Local elections held in May 2021 in Croatia, especially those for the mayor of Zagreb, were the most-watched and heated ones in a long time. Tomislav Tomašević, a candidate from the green left party Možemo!, has been running a campaign built on his two decades of dedicated activism for saving the public spaces and public services of Zagreb and against the network of corruption orchestrated and run by the previous mayor Milan Bandić. Bandić died during the 2021 campaign and left the spot of his successor open: Miroslav Škoro, a folk singer and the Homeland Movement’s leader, combining homegrown nationalist semiotics and imported political communication tactics.
In his campaign, Tomašević mainly focused on details of urban policy since he is deeply knowledgeable of how to run the city. Škoro in turn was ignorant about Zagreb, notably failing to answer many basic facts about the city and its functioning. He designed his campaign as a misinformation offensive with one central message: “Tomašević and Možemo! are foreign agents of a ‘Cosa Nostra’ of NGOs funded by George Soros and other imperialist elites, determined to infect ‘our way of life’ with ‘lesbian syndicalism’.”
Half of Croatia is Composed of Foreign Agents
Škoro’s line of attack became completely visible during a TV debate between Zlatko Hasanbegović from the Homeland Movement and Sandra Benčić from Možemo!, in which Hasanbegović appeared bizarrely unhinged, denouncing Možemo! as foreign agents. When Benčić pushed him to specify what that means, he bluntly answered that everybody who gets paid by somebody from outside Croatia is a foreign agent. Benčić calmly noted that this means that everybody who works for a foreign company or on an EU project is then a foreign agent – this would mean that “half of Croatia are foreign agents.”
Hasanbegović, a former minister of culture of Croatia’s 2016 far-right government which collapsed within ten months of taking power, is an awkward, bumbling persona, who seems honestly committed to his radical nationalist world view, but is arguably rather inept when it comes to public appearances. It was a welcome moment when he had the honor of being the one to reveal the emptiness of the classical tactic of the Croatian far-right by blurting out his definition of “the foreign agent.” However, this did not stop the Homeland Movement from repeating this accusation for the next two weeks of the election campaign, which in the end, they lost.
Their loss is fortunate, but it is not definitive. Representing a well-funded and tightly organized coalition of far-right parties with a strong presence in the national parliament, they were successful in other local elections. And the election in Zagreb, even if it was a failure, was nevertheless a successful demonstration of the considerable impact their sophisticated disinformation techniques can have. Hence, the threat of their paranoid purity phantasms is far from over. Their central accusation of “foreign subversion” is, for one, a tactic with a historical background and some considerable potential for the future.
Complete Sellout to All the Devils
To understand what this means we have to go back to the 1990s and the years of Franjo Tuđman’s reign. The phantasmatic Croatia of Tuđmanite nationalism was always contradictory. Back then, Croatia was conceived as an old European liberal democracy finally free from the shackles of “communist” invaders and a natural community allergic to the perversity and social complexity of the exact same European liberal democracy.
This ideology was the foundation for attacks against anybody who in any way opposed authoritarian ethnonationalism in the 1990s. It meant that “any dissenter was always a foreign agent, working to infect the natural equilibrium of our pure-breed way of life with the perversities of imperialist Europe.” Tuđman himself was a firm advocate of this tactic, infamously making history with his attacks on the free press (Feral Tribune, in particular) and NGOs tracking human rights violations and democratic deficits by accusing them of selling themselves for “30 pieces of Silver” to “not only black but also green and yellow devils.”
This quote is part of a speech by Tuđman which he gave in 1996. And it is a reference to the the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, according to an account in the Gospel of Matthew 26:15 in the New Testament. In short, in echoing this, Tuđman subliminally fomented anti-Semitically coded paranoia of criminal treason when he accused his opponents of “selling out” – and it was (and remains) ant-Semitically coded paranoia last but not least because the Jewish investor George Soros’ philanthropic activities in Eastern Europe were already in the 1990s a target of populist resentment, priming the “Soros-funded agents” invective.
This said, Tuđman’s project was something of a precursor, a harbinger, of contemporary illiberal nativism. In many ways, the present-day illiberal nativists follow Tuđman’s script: taking control of all public institutions and the media, reconstructing democracy into a mechanism for imposing the will of a “natural community,” and squelching dissent by accusing their critics of being agents of global elites performing a foreign infiltration of pure ethnic bodies.
As Nicholas Mulder writes, the fundamental myth of illiberal nativists of Central Europe casts the transition to liberal democracy in the 1990s as the original sin in which treasonous elites sold their country to the perverse progressive technocrats of the European Union. There is a complex story to be told about their reasons for using this line of attack. Here, however, we will focus only on two of them.
Making the Inability to Think Politically Part of your National Identity
Of course, the primary and most explicit goal of claiming a “sellout to foreign powers” is to discredit all dissent as treason. However, it also aims to exert a deeper and more sustainable level of influence. This is achieved by making people (in this case your favored ethnic group, the “Croats”) believe that thinking politically is not for them.
So the sellout allegation did not only exist to extinguish dissenters, the fundamental proposition was to groom the populace into thinking that the complexity of building free institutions for collective deliberation and decision-making under pluralism is “not for ‘our people’.” Instead, the illiberal nativists create the image of governance as the spontaneous development of a natural community, rooted in age-old habits and values (in the case of Croatia, “since the 7th Century”).
For Tuđmanites and for the Homeland Movement today, Croatians (as a fantasy of an ethnic group) cannot think about or discuss policies that pursue constitutional liberties, social services, security, ecological development, or gender equality. They cannot engage in cosmopolitan cooperation or pluralist negotiations. Their political subjectivity is merely an iteration of an ancient Croat habitus, and their imagination, reasoning, and variance are limited by lines drawn into the Croatian soil ages ago.
They cannot step outside those lines – think political thoughts or imagine new institutions and communities – without becoming a non-Croat. In the minds of illiberal nativists, Croats are like grown children who cannot think autonomous thoughts but only go through the motions choreographed by their ancestors, locked in a doll house of primordial authenticity where they are safe from the disagreement and the foreign tastes of the outside world.
This way, illiberal nativists construct a national identity as an anti-political subjectivity: “we are Croats because we cannot think politically.”
Destroy Feedback Mechanisms and Become the Oracle of the Natural Community
In her seminal paper “Epistemology of Democracy”, Elizabeth Anderson, among argues that the “democrats in ‘post-Communist’ Europe have focused so much energy on the construction of civil society” because it enables organized dissent and feedback on policies, which are crucial for the epistemic powers of democracy to kick in.
From the 1990s onwards, civil society has been subject to attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. Attacks from the far-right have been described above. However, leftists likewise tend to make blanket dismissals of civil society as insufficiently aligned with their political doctrines. Sometimes civil society actors are being depicted as the extended hand of the capitalist colonizer – this is the left’s version of the sellout allegation. But that’s another story.
Civil society is a complex social structure involving a variety of people and diverse projects, and yes it allows for the proliferation of numerous organizations that any one of us would and should disagree with. This said, of course civil society and its structures are not immune to corruption and criminal activities. But no institutional structure is.
Protection from vicious developments does not require to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” (the typical anti-institutionalist populist move), but rather challenges us to design institutional complexity which can limit the damage and provide vigorous oversight. The epistemic and political value of civil society is not determined by specific projects or agendas which any given NGO is pursuing. No, it is determined by how inclusive it is, and thus whether there are institutional conditions for citizen association to give room for dissent and feedback on policies.
Depicting civil society as the “Cosa Nostra” of NGOs – to use once again the wording of the Homeland Movement – and as a “rat king of foreign agents” aims at effectively destroying the credibility and, in turn, the possibility of dissent and feedback on policies: Without organized public feedback on policies, there is no reason or incentive for decision-makers to change them. Portraying citizens’ free organization to influence their elected representatives and policy-making as a nefarious clandestine project of globalist elites, in turn aims at effectively telling citizens that if they were to join such an organization or attempt such an influence, they would be just another alien rat with its tail intertwined with those of other traitors and imperialists.
Once you have clogged the channel for bottom-up public communication, you win the most precious prize for any oligarchy or despotic regime: the possibility of acting like the sole channel that gives voice to the will of a “natural community.” Above and beyond the financial gain and joys of sadistic traditionalism, this is the dream of illiberal nativists consolidating throughout the world: to become oracles of their natural communities. And this is why the opponents of discursive openness are constantly raising the battle cry of “selling out to foreign powers.”
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de
Sanja Bojanić is a researcher immersed in philosophy of culture; media and queer studies, with an overarching commitment to comprehend contemporary forms of gender, racial and class practices, which underpin social and affective inequalities specifically increased in the contemporary societal and political contexts. She firstly studied philosophy and tailored her interests at the University of Paris 8, where she obtained an M.A. in Hypermedia Studies at the Department of Science and Technology of Information, and an M.A. and Ph.D. at Centre d'Etudes féminines et d'etude de genre, a processes that ultimately led to interdisciplinary research based on experimental artistic practices, queer studies, and particularities of Affect Theory. Her research and scientific work are fostered through various projects funded by EU Commission and private foundations. Author and editor of several books and manuals, she published over thirty peer-reviewed papers on topics related to her field of expertise.
Marko-Luka Zubčić is a Fellow of Center for Advanced Studies South East Europe and assistant lecturer in epistemology at Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Rijeka. He holds a PhD in philosophy from University of Rijeka. He works in social and institutional epistemology, with focus on ignorance, pluralism, collective epistemic virtues, and epistemic reliability in institutional and organizational design. His work is published in Ethics & Politics, Philosophy & Society, and Synthese, and he co-edited the Special Issue of Phenomenology and Mind on the topic of non-verbal normativity with Olimpia Loddo and Sanja Bojanić. He is dedicated to applying the insights of institutional epistemology in the real world. He conducts workshops in participatory policy-making, and works on the design of instruments for utilization of diversity, collective and distributed intelligence for policy-making and problem-solving. He provides communications and strategy consultancy for NGOs working on child poverty and food security.