Commemoration rally near Bleiburg, Austria in May 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/ALEX HALADA.
The Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs sent a press release to Austrian and Croatian media on Thursday to express “deep regret” about reporting on the controversial annual commemorations in Bleiburg in Austria, which are sponsored by the Croatian parliament.
It said that reports suggesting that the commemoration is a “fascist gathering”, “the largest gathering of neo-Nazis in the EU”, an “extreme right gathering” or a “gathering of Ustasa [WWII Croatian fascists]” were wrong.
The press release said that media generalisations “which connect Croatia and its population with the revival of fascist thoughts” were a “painful insult”.
It is also said that it was insulting to label as fascists “many members of the victims’ families, as well as representatives of the government and church authorities” who attend the annual commemoration, despite some “individual cases, which should be strongly condemned”.
At the Bleiburg commemoration in 2018, Austrian police arrested seven people and filed nine complaints about violations of the country’s law against praising fascism.
The Croatian ministry issued the press release after the Catholic Church in Carinthia in Austria on Friday rejected a request from the Croatian Bishops’ Conference to hold an annual mass at Loibacher field near Bleiburg in May this year because it said the event is being used to promote nationalist ideas.
Engelbert Guggenberger, interim administrator of the Diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt, explained that the decision was taken because “the mass in the field near Bleiburg has become part of a manifestation that is politically instrumentalised and is part of a political-nationalistic ritual that serves a selective experience and interpretation of history”.
Symbols of the WWII fascist Ustasa movement have often been seen at the annual Croatian right-wing gathering in Bleiburg, which commemorates the tens of thousands of Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed by Yugoslav Partisans in 1945.
The speaker of the Croatian parliament, Goran Jandrokovic, said on Wednesday that the commemoration at Bleiburg will still be held this year and that parliament will be the patron, but that they “will not celebrate the [WWII Ustasa-led] Independent State of Croatia and the Ustasa regime”.
Jandrokovic also noted that it the ban on holding a mass relates only to bishops, but a religious ceremony could be held by a priest instead.
In May 2016, the Croatian parliament decided to reintroduce state sponsorship of the Bleiburg event after it was withdrawn in 2012 due to concerns that it served to rehabilitate the ideology of the WWII Ustasa regime.
Earlier this year, Austrian Interior Ministry banned the display of two Croatian Ustasa movement symbols – the letter ‘U’ with a grenade, and the checkerboard coat of arms of the Nazi-backed WWII-era Independent State of Croatia.
The ban came into force on March 1, and the fines for violating it will be up to 4,000 euros, or 10,000 euros for repeat offenders, Austrian media have reported.
The list of banned symbols also includes those of Hamas, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves organisation. It expands an existing ban on the use of al-Qaida and ISIS symbols.