A swastika planted by an unknown vandal on the field during a widely viewed sporting match has brought world attention to the rise of neo-fascism in Croatia.
Seconds after the opening of an international championship soccer match, held a little over a week ago, the gigantic Nazi symbol materialized on the pitch under the shocked gaze of European soccer officials. The swastika had been drawn on the field with a chemical, which became visible when the stadium’s lights were turned on.
This has not been the only such incident. In the mixed ethnic towns of eastern Croatia, road signs in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet have been destroyed and Serbian Orthodox churches have been vandalized with a “U” symbol representing the Nazi-linked World War II Ustashe regime. On weekends, Ustashe chants echo at sports venues and concerts.
“By number, the people who are doing these types of things are a very small minority, something that you could ignore. The problem is that Croatia is still fighting with its past,” Rabbi Kotel Da-Don, leader of the Bet Israel community of Croatia, based in Zagreb, told Hamodia.
He added that while most Croatians today are strongly anti-fascist, there is a lack of clear admission of the genocide committed during the Ustashe rule, and the government has not sufficiently condemned these acts committed by “hooligans.”
Rabbi Da-Don said that despite the recent trend, the Jewish community felt unthreatened.
“I can proudly say that we do not feel it on the street as Jews do in Paris and other places in Europe,” he said.
The appearance of such symbols is perhaps unsurprising for a country that during World War II sent tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies to death camps. But the Balkan state’s current leaders have called for change after the global outcry prompted by the swastika on the field.
“This act has inflicted immeasurable damage on the reputation of Croatian citizens and their homeland all over the world,” said Croatia’s new conservative president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. “Therefore, we must finally put a stop to such things.”
The rise of the right in Croatia has been fueled by deep economic hardship and growing public anger over the inability of the left-leaning government to deal with it, even after the country entered the EU two years ago, fueling dreams of sudden riches that have not materialized.
Minorities, especially Serbs, have complained of fears for their safety since Grabar-Kitarovic was elected president in December. The anti-Serb graffiti has evoked memories of the bloodshed that engulfed the region during the 1990s Balkan wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
Analysts say the right-wing advance has surged to its highest point since the country gained independence from the former Serb-led Yugoslavia in the 1991–95 war.
“The country has a long tradition of fascism and sympathy for fascism,” Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of European affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Hamodia. “It is unacceptable that a country which has been accepted into the European Union can publicly tolerate acceptance of the values of the Ustashe.”