Thursday, January 23, 2003

Pink Issues, True Colours and Radical Makeovers

Gay rights probably represent one of the least important issues in Croatia today, and this is exactly the reason why Račan's (Racan's) government made such public spectacle of them last year. Economy, public safety, living standard, taxes, unemployment etc. – the issues that are supposed to change the outcome of elections in enlightened democracies – all that is in rather bad shape in Croatia these days, and that doesn't bode well for Račan and his team one year before the next election cycle. So, any kind of distraction is welcome, including war crimes indictments of top Croatian generals or border disputes with Slovenia. Gay rights issues – adopted by government in its attempt to push radical new family legislation through Sabor – were supposed not only to serve this purpose, but also to score some PR points for "enlightened and progressive" Croatia abroad and secure 10% of votes for Račan's SDP.

SDP's idea to push for introduction of same-sex partnerships into new Family Act coincided with last year's Gay Pride Parade in Zagreb. This manifestation was held in Zagreb for the first time, and it was actually endorsed by government. The purpose behind it was to show that Croatia is closer to Western values than Serbia, where the similar manifestation in Belgrade 2001 had ended with participants being attacked and beaten up by far-right supporters and local soccer hooligans.

Zagreb Parade was much more peaceful, but it hardly represented triumph of Croatian tolerance. Only around hundred or so genuine Zagreb homosexuals appeared, being outnumbered by couple hundred human rights activists, members of Sabor and government representatives led by minister of interiors Šime Lučin (Sime Lucin), man who was given the task of being most vocal proponent of gay rights within SDP. The participants of parade – gay or straight – were outnumbered by thousand or so policemen – uniformed, riot-geared and plainclothes - who were protecting them. But the participants and police combined were outnumbered by thousands of skinheads and local soccer hooligans who greeted them with insults and occasional stone. Accounts vary, but there is evidence that most of passing, ordinary citizens of Zagreb actually sided with the skinheads instead of demonstrators.

This public display clearly indicated that citizens of Croatia were ready to support "pro-democratic, pro-Western" policy of Račan's government only to a certain point. But Račan could have ignored that as a "relic of the difficult national past" or "something incompatible with European values". The idea of entering political and economical structures of 21st Century Europe and maintaining 19th Century social values in the same time looked ludicrous, but only to those not accustomed to contradictions that still plague Croatian politics. Those contradictions reared its ugly head when the opposition to gay rights became legitimate position not only among HDZ and other right-wing opposition parties, but also within Račan's coalition itself.

Today's debate in Sabor probably showed how difficult the issue is going to be. The main opponent to same sex marriages (or legally sanctioned "partnerships") is HSS, which clearly wants to distance itself from ex-Communist and "too leftist" SDP, champion traditional Catholic values, thus secure its small but faithful rural voting base with 5-10 % votes that would make that party into kingmaker after upcoming elections. The most critical of their representatives was Ljubica Lalić (Ljubica Lalić), MS that opposed any kind of homosexual partnerships in Family Act and instead advocated creation of special counselling centres for homosexuals, designed them to "cure them of their unnatural ways".

This statement, most bigoted of everything that passed Sabor microphones in 2003, wasn't the only one. Idea of "unnatural unions" was slammed by MSes from HSLS. What makes this affair interesting is the fact that HSLS representatives were among politicians giving support to Gay Pride Parade – manifestation that stood for the exactly the same thing which is supposed to become part of new Family Act. This just shows how branding someone "leftist", "liberal" or "conservative" in Croatia represents exercise in futility.

However, today's debate also had an example of former right-winger adopting ultra-left views. The sole defender of same sex unions was none other than Zlatko Canjuga, independent MS who had been elected in 2000 on the HDZ parliamentary ticket. In the last years of Tudjman's life Canjuga was probably the most hated of all of his cronies, especially among supporters of Dinamo Zagreb soccer club, whom he had insulted by being at its helm and insisting on Tudjman-imposed name Croatia Zagreb. Canjuga, historian by trade and with family roots in Hrvatsko Zagorje, was considered "homey" by Tudjman and thus earned his favour. As one of Tudjman's top advisors and ideologists he often entertained the Croatian public by expressing ridiculously far right views, at one time even advocating division of Croatian society into formal "classes".

However, after Tudjman's death and 2000 election debacle, remaining HDZ brass began looking at massively unpopular Canjuga as liability rather than asset. Canjuga quickly saw the writing on the wall, abandoned HDZ, kept the Sabor seat as independent and began supporting Račan's government. This shift was more than pragmatic – Canjuga shifted ideologically, becoming one of Croatia's rare Tudjman-era historians to say few good words about Tito (and even founding a restaurant under Tito's name). He even got himself as political talk show in which he showed great communications skill, charm and intelligence – something that he lacked while being Tudjman's lap dog. His transformation from right-wing caricature to sole defender of gay rights in Croatian parliament is one of the more bizarre stories of post-Tudjman Croatia.

Gay rights and similar issues aren't that important in Croatia right now, but their presence in Croatian public discourse has served very valuable purpose – being the litmus-test for the values of Croatian political establishment.


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