Croatian President Zoran Milanovic on Friday cancelled his attendance at an event commemorating the anniversary of the 1993 Maslenica military operation in the coastal town of Zadar after he learned that some of the participants would wear symbols of Croatian World War II fascist Ustasa movement.
His office said in statement that Milanovic telephoned Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and warned him that it this was “unacceptable”.
“Since afterwards it was established that people wearing Ustasa insignia and inscriptions were also participating in the official commemoration protocol, the president cancelled his participation in the programme,” the statement said.
By order of the president, after the first part of the ceremony, the chief of staff of Croatia’s armed forces, Vice-Admiral Robert Hranj, and all military commanders withdrew from the commemoration.
Milanovic took the decision after learning that were in attendance were 1990s war veterans from the far-right Croatian Defence Forces paramilitary group, known for wearing black uniforms with an emblem that includes the slogan ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’), which was coined by Ustasa movement.
During World War II, the Ustasa were allies of the Nazis and introduced racist laws against Serbs, Jews and Roma people.
A government-appointed body, the Council for Dealing with Consequences of the Rule of Non-Democratic Regimes, said in 2018 that the authorities should allow some 1990s military veterans to use the ‘Za dom spremni’ slogan “in exceptional situations” and under strict conditions. However, rights groups consider its use unacceptable in any circumstances.
Defence Minister Mario Banozic told media on Friday that people wearing Ustasa insignia had not been meant to attend the official commemoration. The mayor of Zadar County, Bozidar Longin, made the same claim, suggesting that they came on their own initiative.
But Ante Baraba Knez, a member of the local Croatian Defence Forces association, told media that they had received an official invitation from the county.
“If the president is not honourable enough to come and be among war veterans and pay homage to the victims of Maslenica and other military-police operations, he does not have to come,” Baraba Knez said.
During Operation Maslenica in 1993, Croatian forces regained some territories in the Dalmatian hinterland which had been controlled since 1991 by rebel Croatian Serbs.
Last year, Milanovic left a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1995 military operation Flash because of the presence of men wearing shirts with the emblem of the Croatian Defence Forces.