(Transcript from World News Radio)
Croatia has issued a strongly-worded statement in response to a federal MP’s speech at a controversial Croatian community event in Sydney.
Liberal MP Craig Kelly is alleged to have conveyed Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s best wishes at a gathering commemorating the establishment of a pro-Nazi Croatian government in the 1940s.
Kristina Kukolja has more.
The event at Croatian community centre ‘Sydney’ in Punchbowl earlier this month was to commemorate April the 10th — the foundation date of the so-called Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War.
The Ustasha government of the Independent State of Croatia was affiliated with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany – adopting their policies, including the deportation and killing of Jews, Croatian Serbs, Roma and other non-Croats.
The federal MP for Hughes in New South Wales, Craig Kelly, attended the Croatian community commemoration in Sydney.
According to a Croatian language newspaper published in Sydney, he used a brief speech to the gathering to convey congratulations and best wishes from the Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Croatia has summoned the Australian Ambassador in Zagreb, Susan Cox, to demand an explanation about Mr Kelly’s appearance.
The Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs issued the following statement to SBS:
“We have summoned Her Excellency Susan Cox to express our protest because it is absolutely unacceptable to commemorate 10th April and so-called NDH, or Independent State of Croatia. Today’s Croatia is founded on completely different democratic and civilization values which is also stated in our Constitution. We believe that the fact that the statement was attached to Prime Minister Abbott only weeks after successful visit of the Croatian Prime Minister to Australia is especially inappropriate.”
A spokesman for Craig Kelly says he attended the event for only 15 minutes, representing the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, Senator Concetta Fierevanti Wells.
Mr Kelly has been unavailable for interviews, but in a statement to SBS, Mr Kelly’s office denies he delivered any statement on behalf of the Prime Minister.
The statement refers to the fact that Mr Kelly stood at a lectern decorated with the Ustasha flag.
“Mr Kelly gave a brief speech in which he strongly condemned fascism and communism, both of which he described as ‘evil’. Mr Kelly further noted that through their lived experiences under both evil regimes few nations understand the importance of freedom and democracy as does Croatia, and is why the Croatian people so strongly cling to the virtues freedom and democracy today.The speech was not prepared, and was delivered off-the-cuff. Mr Kelly offers his apologies for inadvertently appearing to endorse an outdated version of the Croatian flag, which had been placed on the lectern.”
In an email to a concerned member of Serbian community in Liverpool, Mr Kelly said media reports claiming he had given a speech supporting the fascist Croatian state were not true.
“Firstly I am mortified with what has been reported, as my words were selectively taken out of context to convey the opposite meaning, and I’m personally upset that the reporting of this has have offended by many Serbian and Croatian friends,” he said in the email that was leaked and published on inSerbia Independent news.
Mr Kelly denies he delivered any statement on behalf of the Prime Minister.
“To explain the circumstances, I was requested by the Parliamentary Secretary Senator Fierravanti-Wells to represent her at an event at the Croatian Club which was described as ”celebrating Croatian Independence,” the email said.
It’s not uncommon for flags and other symbols from the Ustasha era to appear at Croatian community events in Australia, as it did in Sydney.
A large number of Croatian migrants arrived in Australia after the Second World War while Croatia was still a part of Communist Yugoslavia.
Some members of the Croatian community, particularly among older generations, regard the current social-democrat government in Croatia as a revival of Communist rule, and hold the view that Croatia was only truly independent in the 1940s.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs says Craig Kelly attended the Croatian community event in Sydney in good faith.
It also says Mr Kelly was not representing the Prime Minister.
In a statement to SBS, the Department says in meeting with Croatian officials Australia’s Ambassador Susan Cox stressed the relationship between Croatia and Australia.
“Australia’s Ambassador to Croatia met Croatian government officials at their request late last week to discuss comments attributed in the media to the Member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, at a recent function in Sydney. During the meetings, the Ambassador underlined the warm relations between Australia and the Republic of Croatia, which Australia recognised on 16 January 1992 following its declaration of independence on 25 June 1991. She said that Australia looked forward to building on this relationship following the visit of Prime Minister Milanovic to Australia in March 2014.”
Also in attendance at the Sydney event were NSW Liberal MP for Riverstone Kevin Conolly, The Hills Shire Councillor Robyn Preston, Penrith City Councillor Marcus Cornish, and Nadia Namuren of the Ukrainian Council of New South Wales.
They have been unavailable for interviews.
In Croatia today, independence from Communist Yugoslavia in the 1990s is commemorated on June 25, designated Statehood Day.
Under Croatian law, it is an offence to use in public some expressions and symbols associated with the wartime fascist administration.