When Fascist Right-wingers Take Over the Arts: Croatia as a Cautionary Tale

The formation of a coalition government led to the appointment of a minister of culture who began to aggressively attack artists and intellectuals in all their institutions, in order to impose a worldview that can only be described as fascistic. Yes, it happened this year – in Croatia.

A black cloth covers 'Fallen Sun,' Zagreb’s most popular sculpture.
Kulturnjaci 2016's Facebook page

When the international jury of independent experts announced its decision in March to name Rijeka – a small industrial city on the Croatian coast – the European Capital of Culture for 2020, it was seen as a victory for the entire country. Every one of the major players in Croatia’s cultural scene gathered in Zagreb’s Mimara Museum, to hear the winner declared, to toast and to celebrate, to exchange congratulations with everyone else about the prestigious title, which is expected to bring visitors, content and serious money to Rijeka, as well as to the rest of Croatia. Everyone was there – except the One.

The One was sitting in a bar a few blocks away, on his second or third drink, staring into his glass with a dose of bitterness. Just your run-of-the-mill drinker, disappointed, with three days’ growth of beard, you might say. But when he stood up to leave, a high-pitched sound spread loudly through the space. Some people at the bar started to whistle at him. They booed him out into the street. He departed hurriedly without reacting.

This lonely drinker was Zlatko Hasanbegovic, Croatia’s minister of culture.

The scene at the bar really happened, although understanding the hissing requires some extra explanation, especially if I add that Hasanbegovic was welcomed in a similar manner on his first working day as minister in January. A group of cultural workers (curators, producers, journalists at cultural magazines and websites, etc.), along with activists and artists received him in front of Government House with whistles and shouts, scaring him so much that he didn’t know which entrance to go into.

The poor guy was being spat at in the face, you might say, before he had even made his first professional move. At the same time, though, it was a number of moves – all of which would normally be suicidal, in professional terms – that, by some anti-strategic miracle had led Hasanbegovic to become the minister of culture, as well as the principal leader of a conservative revolution in Croatia. In this sense, he is in concert with a large wave of right-wing populist crusaders across Europe who demonize the idea of pluralistic society, while they attack those who are different culturally, religiously and sexually, and impose normative definitions on such big terms as “identity,” “nationality,” “faith,” “family,” “tradition” and the like.

Zlatko Hasanbegovic, Croatia’s minister of culture.
Screenshot

Zlatko Hasanbegovic, 43, began his political career while still at university, where he studied history. His years there overlapped with the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, five years of atrocities that caused the rebirth of Croatia’s old nationalistic movements. The war of the early 1990s rehabilitated the historical glossary of ethnic and religious tensions, especially those dating back to World War II, when Croatia, for the first time in its history, established autonomy – albeit a grotesque one – through collaboration with Italian fascists and German Nazis.

This deep dive into the mud of Croatian historical shame, a throwback to the time of the criminal reign of Ante Pavelic and his Ustase movement, had an apparently inspirational impact on the mind of the young history student Zlatko Hasanbegovic. The black uniforms and the discipline, the martyr’s oaths and the machismo, the divine connections made between God and Homeland, the ritual salute, right arm inclining upward, which was suspiciously similar to that of the Nazis – all these symbols of power and cruelty became intellectual fuel for the future minister of culture, providing an identity to fill some kind of inner personal void.

A Muslim himself, Hasanbegovic began writing about the history of Muslims during World War II, glorifying the role of Husein Dozo, who served in the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, and emphasizing the political renaissance of Muslims during the period of what was called, ironically it turns out, the Independent State of Croatia. Hasenegovic became a member of the extremist Croatia Liberation Movement, which had been founded by Croatian Nazis in Argentina after World War II. He contributed to the journal Independent State of Croatia, where he wrote about Ustases as the “true heroes, martyrs and shaheeds who gave their lives for our Homeland,” describing their defeat by partisans led by Tito in 1945 as “the greatest national tragedy.”

Over the past two decades, Hasanbegovic systematically denied the indisputable crimes committed by Ustase regime, even the mass killings of Serbs and Jews in the Jasenovac death camp, where, by the lowest estimate, 83,000 people met their deaths. In the light of his revisionist discourse, he interpreted these facts as a result of mere exaggeration and communist propaganda.

Just a year before Hasenbegovic joined the government, he stated publicly that Croatia should “stop sponsoring the Jasenovac commemoration because it doesn’t actually serve to commemorate the victims, but rather to rehabilitate Yugoslav communism.” And when he recently added that anti-fascism is not the foundation of the Croatian state, but an empty phrase, completely overlooking its emancipatory influence on the advance of civil and women rights, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff urged the Croatian government to replace Hasenbegovic with “a person suitable for the post of minister of culture, someone who will bring honor and prestige to the post, rather than embarrass his country before the entire world.”

Nevertheless, even after he had become a global fact and had been written up in Der Spiegel, the New Statesman and Liberation, after he had destroyed cultural networks and institutions, after he led an uprising against artists, cultural workers and journalists, calling them parasites, lazy bobos, traitors to the national identity and, of course, communists – even after he had united the entire cultural scene against him, Hasenbegovic still had a self-destructive drive to venture into a bar that was a hangout for artists, ready to receive another spit in the face. Maybe he was seeking the moral impetus to continue his mission of destruction.

But let’s return to the beginning. After the last, inconclusive election, in November 2015, in this country of four million citizens, which led to a long fruitless process of negotiations between the liberal left and conservative right, those same right-wing parties managed to assemble the so-called Patriotic Coalition, and win the support of a majority in Parliament. They brought in a Canadian manager of a pharmaceutical company, Tihomir Oreskovic, a corporate executioner with Croatian roots, though he barely speaks the language, to serve as the country’s nominal prime minister. In fact, the state was being openly led by one of Oreskovic’s deputies, the head of the Croatian Democratic Union, Tomislav Karamarko, a former secret service chief.

As part of a “new national paradigm” and the “lustration of inner enemies and traitors,” Karamarko installed a minister of culture who would be able to undertake the ideological purification of public opinion, be willing to attack the autonomy of the media and the education system (over which he wields some influence), and be prophetic enough to disseminate clerico-fascistic values, fears and political aims into the public sphere.

Spreading like a plague

Protest in Zagreb. Dozens of civil organizations and professional associations are working together to devise strategies to counter political moves.
Kulturnjaci 2016's Facebook page

In less than six months, Zlatko Hasanbegovic – his influence spreading like the plague through the cultural scene – succeeded in doing all of these. Using language not fitting of any decent politician, he announced that his political program would involve creating a uniform cultural paradigm that would serve to homogenize the nation and eliminate any dissent or opposition concerning the values that he supports. First he went for the independent media (which are editorially dependent but government-supported), cutting their budgets completely and redirecting them to other targets. He cut support to all the periodicals dealing with culture and contemporary arts in a critical or liberal manner. He advocated a vast overhaul of public television (whose top management must be confirmed by the government, giving the latter the power to fire its director and board), especially targeting the third cultural channel, a non-commercial station dedicated only to culture and science, leading to the firing of 70 editors and journalists.

Once he had dealt with the journalists, and thus established control over the most powerful TV stations, he controlled the means to reshape and adjust public opinion. This was a point at which, for the first time, cultural workers found themselves defined as national enemies.

Hasanbegovic’s next moves were predictable. He continued to pressure the Agency for Electronic Media (which allocates funding to TV stations and also influences the content they broadcast), and he cut financial support to all institutions, festivals, projects and individuals that dared to criticize him, while ignoring the suggestions of advisory artistic boards that usually made decisions about cultural policy. He advocated the disbanding of two important organizations – the National Foundation for the Development of Civil Society and the Foundation for the Development of Contemporary Arts and Culture. He intervened in the work and decisions of the Croatian Audio Visual Center (which funds and develops various film projects and promotes local filmmakers), and slowed down production in the cinema industry. He attacked the very foundations of Croatian culture, including institutions and individuals – its long-term strategies, its freedom of speech and need to express opposition.

Among those he alienated were the heads of the cultural institutions of Rijeka – including the National Theater and the Museum of Contemporary Art – who were also at the forefront of those behind the bid to become the European Cultural Capital. Which may explain why he skipped the March celebration surrounding the announcement, and took up his place in a bar.

Almost immediately after the appointment of the new minister, the core of cultural workers and artists that I am a part of introduced an “International Public Appeal” calling for his dismissal, reading in part: “We believe that culture has to be defended from any ideology that in any way introduces a regime marked with bigotry, narrow-mindedness, revisionism and nationalist concepts of cultural politics and production.”

Over just a few days, more then 3,500 prominent artists and other individuals who are not professionally engaged in culture signed the document, which opposes the idea of culture as a medium of political pragmatism, culture that hates and despise its artists, culture that mocks erudition, culture that is too conservative and stupid to deal with contemporaneity.

After the first appeal, came a second one, both signed by thousands of outstanding scholars and artists, including such leading world intellectuals as gender theorist Judith Butler, philosopher Etienne Balibar or France’s former culture minister Jack Lang.

Croatia’s imported prime minister was unmoved. His response to the protests was that he believes in the professionalism of the culture minister. The country’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (a woman with strong neoliberal, conservative roots), declared that those who publicly come out against the government’s rightist politics should be ready to accept the consequences. That sounded like a threat.

The left-wing opposition, meanwhile, said nothing. As they anticipated new elections, toward which the inner differences and scandals of the Patriotic Coalition were leading, they left us without any support amid the ruins of our long-term endeavor of building sustainable cultural institutions and networks – that is, entities that are not dependent solely on ministry funding but seek other sponsors and joint projects with other bodies so as to lower expenses. And what is worse, the political opposition left us facing an impoverished society of unemployed, cynical and disappointed Croatians who had been led to believe that cultural workers are their enemies.

Protesters cover 'Fallen Sun,' Zagreb’s most popular sculpture, with a black cloth.
Kulturnjaci 2016's Facebook page

So what did we do? We organized, at the end of January.

Dozens of civil organizations and professional associations started to work together to devise strategies to respond to the political moves, as well as to stimulate a public debate over revisionism, nationalism and xenophobia, which appeared to be turning into the mainstream. We organized interventions, panels and demonstrations, we wrote petitions, appeals and letters to European institutions, and we struggled to find our way to visibility in the already-weakened local media.

One public action led to another. Four-hundred people gathered in front of Government House to hand out a document demanding the preservation of civil society. On the anniversary of the April 10, 1941, declaration of an Independent State of Croatia, a black cloth was slung over “Fallen Sun,” Zagreb’s most popular sculpture. In 25 public squares throughout the country, there were simultaneous readings of the late Umberto Eco’s “Essay on Eternal Fascism.” The books that had been slated for elimination from the school literature curriculum were read in public too. A special radio program opposing the political purge of radio journalists was broadcast. The country was overwhelmed with posters and banners specially designed to protest ideological intervention in education reform. This in turn triggered the biggest demonstrations in recent decades on the streets of Croatia – there were some 50,000 people protesting on June 1 – which in turn led to the final crisis of the government itself.

What happened next was that the second deputy prime minister asked the first deputy prime minister to resign. Then the first deputy asked the premier himself to resign, who responded by demanding that both of his deputies resign, too.

This cynical game of political dominoes will have its final round during the elections planned for September, but until this happens the damage continues, not only behind the closed doors of government offices, but also in cultural institutions, in the press, the schools and universities, in the public domain in general, where Hasenbegovic’s narrow-minded values have been aggressively marketed and largely accepted.

The case of the Croatian minister of culture could serve as an example of the extreme-right political profiteering spreading through Europe, manipulating the fears and frustrations of the people, and channeling them into ignorant hatred. And while we continue to demonstrate and oppose those political fanatics and amateur fascists with our modest, although creative forces – we should keep in mind the bitter truth that we are simultaneously producing a smokescreen behind which more dangerous plans for the future of our society are being made.

Fascism doesn’t have to penetrate the entire system, wrote Umberto Eco in his essay, it is sufficient to have just one of its elements, such as cult of tradition, or irrational fear of diversity, or theories of conspiracy and treason, or strong social frustration, present to open a space for the cancer of fascism to grow, especially, if it has a minister of culture to feed and nourish it.

Ivana Sajko is a playwright, novelist and theater director in Zagreb, with a particular interest in artistic expression and current social and political issues.