Croatia’s President Zoran Milanovic walked away from a state wreath-laying ceremony on Friday (1 May) in protest at a Nazi-era slogan worn by one of the participants, exposing once again deep divisions in the EU’s newest member.
Milanovic, a former Social Democrat prime minister in 2011-2015, was in Okucani, eastern Croatia to mark the 25th anniversary of Operation Flash (Bljesak), in which Croatian forces retook large swathes of land held by rebel Serbs for four years.
“I feel sorry. I came here to pay my respect to those who had given their lives for Croatia,” Milanovic said after marching away from the ceremony.
He said his office had agreed to the protocol set by the war veterans’ ministry, whereby veterans were to lay wreaths first, followed by the prime minister and president.
“But one of the participants, who was in line to lay the wreath before me, was dressed in clothes with the emblem ‘For the homeland ready’, which is something I do not want to be a part of,” Milanovic said.
‘For the homeland ready’ is a salute used by the Ustasha movement which ruled Croatia during World War Two, when the country was formally allied with the Nazis and brutally persecuted Jews, Serbs and anti-fascists.
“For me, this casts a shadow on the victims and the remembrance. In the future, I will refuse to take part wherever such a situation occurs,” Milanovic said.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who stayed throughout the ceremony, briefly commented that it was the president’s “own decision”.
Croatia, which became independent in 1991 and joined the EU in July 2013, has paid lip service to anti-fascism but has been ambivalent about its fascist past. The legacy of the country’s Ustasha regime, as well as of the subsequent 45 years of communism, is a topic that sharply divides the Croatian society to this day.