From sports to statecraft: Croatia heading for crisis

From sports to statecraft: Croatia heading for crisis

Disgruntled Croatian football fans highlight political divisions that have been causing turmoil in Croatian politics in recent years. The upcoming election could be seen as a next spot-test for European political trends.

Croatia grabbed headlines earlier this month due to disruptive fans during the European Championships, but that was only the beginning. When flares were thrown onto the pitch during their match against the Czech Republic, few fans were aware of the backstory of disgruntled northern Croatian fans and the regional fervor which prompted the display.

Furthermore, few would have known that those flares on the field harken to a politically engaged population with strong preferences for the future of their country, regarding football and politics and everything in between.

Football and politics

Disgruntled Croatian fans who acted in protest against the national team are chiefly from the southern region of Croatia and support the Split football team. They believe there is a bias against Split in favor of the northern region and the team representing the capital, Zagreb.

Other demonstrations at the international level by Croatian fans to the detriment of the national team have taken place, most notably during the European qualifiers when a swastika was burned into the pitch before a game against Italy. The use of the Nazi symbol points back to the Croatian civil war which divided the country between communist party supporters and the Ustasha regime, backed by the Nazi party, and this division is still present in the country.

Since independence in 1991 Croatian politics has been dominated by two parties: the Social Democrats on the left and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) on the right. It has been observed that a person’s allegiance to one or the other of these parties is tied closely to his or her family’s loyalties during the civil war in the 1930s, between the far-left Communists and the far-right Ustasha rule.

While both parties have converged on key issues since independence (most importantly Croatia’s bid to join the European Union), there remains clear divisions and tensions between them, which spilled over last week as the parliament voted to dissolve itself following the forced resignation of the prime minister.

Political red cards

Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic, a Canadian-Croatian businessman with no prior political career, had been brought onto the political stage by the HDZ to head the coalition government in 2015. He has had an uneasy entrance into politics as he clashed frequently with his deputy prime minister, Tomislav Karamarko, who along with his wife is accused of a conflict of interest due to a business deal with a Hungarian oil group.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Oreskovic was also in power while the minister of culture began a campaign to rid Croatia’s media of journalists with left-leaning sympathies. This combination of scandals led to a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister, which Mr. Oreskovic failed to pass. Days later the parliament voted to dissolve itself and called for new elections in September. The government lasted five months.

With other countries in the region leaning towards the far-right (specifically Hungary and Poland), there are fears that more radical parties in Croatia could gain a foothold in the coming election.

Third parties will play a crucial role in September since the election last November showed an even split between the two main parties. With the current attitude in central and eastern Europe leaning towards the extreme ends of the political spectrum, it is likely that parties at the fringes will hold the final say in any coalition building following the September election.

A stable government is a necessity for Croatia as it faces the obligations of being a member of the EU, plus a weak economy and unemployment hovering around 17 percent. Without a steady government, Croatia risks falling into the trap of rapid parliamentary turnover and slow responsiveness.

The angst demonstrated by football fans signals that there are factions within the population which are prepared to take drastic measures to have their voices heard, which will color the upcoming election. Croatia, located at the center of Europe, is the next spot-test for European political trends, and could shed light further on the direction European politics will be taking in the coming years.   

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

B. Blythe Brady

Blythe Brady specializes in international organizations and conflict management and negotiations. She graduated from DePaul University, where she studied political science and economics. She received her Master's from Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. She has worked at the European Parliament in Brussels and the New York Peace Institute.