(Transcript from World News Radio)
A visit by Croatia’s Prime Minister has inflamed passions in some circles of Australia’s Croatian community.
Zoran Milanovic is the first head of government to visit Australia since the former Yugoslav state gained independence in the 1990s.
Kristina Kukolja reports.
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“We have the whole Croatian community, all the Croatian clubs, churches, and all the institutions not only here in Sydney, but in Canberra and Melbourne and all over Australia that have banned Mr Zoran Milanovic from attending their premises.”
They vowed to come by the busloads, but on the day, a mere two dozen or so people from Sydney’s Croatian community turned up at Macquarie University to protest against the arrival of the Croatian Prime Minister.
“That is the silent protest against him and his party and the way he is leading Croatia. This is the voice part. So we want Milanovic to know: you are not welcome in Croatia, you are not welcome in Australia.”
Zoran Milanovic was at Macquarie University to sign an agreement recommitting funding to the Croatian Studies program for another five years, to the value of $750,000.
It was the first major stop on a tour of Australia and New Zealand that saw him and his high-level delegation meet with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, opposition leader Bill Shorten, and business people and academics in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
For weeks the Croatian-language press in Australia had spurred on a frenzy, backed in its calls for a boycott of the group by colleagues on community radio, and protest organisers on social media.
Clubs across the country where many Australians of a Croatian background congregate, and visiting dignitaries are traditionally received, closed their doors to him, declaring the PM wasn’t welcome on their premises.
Victorian Paul Saric is the President of the Association of Croatian Clubs of Australia.
He says community leaders respect the office of the Prime Minister, but they weren’t willing to host him during his stay.
“I personally had asked, probably, 10 prominent Croatian community leaders from Geelong and Melbourne would they be interested in a round table meeting with the Prime Minister. Out of the ten, one accepted. Everyone else was against it. They didn’t want [anything] to do with him.”
Over 120,000 people living in Australia claim Croatian ancestry, forming one of the largest Croatian diaspora communities after the United States, Chile, Argentina and Canada.
Croatian migration to Australia peaked in the years after the Second World War, when Croatia was still part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Many among those who came strongly opposed the Communist government of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, some claming they or their families faced political persecution.
Since Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, centre-left governments — such as the one led by Mr Milanovic’s Social Democratic Party — tend to be viewed by migrant communities as remnants of the old Communist order.
Zoran Milanovic says he isn’t surprised by the reception he’s received in Australia, but hopes meeting members of the community might ease some of the negative feelings.
And he’s rejected any links with the old Yugoslav Communist party.
“Some people here are labelling me as Tito’s puppet, which couldn’t be more ridiculous. I never served in the former Communist police, which many of my political opponents did. I was never a member of the Communist party. I don’t care about that. That’s not my world.”
Australia saw glimpses of anti-Yugoslav government activism by members of the Croatian community in the 1960s and 70s.
Pro-independence groups at the time were linked to bomb attacks on Yugoslav consulates in Sydney and Melbourne.
Australians of a Croatian background have travelled to Croatia to fight in the so-called War of Independence in the 1990s.
And more recently, members of the community were identified in clashes with others from former Yugoslav groups at sporting events in Melbourne.
There’ve been tensions within the community, too, after some diplomatic staff refused to attend clubs still bearing insignia dating back to a short-lived independent Croatian state during the Second World War supported by Nazi Germany.
Croatia has made some slogans from this period — such as the one that saw Australian-born Croatian footballer Josip Simunic banned by FIFA from the World Cup — punishable by law.
Asked whether he was concerned about extremist elements within the Australian-Croatian community, the Prime Minister responded:
“In Croatia, in present day Europe, in the European Union whose member Croatia is, to put forward insignia from World War Two from the puppet regimes which were not affiliated, but which were happily married with Hitler and Mussolini, it’s not only distasteful, it’s simply out of mind, because those people did cost the Croatian image and reputation dearly, extremely, in war time. But then again there is a difference for me whether somebody takes that stance in Croatia or here because people have lived, if not isolated, then distant.”