She was the unexpected star of Croatia’s World Cup run, appearing at the end of the final drenched in the Moscow rain in the country’s distinctive chequerboard football shirt, having attended nearly every game the national team played.
But Croatia’s right-of-centre president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, has also been accused of using the tournament as a re-election campaign, and of tolerating Croatian ultranationalism which reared its head during the football celebrations.
In an interview with the Guardian, she said the far-right in her country was marginal, and defended her warm relations with Vladimir Putin.
Grabar-Kitarović, who played football in her youth as a centre-forward, said that the phrase “mighty little Croatia” summed up the performance of the squad and “the image that was presented of a vibrant, optimistic, patriotic team and country”.
She said she hoped the national team’s second-place finish would give a boost to her country of 4.2m people, the newest EU member state, which endured years of recession following the economic crisis, and is now grappling with mass emigration.
The president, whom Forbes ranked as one of the world’s 40 most powerful women in 2017, also distanced herself from rising Euroscepticism and xenophobia in Europe.
She said far-right figures in Croatia were “the exception, not the rule”, despite the presence in parliament of Branimir Glavaš, currently under retrial for war crimes, and other prominent politicians regarded as having nationalist leanings and Ustasha sympathies, including some associated with the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Grabar-Kitarović was a leading member of the HDZ until her elevation to the presidency.
“I will not comment on individual people,” she said, before highlighting the welcome Croats afforded to refugees during the 2015 migration crisis.
“There are always exceptions in any society. There is no xenophobic reaction in Croatia to any newcomers or migrants. There are no threats to democracy or to human rights. We should focus on the mainstream in society that makes Croatia what it is today,” she said.
Bojan Glavašević, a leading member of the opposition Social Democratic party, says the president’s international image masks her “true colours” shown in domestic politics, including inviting far-right figures to events.
Regarded as a moderate, Grabar-Kitarović has played a leading role in co-opting the far-right into alliances with HDZ, she has openly associated with Ustasha sympathisers, and engaged in “dog-whistle politics” to hard-right voters, according to Josip Glaurdić, a political scientist.
For some, Croatia’s World Cup “bounce” has already been marred by the appearance at the team’s welcome party of Marko Perković, known as “Thompson”, a singer known for his far-right politics.
The team’s captain, Luka Modrić, reportedly invited Perković onto the team bus, and he sang on stage with the team before organisers abruptly cut the sound on his microphone.
The controversy came during a period in which Croatia has come under international scrutiny over the alleged rehabilitation of revisionism of its second world war past.
Grabar-Kitarović has said that she loves Thompson’s music, but dismissed claims that his appearance overshadowed the celebrations.
“Marko Perković was one of half a million people on the streets of Croatia that day to greet the Croatian national football team,” she said in her spacious offices in the Zagreb hillside suburb of Pantovčak, a complex built by Tito, the long-serving Yugoslavian Communist leader, ringed by woods and dotted with statues that has the feel of a Bond villain’s lair.
Many Croatians feel sympathy with Ukraine from their own experience of the Yugoslav wars, another issue that made headlines during the World Cup.
Grabar-Kitarović presented the Russian president with a Croatia shirt during the World Cup, and has invited him to visit the country. In a trip to Russia in October 2017, she called for the “expansion of cooperation” between Moscow and Zagreb. Previously seen as a close US ally, Croatia’s ties with Russia have deepened in recent years, through deals with the Russian companies Gazprom and Sberbank in particular.
“I’m glad that president Trump and president Putin had a meeting, and I hope their relationship will continue,” she said. “I can’t see how we can resolve some of the issues that affect us so greatly in Croatia and the EU and elsewhere – such as the war in Syria – without talking to Russia. [Negotiations with Serbia] were an extremely difficult process, but [settlement] came a lot sooner than I ever thought.
“When I was hiding in bomb shelters here in Zagreb, I thought that there would never be a time when Croatia and Serbia would be at peace again.”