Gotovina Lives!

For Croatians, Europe doesn’t mean open society but a standard of living

The white van stops a bit past the parking spot. Knowing that the narrow streets on the island of Losinj, in the north of Croatia’s Adriatic coastline are a challenge even for experienced drivers, the attention of the few people in the cafe across the street focuses on the driver and his van.

Oblivious to the suspense outside, the man behind the wheel in reverse pulls into the parking spot not even nudging the dividers that separate the narrow, cobbled street from the sidewalk. Out jumps a small, round man in a black T-shirt and proceeds to unload meat in all shapes and sizes from the trunk.

There is another face staring out the trunk door though. It is printed on a piece of paper and seems to have been stuck rather hurriedly onto the window. Even from across the street the local eye can tell that the figure with the crew cut and military garb shot on the photo is of Ante Gotovina, and one does not even have to read the writing underneath to determine that it will undoubtedly read “HERO” in large, ornate letters. On closer inspection, the delivery man’s T-shirt also turns out to feature the same picture, just smaller and in monochrome with a message printed on its back:

“He protected us and we let him be convicted!”

Ante Gotovina, one of the three generals facing trial at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal Yugoslavia) in The Hague, has reached a near-divine status in the Croatian public sphere. The conviction on Apr. 15 of Gotovina and Mladen Markac spurred a nation-wide outcry of disbelief over a judgment that only came as a real surprise to the Croatian public.

“The integrity of the war has been called into question” boomed the media, and the public reciprocated in a nationalist outcry that brought back memories of the climate that tipped off the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia twenty years ago.

Why though? Why does the public respond to every criticism with a reactionary defense mechanism that prohibits any discussion whenever the possibility of a critical examination of the war presents itself?

In the sixteen years since the end of the war Croatia has modernized its infrastructure, normalized its relations in the region and progressed to the verge of EU membership, but in all that nationalism has not faded. Croatia seems to be functioning on two levels: one that is eager to present itself as a Western oriented society belonging to the European family and the other that is firmly rooted in the standardized nationalism left as a legacy of the Franjo Tudjman years.

Croatia’s aspirations of European identity stop at the externalities, at the economic status of a western European country. What is thought of as European is not the ideal of an open society, but the perceived glitz of the European standard of living. When the discussion threatens to turn past the beauty of the Adriatic coastline, Zagreb newest shopping center or the latest brand that has entered the market, towards a discussion of Croatia’s role in war crimes, one often draws blank stares.

The Homeland War, as it is often called, triggers emotions rather than dialogue, thus critical debate turns into finger pointing and name-calling. The ease by which nationalism is commercially and politically exploited has caused it to be nurtured and championed in the post-Tudjman years rather than deconstructed. Politicians rely on it for popular support, pop musicians to gather large crowds and sell out stadiums. At national team soccer matches, amidst red and white checkered jerseys one often finds scarves adorned with fascist slogans of the Ustase, the Croatian fascist regime of World War II.

In the beginning of June, members of the home crowd displayed a swastika during Croatia’s European Cup qualifier against Georgia. Political officials and authorities acted quick to condemn the incident, but the lack of interest in enforcing existing laws that prohibit fascist symbols, give such condemnations an air of formal obligation rather than belief. In a context where there is no motivation to separate them, patriotism and nationalism are too often confused.

Croatia’s saturated media landscape is also a key factor here. Presented with the pressure of outselling its competitors, journalistic impartiality and a separation of opinion from reporting have never developed as standards in a market dominated by screaming headlines and snide commentary. Reporting on events like the conviction of Gotovina is thus from the start more dramatic than it ever should have been, and the more cathartic the sound bite, the more likely that it will be in the evening news.

All this does is set the stage for black and white reasoning, to be carried over from one generation to the next, its more violent outbursts characterized as regrettable but isolated incidents – while the system of thought that permits them operates unnoticed in the background, installed long ago as the norm.

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