Croatia’s Hungarro world

Razor-wire fences make good neighbours

In an apocryphal story, variously set in FDR’s White House in 1941 or neutral Rio de Janeiro in 1944, Hungarian political situation and her web of alliances in WW2 were humorously and succintly described as “bizarre:”

In 1944, during WWII, a reception took place in Rio de Janeiro and the Hungarian ambassador was among the invitees. The Ambassador, wearing the ceremonial uniform, entered the room and performed a Nazi salute. The host of the reception, an influential banker, took notice of the ambassador and approached him. “Your Excellency, you greeted with Heil Hitler. I suppose that people of your country belong to the Nordic race?” The Ambassador replied, “No, we are of the Mongolian origin.” The Banker was curious and continued. “I see, so your country must be situated in Asia?” “No, Hungary is part of Central Europe.” “I know that there is a war going on in Central Europe. Is Hungary involved in that?” “Yes, indeed. We are fighting against the Soviet Union.” “And do you have any territorial claims against the Soviet Union?” “No, we don’t have any territorial claims against the Soviets. However, we do have them against Romania and Slovakia.” “So, Romania and Slovakia must be your enemies then?” “No, they are our allies.” The banker got slightly confused by Ambassador’s answers, but he eventually spotted a royal badge on his uniform and went on asking, “I reckon that Hungary is a kingdom. How is your King doing?” “We do not have a King. We are ruled by an Admiral.” “An Admiral? Hungary must have an access to the sea then.” “No. We are a landlocked state.” The banker got puzzled even more. “Anyway, how is your Admiral?” “He has been captured by the Germans.” “They are also your enemies?” “No, the Germans are our greatest allies and friends.” The banker was completely lost. “Damn! I really don’t get it. You are living in the landlocked kingdom in the heart of Europe, which is ruled by an Admiral, who was captured by his greatest friends. You are fighting a country, which you don’t want a single acre of land from. On the other hand, you have territorial claims against your allies. What a bizarre situation is that!” “Sir, that’s a new European order.”

Surprisingly, 75 years on, Croatian nationalists and conservatives, very much just like their ideological predecessors in Slovakia, Romania, or, indeed, Croatia in the 1940s, happen to find themselves in a bizarre situation. Doe-eyed at Orbán’s vision of strong, authoritarian, illiberal, nativist and conservative state, they merrily exchange courtesies with his state administration, working on the adoption of such governance model at home. At the same time, however, they have been persistently turning a blind eye to Orbán’s provocative nostalgia for Greater Hungary, namely, pre-1918 Hungarian Kingdom, officially Realm of St. Stephen. Waging war on globalism, “gender ideology”, Brussels administration, and George Soros, Croatian fringe rightists allied themselves with someone rekindling teritorial claims to their very heartland. Before 1918, Lands of St. Stephen’s Crown included most of Croatia as an autonomous kingdom, while vital Croatian regions of Međimurje in the north, Baranja in the east, and industrial, hectic, and strategic port of Rijeka (as an exclave) were an integral part of Hungary. Displays of maps of pre-1918 Hungary (which never show any distinction between then-Hungary proper and adjoined, autonomous Croatia) happen to often be strategically located in Orbán’s or his cabinet minister’s offices.

What makes this situation even more bizarre is the historical context. Croatian nationalism was born as a reaction and in opposition to Hungarian nationalism in early to mid-19th Century. In Habsburg Monarchy up until 1918, two nationalisms clashed in every respect, regarding language policy, territory, railway construction, taxes, military, etc. Reluctantly agreeing on a compromise – so-called Settlement of 1868 – Croatian elites agreed to an autonomous position in the Realm of St. Stephen. Gladstone’s and Asquith’s Home Rule for Ireland was partially inspired by this constitutional arrangement; some dreamed of a similar relationship between Scotland and Westminster.1 However, Budapest dragged her feet over much of the limited Croatian self-rule and clawed back power wherever it could. Zagreb and Budapest were bitterly opposed for the coming half a century. Virtually every single Croat political leader in the nationalist pantheon earned his place there due to his opposition to Hungarian imperialism or to whatever was seen as Budapest’s overreach into Croatia’s constitution, supposedly ancient self-government rights, or, then most progressively, plain democratic right of self-determination. Croatia spent a century investing nearly all of its productive enregy in emancipating itself from Hungary. The bulk of Croat nationalism was built on rallying against Hungarian supremacy. Whether it is celebrating Ban Jelačić as a national hero, a Habsburg field marshal who raised an army, had Croatian parliament declare war to Budapest government in 1848 (when it rebelled against the Habsburgs) and helped crush Hungarian uprising there; remembering popular revolts against the imposition of Hungarian language in Croatian curriculum or railways in 1883 and 1903; or teaching about the entire fin-de-siecle generation of Croatian artists and politicians who burned a Hungarian flag when king Franz Joseph came to visit Croatia in 1895 (and were later imprisoned and expelled from Zagreb University for that). Every school student in Croatia for the last 100 years has been retold the story of opressive Hungarization campaign at the turn of the century, while the main agent of Budapest government, count Khuen Hedervary, is villified as an Ephialtes. Founders of Croatia’s far-right parties to which present-day nationalists claim lineage had been either shot during their uprising against Hungarian control over Croatia (Eugen Kvaternik) or imprisoned for lambasting Hungary and her policy towards Croatia (Ante Starcevic).

Pre-1918 Lands of St. Stephen – Hungary proper (shades of grey) and autonomous Croatia (white). Croatia’s current border superimposed in red.

Squabbles of the late 19th century should normally play no role in modern politics. Especially among EU and NATO allies and neighbours. Land grab is not a realistic option, either. In the last census a decade ago, Medimurje had a total of 66 Hungarians (0,06%), pretty much what it had had when Habsburg state collapsed. 9,000 ethnic Hungarians made up just 16% of Baranja’s population. But Budapest’s persistent nostalgia for an imperial, glorious past in which Croatia was under her supremacy and influence, even if hardly realizable today, is still difficult to take in neighbour’s stride. As political economist Branko Milanovic notes, Eastern European historical experience is basically self-reflected upon as a story of national emancipation and homogenization, with 1989 as its apotheosis. Even without Budapest government’s prominent showcasing, it isn’t helped by numerous Hungarian tourists flaunting Greater Hungary bumper stickers when visiting Croatian coast in the summer. Or Hungarian embassy in Zagreb plastering their facade with a coat of arms of Lands of St. Stephen, featuring Croatian insignia as family silver.

This would have been a bitter pill to swallow per se. Yet Croatian right-wingers are in an even more untenable position, as haranguing against foreign influence and capital should lead them directly to clash with Hungarian state interests. Partially state-owned oil company MOL has been embroiled in a corruption scandal over its takeover and management of Croatian counterpart and competitor INA that landed Croatian centre-right (HDZ) Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (2004-2009) in jail. MOL holds around half of INA’s stock and tries to run it for MOL-centric profit maximisation, integrating INA into its own supply chain. This leads to clashes over investing and maintaining INA’s own production and refining capacities in Croatia. MOL-dominated INA board of directors prefers to refine crude oil in Hungarian refineries. As a consequence, once bustling Sisak oil refinery has been effectively closed, while Rijeka refinery is fearing the same fate. Laid-off workers faced few choices but to emigrate to Germany to find work, further depopulating Croatia’s manufacturing rust-belt heartland. Croatian social-democrat government (2011-5) took MOL to court. State Attorney indicted MOL executive Zsolt Hernady for corruption.

Energy economics might not be the only factor that matters. Using proximity to Orbán as a signal to domestic conservative voters is a bet Croatian right-wingers were increasingly willing to take. Not only did conservative voters start forgetting the graft and INA scandal of pre-2011 administration, but further nationalist-populist alternatives mushroomed. Cenre-right, mainstream HDZ needed a solid cultural platform to stave off the competition and Orbán seemed to have one ready-made for display. In the fall of 2015 HDZ-led government took office and became politically much keen on Orbán and his model of nativist, illiberal democracy interspersed with crony capitalism. Even a few months earlier, with social-democrat government still in power, state president Grabar-Kitarovic (HDZ) broke with tradition and unwritten diplomatic rules to openly criticise government of her own country. The trigger was its policy during the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015. Admiring and supporting Hungarian approach (sending military to guard the border, setting up barbed-wire fences etc.) as opposed to Croatia’s more lenient and open-handed policy, Grabar Kitarovic tuned into the sentiment of those Croatian voters who felt intimidated by an inflow of refugees and migrants.

This was a harbinger of things to come. Aside from courtesy meetings and joint statements, proximity to Orbán and his Fidesz was further underlined by HDZ support in European Parliament. HDZ was clearly not comfortable with EU’s probing into – and condemning breaches of- member states’ rule of law policy and separation of powers. Even if not being explicitly included in the rule-of-law basket case together with Poland and Hungary, presumably due to its much smaller size and foreign policy footprint, Croatia has not only failed to strengthen its weak and captured institutions, but it has actually eroded them. Public broadcaster slumped into a government mouthpiece role, suing its own employees for not toeing the line; funding to non-profit media was cut; State Attorney’s clout of independence and non-partisanship has evaporated; conflict-of-interest authority, journalists and ombudswoman have been systematically ignored and met with hostility; GDPR was frequently invoked as a reason to withhold information from the public; president Grabar Kitarovic held no press conferences and allowed no inquisitive interviews; local self-government was weakened by new laws which bolstered mayors and county prefects, making them virtually unremovable from office; Parliament speaker shouted an opposition MP down, telling him he is worse than “a piece of trash”; defence minister vowed to maintain “unbreakable bond between the Army and the Catholic Church”; PM Plenkovic even tried to physically assault an opposition MP in parliament during PM Questions. Nationalist white-washing of Croatian history became the norm. The economy wasn’t spared, either. Croatian centre-right has perfected long ago what Princeton’s political scientist Jan-Werner Müller described in LRB as Hungary and Poland’s populists “colonising the state” by employing “arbitrary exercise of power” and using “state structures and legal means for corrupt ends”, entrenching their rule of crony capitalism.

Therefore, fearing any potential European scrutiny for themselves that might follow if EU succeeds in twisting Hungary’s arm, and conservative backlash at home in case of a break with Orbán, Plenkovic set his tolerance level for Hungarian imperial nostalgia and grandstanding to maximum. Admittedly due to Croatia’s weaker foreign political and economic position, HDZ decided to cog the Brussels wheels by tacitly working through the EU and EPP machine rather than by open confrontation, letting Orbán do the heavy lifting by browbeating and ignoring Brussels’ oversight. Avowed cordial relations with Berlin and good standing abroad have been HDZ’s policy plank and their domestic selling point. This way, German chancellor Merkel could still come to Zagreb as an election campaign prop with few second thoughts.

Under this balancing act Croatia’s HDZ government under PM Plenkovic proved to be one of the most reliable allies Orbán has in the EU and the centre-right EPP family. On several occasions HDZ MEPs broke with EPP majority (and Croatian faction) by voting against or abstaining when condemning rule of law breaches in Hungary. But bilateral problems persisted. Embarassingly, Croatia’s further woes with Hungary involved several high-profile blows. Hungary refused to extradite MOL executive Zsolt Hernady for a trial in INA corruption case, explaining he was not to expect a fair trial in Croatia. Even though Plenkovic addressed Croatian public on Christmas Eve 2016 to solemnly declare government’s plan to purchase INA stock from MOL, nothing happened. Orbán publicly downplayed the issue vis-a-vis “800 years of common history” [1102-1918] . HDZ effectively painted themselves in the corner. Their unilateral dependance on Hungary didn’t help an LNG terminal on the Adriatic that Croatia (and EU) have invested in to diversify natural gas supplies, either. Terminal’s capacity has failed to attract demand from Hungary, which would leave it largely unfeasible. According to the ICIS, “Hungary offered to buy a 25%+1 stake in the [terminal] but the Croatian government conditioned the acquisition on the purchase of capacity at the terminal…Hungary rejected that proposal as it found the price…uncompetitive with Russian supplies.” Partially due to the current European natural gas glut, Hungary is keenly eyeing a long-term gas supply contract with Russia’s Gazprom instead. Due to small domestic demand, this would leave Croatian taxpayers picking up the tab for the sake of their neighbours’ bargaining leverage and energy security. Energy headaches spilled elsewhere. Orbán even blocked Croatia’s bid to join OECD. Bizarrely, in 2017 HDZ state president Grabar Kitarovic showed understanding for Hungary’s blockade of Croatian accession to OECD, stating in Budapest that they are “not hostile, but simply protecting their business interests.” To add insult to injuyr, Orbán’s crony bought once-public, utterly bankrupt Osijek, one of the top 4 football clubs in Croatia, turning it into a private fiefdom. As a cherry on top, Orbán’s daughter was caught on camera unmovingly littering during her Croatian holiday.

Social-democrat and liberal/progressive opposition in Croatia had a field day. It was a low-hanging fruit: an opportunity to pump their patriotic muscles and still oppose HDZ and remain pro-European. Tradition-rich – if downsized – Croatian Peasant Party used the opportunity to demonstratively quit EPP, lambasting “autocrat and land-grabber” Orbán as well as HDZ supporting him. CPP, born amidst the original Croatian-Hungarian strifes in 1904, boasts its founder and legendary leader, Stjepan Radic, who was imprisoned, expelled from university, and fined several times between 1895 and 1918 for his opposition to Budapest. Social democrat presidential candidate Zoran Milanovic bashed Orbán when- and wherever he could, bundling him together with his contender, incumbent Grabar Kitarovic. Milanovic ridiculed her Three Seas Initiative and her fondness of Poland and Hungary. Croatia should seek her company in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Europe’s North, not in Budapest or Warsaw, he opined. After Orbán talked of beautiful past Croatia once had with Hungary while opening a Hungarian-minority cultural centre in Baranja (part of pre-1918 Hungary proper, and occupied during WW2 by Hungarian fascist regime, see map) next to smiling Plenkovic, Milanovic passionately told his own campaign rally that “such people should be confronted and told to get the hell out of Croatia”. Milanovic went on to win 54-46% over Grabar Kitarovic in January 2020.

Predictably, Croatia’s rotating EU presidency in the first half of 2020 provided further breathing room for Orbán. It explicitly rejected sanctioning Poland and Hungary for rule of law violations. Croatia’s Foreign Minister Grlic Radman has displayed something between a schoolboy’s admiration and broish excitement around his Hungarian counterpart Szijjárto. He used a bilateral meeting as an opportunity to cry out an obscure slogan invoking Croato-Hungarian “fraternity”. The slogan was coined very recently to honor participation of Croatia’s tiny ethnic Hungarian minority (then 0.47%) on the eastern front of Croatia’s War of Independence in 1991. Used in a miniscule friendship march of a far-right Hungarian Jobbik with Croatian crypto-fascist HCSP, the slogan is a part of a desperate attempt to provide any positive historical context whatsoever (and supposed tradition) for a new partnership. The fact that Jobbik parades around with maps of Greater Hungary including Croatia and that HCSP claims lineage to Starcevic and Kvaternik, imprisoned and executed, respectively, for Croatian anti-Hungarian nationalism and sedition, was hushed away.

In a noted and sharp contrast to similar incidents from Serbian side, Croatian MFA and PM Plenkovic also preferred silence and lukewarm, neutral reactions to Hungarian posturing. In April 2018, in response to a carefully set photo of Orban showing his Polish counterpart, Mr. Morawiecki, the map of Greater Hungary, Plenkovic murmured that “Croatia needs to cooperate with her neighbours.” In June 2019, Orbán’s cabinet posted an old propaganda poster bemoaning the breakup of St. Stephen’s Realm after WW1 (see below). Croatian MFA reacted after three days, well after official Slovene reaction and a domestic outcry, stating that it is “unacceptable to display Croatia in an incorrect historical context.” When Hungarian government held a meeting with a giant map of Realm of St. Stephen strategically placed on the wall in December 2019, only after intense media interest did Plenkovic comment that “he will discuss [the issue] with Hungarian ambassador” and that “Croatia’s borders are where they are.” Six months later, hungary’s State Secretary for International Communication, Zoltan Kovacs, held an interview with BBC in front of the pre-1918 map. A few days later, Orbán decided to officially wish high-school seniors good luck on their exit exams with a photo of a 19th century globe, showing the entire Croatia as an integral part of Greater Hungary. Plenkovic, pressed by journalists, nervously stated that he “didn’t find that to be the most important thing for him to read on a Wednesday afternoon,” rhetorically asking the journalists if they “thought he ought to pounce on every Facebook post”. President Milanovic used the occasion to ask Croatian high school seniors, with a tongue-in-cheek reference, not to be childish and not to share historic maps “that might irritate our neighbours.”

Opposing imagery of 1918 across Drava and Mura (lower photo by Poemas del rio Wang)

Linguistic distance, historic issues, lack of any joint tradition, public suspicion and resentment, and economic confrontation are obviously all second-rate obstacles in securing allies. Especially in an effort to defend one’s own heavy-handed, corrupt government model. Marriages of convenience might last for decades without either spouse poisoning the other. But the fact that Plenkovic’s party has no-one else to turn to who would cover for their state capture and failing government is not comforting enough. Plenkovic’s fledgling competitors on the right, a motley crew of extreme nationalist and populists gathering around singer and entertainer Miroslav Skoro, are open admirers of Orbán. Skoro, once HDZ MP and mayoral candidate, was appointed Croatia’s consule in Pecs in the 1990s and is probably the only politician in Croatia who speaks fluent Hungarian. As for foreign anchors, EU has already turned a blind eye to Croatia’s ruthless policing on the external border, signalling some lenience in exchange for preventing another headache of confrontation over rule of law or migrants. If the EU doesn’t find internal capacity and energy to deal with sliding democratic standards in Central and Eastern Europe, Croatians can only count on themselves – mildly aided by figurehead president Milanovic’s statements – to prevent further state erosion, their civic liberty gradually chipped away. There’s no need to have borders changed by tanks in order to suddenly wake up as a muzzled citizen of Orbán’s brave new world.

Croatian nationalists have already found themselves in a similar situation. During WW2, after the Axis powers invaded and carved out Yugoslavia in 1941, Hungary was awarded Medimurje and Baranja. Hungarian president committed suicide, not willing to engage in an invasion for a land grab. Before the invasion, Germany offered Hungarians the entire Croatia as an autonomous region, which they refused as too much hassle; puppet Independent State of Croatia was set up under a fascist regime instead. But for the remainder of the war, ISC viewed their Hungarian allies in the New European Order as adversaries. Nevertheless, allying themselves with someone who occupied their coveted and “sacred” territory fitted in a grand scheme of things. It was a minor drawback to ruling their fiefdom the way they saw fit, which included a campaign of terror and mass violence against minorities and oponnents. This should serve as a reminder that unscrupulousness is, indeed, characterized by the lack of scruples.

For Plenkovic and his MFA Grlic-Radman, self-styled Europeans and moderate conservatives, a more apt comparison leads us to the years leading up to WWI. Croatia’s aristocratic and technocratic elite was dependent on Budapest’s support in governing autonomous Croatia. With the (male) franchise covering 8,8% of population, illiteracy at 55%, and no parliamentary accountability, baron Skrlec and his cabinet (1913-7) sought an ally in iron-fisted, chauvinist Hungarian PM, count Tisza, rather than trying to draw on popular support in solving bilateral issues. Instead of implementing limited progressive changes and leveraging it, they held the course, solving none of the key problems in Zagreb-Budapest relations. With Skrlec as a head of Croatian government merrily receiving Tisza in Zagreb in February 1914, the last opportunity to forge a constructive relationship and provide room for an equal footing evaporated. History sometimes might repeat itself as a farce several times over.

Budapest and Zagreb (wannabe) strongmen in 1914 – asymmetric coalition rode the back of the tiger and was swept away by WWI.


1. Schütze, Robert, and Stephen Tierney, eds. United Kingdom and The Federal Idea. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018., pp. 54-5; cf. R.W. Seton-Watson, The Southern Slav Question, 1911, p. ix


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