1990s War Veteran Urges Croatia to Cherish Anti-Fascist Legacy

Predsjednik Udruge veterana Domovinskog rata i antifašista Ranko Britvić dao je intervju portalu “Balkan Insights”, koji prati politička zbivanja u regiji koja obuhvaća zemlje nastale raspadom bivše Jugoslavije, te okolne države. Želeći predstaviti rad naše udruge i međunarodnoj javnosti, prenosimo ovaj intervju u izvornom obliku, na engleskom jeziku. Autorica teksta je zagrebačka dopisnica BIRN-a (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) Anja Vladisavljević.

Portal Balkan Insights interviewed recently president of the Association of Homeland War Veterans and Antifascists Ranko Britvić. This portal is specialized in covering political processes in states founded after ex-Yugoslavia collapsed, and neighboring countries. While wishing to introduce our Association to international public, here's the whole interview as published in “Balkan Insights”, in English, written by Anja Vladisavljević of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network's Zagreb Bureau.

Piše: Anja Vladisavljevic / BIRN
  05. listopada 2020.

Two wars in the 20th Century – World War II and the 1990s war – are often still the focus of political debates in contemporary Croatia.

While the country’s anti-fascist legacy from World War II is often neglected, the 1990s ‘Homeland War’ plays a huge symbolic role in contemporary Croatia’s concept of itself as a nation, and therefore 1990s war veterans’ organisations wield a lot of political power.

According to some estimates, there are over 1,300 such organisations in Croatia. Many Croatians believe that they exacerbate divisions in society with nationalist rhetoric and historical revisionism, but one of them is different.

For three years now, VeDRA has been operating in the coastal city of Split, bringing together veterans of the Homeland War and anti-fascists – a combination that can be hard to imagine in today’s Croatia, where veterans vociferously protest against anti-fascist symbols and everything connected to socialist Yugoslavia, which Croatia was a part of before the bloody 1990s war, when it fought for independence.

“For years we have been listening to individuals in these associations who simply deny something that is a historical reality,” Ranko Britvic, VeDRA’s president and a member of Croatia’s police force during the 1990s war, told BIRN.

He claimed that such people “are denying Croatia’s role in the People’s Liberation War” – the armed resistance to fascist and Nazi forces during World War II – which means they are inferring that the Croatian army in WWII was actually the army of the fascist Ustasa movement.

The Ustasa established the Independent State of Croatia in 1942 with the support of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and passed harsh racial laws against Serbs, Jews and Roma people. Identifying the country with its forces “puts Croatia in the position of the loser”, Britivic argued.

There were two reasons for founding VeDRA, he said: “Firstly, to protect the dignity not only of the People’s Liberation War – we are proud that we were part of that anti-fascist coalition in World War II – but also to protect the dignity of the Homeland War.

“Our main task is to show that a Croatian war veteran is not a person who is wearing a black T-shirt and who uses the Ustasa salute,” he continued, referring to the increasing nostalgia for the Ustasa movement among war veterans, and the use of its insignia and salute ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Homeland’) – the Ustasa equivalent of the Nazi salute ‘Sieg heil’.

‘Effort to devalue anything positive’

Most Croatian war veterans associations are very vocal in their opposition to symbols of the WWII anti-fascist resistance.

They were infuriated when a giant red star artwork, entitled the Monument of Red Rijeka, was installed on a towerblock in the coastal city of Rijeka last month.

The installation commemorated the decision in 1943 by the State Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia, the highest authority of Croatia’s WWII anti-fascist movement, to seize back the city from the Nazis after the capitulation of the Italian fascist forces who had controlled it.

Local media reported that protesters led by war veterans gathered in Rijeka city centre to demonstrate against “a symbol of the greatest evil in the Republic of Croatia from [19]45 onwards”, linking the red star to crimes committed by Yugoslav People’s Army troops against Croats in the 1990s war.

Shortly afterwards, some ministers from the government led by the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, condemned the installation. Croatia’s War Veterans Ministry stated that the red star was a “political provocation which upset not only Croatian war veterans and victims of the Homeland War but also many citizens”.

But Britvic insists that comparing a red star from WWII and to the symbol abused by Slobodan Milosevic’s forces during the 1990s war is “malicious, whether it is said by a minister or some ordinary man”.

“The effort to devalue anything positive that happened in WWII is very obvious,” he argued.

In recent years, war veterans’ organisations have protested against various events, such as theatre plays, festivals and concerts, most often those attended by participants from Serbia or members of Croatia’s Serb minority.

“To me, it is tragicomic… For example, a musician from Serbia is coming, let’s say Bajaga [rock singer Momcilo Bajagic], who is widely popular, and they react to it,” Britvic said.

He stressed that some veterans’ associations are needed because of their welfare work, for example providing legal or psychological assistance to veterans, but he also said that members of VeDRA believe that “there are too many” such associations, which “take a lot of [state] money”.

Veterans’ organisations, of which there are hundreds in Croatia, can apply for public tenders and get grant money from the state for their projects.

“In some places, these associations have become an end in themselves,” Britvic claimed.

‘Our children must remember’

VeDRA’s activities include organising exhibitions, discussions and book presentations, and attending commemorations, both at important sites of anti-fascist resistance and commemorations of crucial moments in the Homeland War.

“Even though we were in the army and the police, we are not militant – we simply think that these are places that our children must remember so that these wars won’t happen again,” Britvic explained.

VeDRA members have also commemorated the anniversary of the killings of Serb civilians in places like Grubori, Varivode and Gosic in the wake of the Croatian Army’s victorious Operation Storm in 1995 that ousted rebel Serbs who had held parts of Croatian territory since 1991.

In a new development this year, these commemorations were also attended by senior Croatian officials. Many observers have welcomed the gesture as a step forward towards reconciliation and the normalisation of Croat-Serb relations in the country.

In August, Croatian leaders staged a ceremony in the town of Knin to celebrate the anniversary of Operation Storm, which Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said was Croatia’s “greatest victory”. However, he also expressed sympathy for all the victims, “not only Croats but also Serbs”. VeDRA members were also there.

“This year we were proud to be in Knin for the first time… it was organised in such a nice way,” Britvic said, expressing hope that Croatian society is going in the right direction.

However, he believes that the education system should have a role in dealing with the past, noting that history textbooks do not deal with WWII or the 1990s war properly.

He said that commemorative events do not make much sense “if it’s just a parade, [and] if you forget about the kids”.

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