I just don't buy that.
of the International Herald Tribune on Marko "Thompson" Perkovi
ZAGREB, Croatia: For the Croatian rock star Marko Perkovic, it is a routine part of his performance: He shouts a well-known Croatian slogan from World War II and his fans respond with the Nazi salute.
On a hot Sunday evening last month, thousands did just that in a packed soccer stadium here in the Croatian capital. Photographs from the concert show youths wearing the black caps of the Nazi-backed Ustasha regime that ruled Croatia, and which was responsible for sending tens of thousands of Serbs, gypsies and Jews to their deaths in concentration camps.
Perkovic's popularity is nothing new in Croatia. It dates back to the Balkan wars in which he fought in the Croatian Army. His patriotic and sometimes violently nationalist songs made him an instant hit. Most Croats know him better by his stage name, Thompson, which was given to him during the war, when he carried the vintage British-made submachine gun of the same name.
But now Thompson's growing success - among a new generation of Croats, many of them apparently oblivious to the history of the Holocaust - has prompted concern and condemnation from minority groups in Croatia and Jewish groups abroad. The concert last month was his biggest to date, with at least 40,000 people in attendance.
What has shocked those groups more, though, is that in the ensuing debate, many senior politicians and the members of the media have not seen a problem with the imagery or salutes.
"They just don't seem to get it," said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who called on the president of Croatia, Stjepan Mesic, to ban future concerts and help outlaw the use of extremist symbols and slogans.
Despite those objections, the concert was shown during prime time Sunday night on state-owned television, prompting further protests from Jewish and Serbian groups in Croatia.
"We don't want to pay for something that strikes fear into my children, or distances them from their friends or neighbors," said Milorad Pupovac, leader of the largest Serbian political party in Croatia.
Such imagery is also at odds with the image that the Croatian government wants to send to the world.
Over the last three years, the conservative Croatian prime minister, Ivo Sanader, has to some extent reduced its reputation as a nationalist state that once harbored war criminals. The transition is widely viewed as a success and Croatia is a favorite to join the European Union, possibly in 2009.
So the country that for much of the 1990s was seen as a war-torn nation is now widely perceived as a prime destination with four million tourists a year flocking to its Adriatic coast line. A government-backed advertising campaign on CNN urges more to come and experience "the Mediterranean as it once was."
Many former critics of Croatian nationalist leanings in the 1990s acknowledge that the country has a come a long way. Once it was possible to buy photographs and memorabilia from the Ustasha period openly in the center of Zagreb. Restaurants displayed pictures of Ustasha units on their walls.
While that has disappeared, souvenir shops still sell key rings and baseball caps with the Ustasha U, as well as the slogan used in Thompson concerts; "Za Dom: Spremni!" which means "For the Homeland: Ready!" And sometimes, insensitivity about issues stemming from the Holocaust can verge on extreme.
Take Perkovic's public affairs manager, Albino Ursic. A large poster entitled "Final Solution" adorns the wall of Ursic's office. It shows a packet of cigarettes marked with a large Swastika and labelled "Adolf Filters" poking out of a black leather jacket. "It's an antismoking picture," Ursic explained. He designed the image in 1994.
"It won an award in Lisbon," he added, stressing that he had no sympathies with the right, and viewed himself as left of center. As for Perkovic's use of the slogans, Ursic said the fascist salutes were no different than those made by soccer hooligans across Europe who have little understanding of what they are doing
"It is just teenage rebellion," he said.
And while the Croatian government issued a statement after the concert in June criticizing the open display of Ustasha memorabilia and slogans, much of the Croatian political establishment seems to agree with Ursic. They cannot see what all the fuss is about.
"You can't see any antisemitism here," said Dragan Primorac, the education minister of Croatia. He was due to attend the same Thompson concert last month, before it was postponed by a day due to rain. Other celebrities who did manage to make it included a former Croatian foreign minister and two former Croatian NBA basketball stars.
"At most you could blame four to five people," he said, for wearing Ustasha regalia, or giving the Nazi salute during the concert. He stressed, too, that Croatia was a good friend of Israel and pointed to his mantelpiece, where there stood a photograph of himself meeting Shimon Perez.
Perkovic, too, has recently sought to tone down his nationalist image. In an interview, the soft-spoken singer said he had never raised his own arm to make a fascist salute. Nor, he said, did he encourage people to wear Ustasha uniforms. As for the Ustasha slogan he uses, he said it was a traditional Croatian salute that predated World War II.
But rights groups here say there is a fundamental problem: while Croatia is now seeking to move away from the nationalist period of the 1990s, a whole generation of young people has grown up in the last 15 years with an incomplete education about the Holocaust, and many in Croatia believe the deeds of its wartime leaders are on the same level as Communist leaders in Yugoslavia.
"The education about the recent history of Croatia is not adequate," said Danijel Ivin, the president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
Primorac, the education minister, said that is slowly beginning to change. Since 2004, a whole day is dedicated each year to studying the Holocaust. Still, others believe Croatia's ability to face its past will remain a problem for some time.
"It is an issue," said Tomislav Jakic, an advisor to President Mesic. "It is far from the Ustasha nostalgia that it was 15 years ago, when the ghost was first let out of the bottle. But the ghost is still here, and it will be for years to come."