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Croatia's Unpopulist Party

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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.

The Interview

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.