On Friday 15th of April 2011, the International Criminal Court for Former Yugoslavia (ICC) sentenced two Croatian generals to 24, respectively 18, years in prison for war crimes, committed during “Operation Storm” (1995). The decision sent off a wave of shock and disbelief in Croatia, where the general self-perception is that of victim and not of perpetrator. Upset war veterans, together with a large section of the general public, took to the streets and protested against the ICC, but also against the European Union and against their own pro-European national government who let this whole thing happen.
Next day, Saturday, saw even more protests, with about 30 000 demonstrators in Zagreb alone. These protests did not come as a surprise, as the country’s poor economic performance, together with corruption scandals, had already been met by street manifestations in the previous months.The Gotovina case simply added more gas to the fire and increased the mobilization of public dissatisfaction.
At one level, it is interesting to see how the ICC verdict started off a very nationalist discourse that was otherwise somewhat on the decline in the Croatian public sphere. The language of the protesters was framed in strict national ways, with slogans like “For the Homeland” or “We Love Croatia, No to the EU”. The dichotomy supranational – national appears clearly delineated, with the two levels seen as elementary opposites. Instead of perceiving EU accession as a culmination of national interests, the membership was redefined as an abdication of nationality, “the final capitulation of the Croatian state”, as one protester said. In general the process of Europeanization in Croatia has not followed a linear path. It is of course unfortunate that the relationship between national member states and the supranational EU institutions should be so misrepresented and simplified, but this is nothing new. The rhetoric of the EU as threat to the nation is common currency for most if not all nationalist parties and organizations (think about the UK-based newspaper Daily Mail and their recent campaign to get Britain out of the EU).
Another discursive element of interest is the victimization rhetoric. In the video above you could hear some of the veterans saying that the ICC decision discredits their own war participation when in fact “they were just protecting their country”. The ICC is accused of bias, of special interests, and an unexpected post-colonial reference is introduced: the US and other Western powers are the real perpetrators for their colonial conquests. At the level of the image, this is reinforced by the use of national symbolic markers and of the word hero to depict the accused general Gotovina. This was common in Croatia long before the protests of 2011, with posters like the one below placed by the road side even before the general had been turned in to Hague.
The most thought-provoking part of the protests for someone like me, interested in the visual symbolic communication, was the way in which the EU was present through the symbol of its flag. The very critical stance of the Croatian demonstrators comes with the good news for the EU that it has succeeded to consolidate its visual identity. The EU is the flag, no doubt about it. The anger of the war veterans pushed them to burn the flag with the golden stars, just as other protesters had burned the Danish flag during the Mohamed caricatures crisis (but without the confusion that reined in the Muslim world in 2006, when the Danebrog was less known, and got mixed up with the Swedish or the Swiss flags).
The Croats really took it out on the EU flag, not only setting it on fire, but also tearing it apart. As the picture below shows, young and old, women and men, all wanted to have a piece of that EU which tarnished their hero and implicitly their own past.
The mildest form of marking their anti-EU feelings appears on the flags carried by the Saturday protesters, where the golden stars on the blue background are crossed by a red line, visually screaming “No EU here”. And as an aside, I wonder who printed this image on all these banners? This looks very organized, not the type of thing you improvise at home with pens and watercolors…
The violent treatment of the flag is a reflection of the general attitudes prevalent among Croats after the ICC announcement. According to an opinion poll done after the Gotovina announcement, only 23% are in favor of EU membership, with 95% believing that Gotovina was unfairly judged. This is a sharp decrease from the already low 60% supporting the adherence of Croatia to the European Union earlier in 2011.
Clearly, the Croatian protesters are involved in a symbolic conflict where their political grievances are given expression visually. In the minds of the Croats, the EU flag is endowed with some form of sacralized status, whose positive value is now contested (for more on symbolic conflicts see for example Harrison 1995). Despite the immediate negative effect on the EU, these protests bring to Brussels the good news that the political symbols of the EU begin to consolidate.
Harrison, S. (1995). Four Types of Symbolic Conflict The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3034688