especially the elderly and children, died in those camps — not due to shootings or torture, but due to poor living conditions. And a majority left for Germany after 1948. Since Osijek was a town in which Germans were the majority, the old inhabitants directly felt this history. Most of the inhabitants in Osijek who were Croats didn’t go through such a Golgotha, but they empathized with their friends who were ethnically Germans. The story that they all got along is a story by those who came after this period. The old inhabitants of Osijek do not think it was so. And they didn’t think that life was idyllic at that time.
At the time of socialism, Osijek was drastically lagging behind economically. Well, it’s not much better now, to be honest. But these are some historical facts.
And of course Osijek suffered a great deal during the more recent war.
Osijek had problems because of the wars of the previous century. The change of the borders in World War I put it on the margin. It was a border city that lost its position as a transportation hub. Until the First World War, Osijek was industrially more developed than Zagreb. But that changed after the Second World War and, of course, after the Independence War. There’s another consequence rarely mentioned in Croatia. Due to the long war, the economy in eastern Croatia did not achieve its transition at the right time. This ten-year delay in transition destroyed the economy in eastern Croatia much more severely than the war itself. So these are the reasons why Osijek and Eastern Croatia have become the poorest part of Croatia.
And is there still a significant ethnic minority population in Osijek today?
I believe today in Osijek maybe 5% of the population is Serb. Other minorities are not represented.
And how would you assess the inter-ethnic relations today in Osijek?
I don’t see any particular problems there. I see that these issues are especially important to you, and I hope that I’ll be able to give you an opinion that you might not hear from other political representatives in Croatia. Ultimately, my party is often considered a counter-Serbian party. But I would like to clarify something. I think this is done on purpose. We, as a political party, do not separate the population according to ethnic origin. Very often we are labeled in public as a party that does exactly that. But we treat political attitudes according to political principles. In my speeches, I have never addressed people according to their ethnic origins. I always speak exclusively about Croatian citizens.
This is a very sensitive issue. Very often we have been declared a party that emphasizes ethnic affiliation. That’s absolutely not true. Maybe HDZ is more recognizable for that position, not us. Many members of the Serbian nation have been renowned representatives of our party. We recognize the difference between accepting and not accepting the existence of the Croatian state. That is the basis of membership in our party, not ethnic identity. Even during the Independence War, we had members from the Serbian nation.
Also very important for us is that we absolutely accept every right demanded by national minorities, including observing their history, tradition, culture, and language. This includes the Serbian national minority. But we are very sensitive if this crosses the border into irredentist activities.
Do you think that there are any political parties, or movements, here in Croatia that have these irredentist tendencies?
Can you give an example?
SDSS [Independent Democratic Serb Party]
They have said they want to recreate a Serbian state in Croatia?
Not frankly. But it is the biggest political issue for them.
And do you think they have much political influence?
In the Serbian nation, yes. There was a moment when you were able to see this perfectly: when the president of SDSS blackmailed the Croatian government into not recognizing the independence of Kosovo. Through this you can see their political orientation. We would like in Croatia to have very strong Serb political parties that make the following conclusions: “We belong to a Serbian national minority; we live in Croatia; we would like to live in Croatia, and we are asking for the rights of a national minority; and we run our own policy, not the policy of Belgrade.” So it was obvious that they actually adopted Belgrade’s policy toward Kosovo. If they live in Croatia, then they shouldn’t be asking the question this way. They should not be blackmailing the Croatian government this way. They can express their dissatisfaction with the rights of national minorities in terms of language, script, you name it. But not the issue of Kosovo. This is an issue of the Croatian state. If the Croatian state has an interest in recognizing the independence of Kosovo, then the national minorities should also recognize the need to show loyalty to the state of Croatia.
Here’s another example. In Austria, there is a large Croatian community that lives in Gradisce. And they have been living in Gradisce for a long time, just like Serbs who have been living for long time in Croatia. And they are absolutely loyal citizens of Austria. And when they watch a football game between Croatian and Austrian teams, they are fans of the Austrian team. Croatians in Slovenia are in the same situation: they of course are fans of Slovenia. Here we see a difference in the behavior of the national minority. For one part of Serbs in Croatia, this is actually a dividing line.
Are you saying that there are Serbs who live in Croatia that don’t support the Croatian football team if there is match between Croatia and Serbia?
Absolutely. Another thing: The Serbian national minority has several political parties in which they participate. There are national parties such as the SDSS. There are others, like SNS [Serbian People’s Party], that have much less influence, but that strongly advocate the idea that they are Serbs who live in Croatia and who recognize Croatia as their homeland. Another strong political party is SDP [Serbian Democratic Party], which is absolutely not interested in this Serbian ethnic issue. Nor does it doubt the territorial integrity of Croatia. This is what we as a political party respect.
So, the majority of Serbs in Croatia who support SDSS would be fans of the Serbian football team. Those active in SDP, I’m certain, would be fans of the Croatian football team.
Do you think that, for instance, the Progressive Party in Belgrade has irredentist desires over territory here in Croatia?
Absolutely. I’m certain that Serbian politics today, most strongly represented by the Serbian Progressive Party, have such objectives. So, there’s a distinction between Croatian and Serbian nationalism. Serbian nationalists are concerned with changing borders and expanding into Croatia, Bosnia, and so on. This doesn’t exist in Croatian nationalism. We only protect against their plans and programs. We are not drawing maps to identify which part of Serbia is really in Croatia.
Since we’re on the topic of maps, I’m curious about what you think the future of Bosnia is. Many people think that Bosnia is going to fall apart, that the Croat-Muslim Federation is unstable, that Croatians who live in Bosnia don’t have the same rights as other people have in Bosnia, either Serbs or Bosniaks.
We consider Croatian politics from a strategic point of view. For us it is extremely important that Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina remain living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, that they have political impact there, and that they are satisfied by their life there. This is the attitude of the Croatian Party of Rights. We have no desire to see the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina, because we think that would be tragic for Croatia. In that sense, Croatia should also focus largely on economic cooperation between the two countries.
Among Croatians living in Bosnia-Herzogovina, there is a very strong difference of opinion about the future of the country. The Croats who live north of Ivan Planina [Mt. Ivan] in principle see their future connected to the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Those who are south of the mountain actually want to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina. But I am deeply convinced that for the future of the Republic of Croatia, it is of utmost importance that Croats–especially in central Bosnia-Herzegovina–remain living there and be satisfied there.
On this issue, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the relationship between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is a huge difference and conflict between our policy and the policy of HDZ. We believe that, to protect the interests and concerns of Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we should have a good relationship with the Bosniak nation and Bosniak inhabitants. In HDZ there is much stronger impact of people who are actually from Herzegovina, from south of Ivan Planina.
That is what I’ve read. However, I’ve also read that HDZ has changed over the last 10 or 15 years, that the influence of Herzegovinian Croats within the party is much lower, and therefore HDZ in some sense has now moved a little bit more toward the center.
Yes, that is correct. This impact is getting less and less. And I personally know that the current president of HDZ has a view that is, let’s say, similar to ours. To what extent this policy will be implemented depends on dynamics within their party.
To be honest, I’ve read the same thing about your party. That since you have become the leader of your party, you have managed to move the party more toward the center. That your predecessors were perhaps not as understanding in their perceptions of what the difference is between citizenship and nationality for instance. And that you have done a great service to the party by making it a more modern party.
The current position of the party is to define our policy at this moment when the Croatian state is a reality. Of course, the issue of security is something that will be constantly present. But the issues of development, of national economy, and technological progress are almost of utmost importance.
The other issue, which has defined your party as different from other parties, is of course the stance toward the European Union and membership in the European Union. I read somewhere that in parliament, you were the only vote against European membership. What are the major reasons why you think Croatia shouldn’t join? And also what is it like being the only voice against this?
Our party has always been special in history. We’ve always been different. We’ve always had different views. But, unfortunately, very often we were right. So this is an extremely sensitive issue. Our political tradition is actually to protect Croatian citizenship. We think that under certain conditions the Croatian economy will not develop in the best possible way as a member of the EU. Ultimately, I believe that the way of spending money in the European Structural Funds benefits first of all the most influential EU countries and does not benefit to the same extent the development of Croatia. After entering the European Union, Croatia will in the long run lose any opportunity to influence its own future.
Historically we have had very bad experiences along these lines. Croatia came under the control of the Hapsburg monarchy, and then the Hungarian monarchy, and lost all possibility of making decisions regarding our future. The same will happen with the European Union.
In addition to this issue of our future sovereignty, there is also the issue of economic development, and we will lose influence here too. Those who are against our view usually say, “You wish to close off Croatia and become isolated.” Absolutely not. Croatia should be a completely open country, with close cooperation with the European Union, including a customs union. We would communicate very closely with the European Union and coordinate with European legislation. But we would also to a great extent like to have our own policy of economic development.
But many people here say, “if Croatia had as much oil as Norway, or if they had as many banks as Switzerland, then Croatia could be economically strong and could survive outside the European Union.” But Croatia doesn’t have oil, and it doesn’t have big banks. Even those who support membership in the European Union might agree with you on everything you said. But they would say, realistically speaking, that Croatia really doesn’t have a choice.
This is an issue, of course, but realistically we do have a choice. Admission to the European Union does not imply faster economic development. For example, Turkey is registering fantastic economic growth, though they are not being allowed to enter the European Union for various political reasons. And all European countries, including members of the EU, are experiencing a strong recession.
I am deeply convinced that our economic development is to a much greater extent dependent not on the fact that we lack oil or banks but on the recognition of our national and economic interests. It depends on the existence or non-existence of a plan for economic development, and our ability to implement this strategy of economic development. Unfortunately, Croatia does not have a strategy of economic development.
In terms of economic development, what would you recommend as an appropriate strategy for Croatia, given the fact that Croatia is a relatively small country?
This is a very demanding question to be answered in a couple sentences. First of all, I think that the strongest strategic advantage for Croatia is that we should become a crucial energy crossroads in this part of Europe, which could have a strong impact on economic development. The government should provide incentives in the economic sector so that everyone obtains the relative maximum stimulus. The government has neglected the energy sector, however, for many years.
Turkey, for instance, is an important hub energy-wise, because of pipelines coming through Central Asia and because of its ports. So you imagine something similar for Croatia?
Yes. Croatia has several possibilities. One is a huge project: the Druzhba [Friendship] Pipeline. It’s not very suitable for the Americans, but for us it could be very interesting. Then there is the Russian pipeline called South Stream, which is also not very favorable for Americans. But there is also the LPG Terminal, which must become a replacement in this part of Europe for the Russian pipelines or the Nabucco pipeline. Also, finally, Croatia should completely use its own energy resources. By selling these resources, Croatia lost an opportunity to have an impact on energy development.
Do you think that the privatization that took place here in Croatia, and the sale of Croatian banks and other key industries to foreigners, was an economic mistake?
Privatization was not a mistake. The way in which it was implemented, yes, that was a mistake. To a large extent, we should have preserved many of the factories that just collapsed in this process. In terms of banks, Croatian nationalists are not very happy that the banks are under foreign ownership. But they function much better than before, so this is something that we should admit and recognize. In that respect, I do not any objections about the functioning of the Croatian banking system.
You said earlier that the Party of Rights has been cast in a certain way, as politically more extremist. Why do you think the party has been characterized this way?
There are a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the Croatian Party of Rights has been connected to the Ustasa movement. But this movement was not connected to the Croatian Party of Rights. The Ustasa consisted of people who left the party to organize another political movement. This is something very frequently used against us.
We represent people who want an independent Croatian state. We are in no way the heirs of the Ustasa.
The same accusations have been made against HDZ as well because of things instituted here in Croatia immediately after independence: the flag, the currency.
Yes. Everything that has historical heritage, for those who do not want to have this heritage, is immediately denounced as Ustasa, such as the flag, which only has the same colors: red, white, and blue.
When you think back to your political positions when you joined the party in 1991, have you rethought any of your political positions since then? Have you changed your mind about specific thoughts or policies over the last 22 years?
My ideas are the same. But things never function the way you think they will. Certain weaknesses always appear. This is especially true with the functioning of the state, in terms of appointments, in terms of corruption. Decision-making at the highest level was often detrimental to Croatian national interest, such as the sale of INA, the state-owned oil and gas company. I would say that this was a huge betrayal.
I’m curious about your personal viewpoint, about changes in your own personal thinking.
In the 1980s, I would have been happy if Croatia were a member of the European Economic Community. Not the European Union, but the European Economic Community. The EEC was an optimal framework for including Croatia. The European Union is a bureaucratic system, in which democracy has been suspended to a large extent.
I understand your objections to membership in the European Union on economic grounds. Do you also have objections on the political-civil side?
I would advocate respect toward all the European rights and laws. And the EU standards would be a good stimulus for us to improve our judicial system. But I have been very critical of messages concerning changes in Croatian politics. This is something that the European Union was trying to put forward for Croatia, and this is actually not right.
One of the other litmus tests of the European Union has been respect for gay and lesbian rights. Right now it’s a major issue in Serbia, because of the cancelation of the recent Gay Pride march. I’m curious what your thoughts are about Lesbian-Gay rights here in Croatia.
I don’t believe that anyone should have impact on anyone else’s sexual orientation. But I also don’t see any need for organized marches or anything similar. Because this represents in a certain way a public disturbance, which I think is more detrimental than beneficial for the Gay community.
I’m curious what you think about what’s been happening in Hungary, with Viktor Orbán and FIDESZ,, which is now the government. What do you think of that political development in Hungary in general?
The Hungarians are one of the European nations that feels very strongly about and cherishes their history. In that respect it’s no wonder that Hungary has a policy that, maybe in the European Union, has been recognized as nationalistic. With such a policy today, if Hungary were a candidate for EU membership, it would be blackmailed into changing its approach. But they recognize their national interests. Whether FIDESZ is realizing its politics in the best possible way is another issue. I do not know enough about their financial issues. But I think I understand the basic national policy of FIDESZ.
Some people have said that the Party of Rights is essentially a populist party, but listening to you I hear many different political tendencies. I hear some liberal tendencies. I hear conservative tendencies. How would you characterize the party?
We are a conservative political party, without any doubt. No, we have never been a populist party. HDZ was a populist party. We’ve always spoken of things that were not popular, that many people did not want to hear. But we believed that they should be said, including the relationship and attitude toward the European Union.
What do you think the relationship should be between Croatia and the United States and with the region?
I believe that Croatia should have an extremely good relationship with the United States, and I do not see that our interests intersect with Russia, which is strongly represented in Serbia. I also believe that Kosovo will become an independent state. A crucial issue in the Balkans will be the interests of the Albanian nation to become united in one country. We should keep in mind that there are two million Albanians in Kosovo and four million in Albania, and 35 percent of Macedonians are Albanian. At the moment none of the Albanian politicians talk about this. But I’m sure they will. The Serbs will try to connect with Russia, U.S. politicians will support more or less openly the Albanian demands, and I’m certain that Croatia will be on the side of the United States.
Some may call it greater Albania. I’m not an Albanian, and this territory for me is very remote. But we cannot neglect this interest of the Albanians to become connected. We as a party do not try to get entangled in this. It’s not something that concerns us. I just want to say what the relations will be and why.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed here in Croatia, or hasn’t changed until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
In Croatia, we can’t neglect the war and the impact of the war. Everybody wishes that we never had this war. But the fact is that there was a war, and we can still feel its aftermath. If we never had the war, and if Croatia had achieved the development that was expected, then I would say that the situation is rather good. I must say that I am extremely happy that there is no Yugoslavia anymore, and that Croatia is an independent state. But we absolutely can’t be satisfied by the economic situation in the country. So to provide a general estimate, I would say 4.
On the same scale and over the same period of time, how would you evaluate your own personal life?
When it comes to that, I am not dissatisfied. I would say, 6-7.Finally, if you look into the near future and you evaluate the prospects for Croatia in the next 2 or 3 years, what would you say, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
Speaking frankly, I would tell you 3. But if you are going to publish this, as a politician I should say at least 7!
I’m just curious why you’re pessimistic.
Croatia does not have any strategy for economic development. And I don’t see any ideas, or plans, or programs from the government at this time that could bring about more significant economic development.
Zagreb, October 16, 2012
Interpeter: Hrvoja Heffer