Many members of Croatia’s Serb minority feel they are put under pressure to deny what they see as their ethnic and religious identity in the country’s current census. A hitherto unkown group appeals for people to declare themselves to be members of a „Croatian-Orthodox Church“. This brings back memories of WW II, when Croatian Fascists slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs in Europe’s probably cruellest genocide to date.
This huge billboard in the Croatian coastal town of Split spells out what boxes the „Association of Croatian Orthodox Veterans“ wants Orthodox Croatians to check in the forms the country’s citizens and its dijaspora are expected to fill out in the current census.
The figure of an armed soldier on the right underlines the urgency of the message.
The same message has been posted on billboards in several towns in Slavonija, near Croatia’s border with Bosnia and Serbia, an area where most of the country’s 200.000 or so remaining Serbs live, and also in Rijeka.
According to the magazine Novosti, there seem to be at least 80 of these billboards all over the country, though apparently no one can say for sure.
Novosti’s investigations show that the „Association of Croatian Orthodox Veterans“ which is formally responsible for the billboards, isn’t registered anywhere in Croatia.
Phantoms Mobilizing for a Phantom Church
Novosti, not to be mistaken for the Serbian daily of the same name, is a critical news outlet in Croatia owned by the official representation of Croatia’s Serb minority. It has made its reputation not only by investigative journalism but also by its uncompromising antinationalist stance.
It is precisely this minority that feels targeted and intimidated by these billboards officially paid for by a fringe group that doesn’t even officially exist.
Serb nationality or ethnicity and some form of membership in or association with the Serbian-Orthodox Church are synonymous for all intents and purposes all over former Yugoslavia.
As is some form of association with the Catholic Church and being a Croat, at least as far as you speak the Language Without Name, whatever idiom you use.
In both cases that includes formal or informal atheists or other non-believers, who were born into families with Serbian-Orthodox or Catholic heritage respectively.
That makes practically all members of Croatia’s Serb community members of the Serbian-Orthodox Church.
Many of them understand an appeal to declare oneself member of a „Croatian-Orthodox Church“ as an appeal to deny what they think of as their national heritage.
The „Croatian-Orthodox Church“ does not exist in any official form.
That the posters also appeal to Orthodox believers to register as Croats just drives home that message.
Not to forget the shadow of the armed soldier on the right.
There Was That Genocide Thing…
Dragana Jeckov, vice-president of the Serb National Council, the official representation of Croatian Serbs, calls this an „attempt to intimidate the fairly sensitive Serb community in Croatia and to officially assimilate it“.
This sense of unease isn’t touchiness or a competition for a spot in Victimhood Olympics.
In WW II, Croatian Fascists, the Ustaša, attempted to forcefully convert one third of Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, expell one third and kill the rest.
They almost succeeded.
The genocide in the greater-Croatian Nazi puppet state NDH was probably the cruellest in 20th century Europe. In it, several hundreds of thousands of Serbs were slaughtered in concentration camps or along the roadside, alongside the vast majority of the region’s Jewish population and tens of thousands of Romanies.
The total number of victims isn’t known. The more serious estimates range between 300.000 to around 700.000.
And just a few weeks ago, official Croatia celebrated the 26th anniversary of Operation Storm (Oluja in local idiom). In early August 1995, the Croatian Army reconquered the border region of Slavonija from Croatian Serb militia.
During the early breakup of Yugoslavia, local Serbs, supported by rump-Yugoslavian troops and radicalized by then Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, had established a statelet in the region.
Up to half of Slavonija’s Serb population fled Croatia during Operation Oluja, and it isn’t just Serb nationalists that claim that in reality Croatian military ethnically cleansed the region during the campaign.
For objectivity’s sake: It was precisely there that Serb militia, at the behest of Slobodan Milošević, had introduced targeted „ethnic cleansing“ as the instrument that would be characteristic of the year long wars in Croatia, Bosnia and later in Kosovo, starting with the massacre of Vukovar in which state controlled militia killed 200 patients of the local hospital.
It is just across the Bosnian border anlong the river Sava, in Prijedor, that Serb troops started the slaughtering of Bosnian Muslims that would culminate in the genocide of Srebrenica.
Bosanska Krajina, as the region is known, saw several mass murders, mass expulsions, mass rapes and the destruction of religious and private property during the war in Bosnia in the 90’s. They also affected many Bosnian Croats, although the majority of victims was Bosnian Muslims.
The countless crimes during WW II and the Yugoslav War(s) still haunt the inhabitants of former Yugoslavia, and particularly so in Bosnia and parts of Croatia.
Fascist Symbols All Over the Place
Whoever the people behind the officially non existent „Association of Croatian Orthodox Veterans“ are, they must be very well aware of this.
The organisation’s intransparency – it is neither registered anywhere nor does it have a homepage – doesn’t help things much.
It also is unclear where it has the money from to pay for dozens of these billboards.
Nor does the „Croatian-Orthodox Church“ do much to calm things down.
Unlike the Veterans‘ association, it at least has a homepage, albeit one that amounts to barely more than a Croat nationalist blog of which there is a dime a dozen.
Its reports include a remarkable number of photos of „patriotic“ events both religious and secular, prominently featuring Catholic clergy and flags with very prominent Šahovnice, i.e. Croatian checkerboards, of the Ustaša kind.
Considered fascist symbols, they are banned in Croatia. This ban is probably the country’s least enforced law.
The prohibition of fascist symbols includes the fascist slogan „Za dom spremni“ („Ready for the homeland“) and its abbrevation ZDS.
On several events the „Croatian-Orthodox Church“ features on its homepage, participants wear T-shirts with the slogan „Za dom spremni“.
It also openly celebrates the anniversary of Operation Oluja.
The Veteran’s Association denies allegations that its billboards are supposed to intimidate Croatian Serbs, let alone to the point of wanting to assilimate them.
Yet, outside Serbs, there is hardly any Orthodox Christians in Croatia.
In the 2011 census, barely more than 10.000 people declared themselves to be Orthodox while not stating that they were Serbs at the same time.
It is highly doubtful that all of them would consider themselves ethnic Croats.
Which makes these billboards just all the more a mess.
Who Is Really Who – And Why?
As is any form of identity politics in general and on the Balkans in particular.
While there have always been people who would define themselves as Croats, Serbs, Bosnjaks, Albanians and what have you, these categories were quite fluid over centuries.
Unlike in most regions in Europe, the major groups, i.e. Serbs, Croats and Bosnjaks, can not be distinguished from another along linguistic or dialectal lines – at least not precisely.
They all speak idioms of a common language, albeit one that has no name, hence the title „The Language Without Name“ used on this blog. Before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, it used to be known as Serbocroatian or Croato-Serbian or similar names.
Dialectal lines run pretty much all over the board, and regional dialects are typically spoken by all people in a region, no matter what their formal nationality or ethnicity, in spite of some recent nationalist-inspired attempts to uniformise them.
This makes language a useless tool to distinguish between Bosnjaks, Serbs, Croats and Montenegrins, and for most of their history, most people didn’t really care all that much what they were.
Until the idea of nationhood was introduced to the Balkans in the late 19th century. Religion filled the gap language had left as a means to differentiate between and divide people and to create peoples.
As the billboards in Croatia show, that process of distinction and division is an ongoing one.
The Lesson to Be Learned
Not, mind, the only one to be seen in the region.
The Montenegrin Orthodox Church just received its autokephaly from the Serbian Orthodox Church – against the latter’s will, which is unprecedented in the history of the Orthodox Church.
As there is quite a bit of church property to be divided up and as Montenegro now has a government not all that favorable of the country’s large Serb minority, this has recently sparked some political tensions in Montenegro, including pickets, burning barrikades, riot police and the whole works.
And, curiously enough, there is another group appealing to people to check certain boxes on Croatia’s census forms.
On my way from Dubrovnik to Split, I saw billboards close to the Bosnian border at Neum, asking Muslims to declare themselves Bosnjak.
I don’t know what to make of it.
It may be a rare case of Bosnjak nationalists‘ meddling in Croatian affairs – usually it’s the other way round.
It may also be an attempt of Croatian Muslims to break free from the attempts of Croat nationalists to appropriate them for the Croatian nation.
Unlike with Orthodox Christianity, Islam is seen by one strain of Croatian nationalism to be the expression of the second true religion of the Croatian nation, second to Catholicism.
This also allows them to claim all of Bosnia as part of the motherland of the Croat people, making Bosnian Muslims fellow Croats by definition.
The Ustaša of WW II followed this doctrine and successfully mobilised tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims into their ranks – not few of whom participated in the genocide against Serbs, Jews and Romanies in Croatia and Bosnia.
When someone calls for Croatian Muslims to not declare themselves Croat, this may well be an attempt to break with that ugly part of history.
Nada, a Croat friend of mine, took this to the next logical step.
In the census, she declared herself an atheist with Croatian citizenship.
She wants to have nothing to with any of this.
Yet, until more people have learned that lesson, identity politics will be uglier and messier on the Balkans even more than in the rest of the world.