He quickly became the main attraction at Croatia’s recent anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests, which made headlines for the tens of thousands that gathered in Zagreb’s main Ban Jelačić Square in late November.
With his salt and pepper beard, piercing blue eyes, and booming voice, it comes as no surprise that Marko Francišković stole the show.
Yet he is not the most typical leader of anti-COVID protests, which have become increasingly frequent as European countries brace for the fifth pandemic wave and institute new rounds of lockdowns and measures.
In an ardently Catholic country, where about 87 per cent of the population declare themselves to be religious, Francišković is a somewhat peculiar choice of a leader.
Author of the book “Croatian Jihad”, Jihadi Marko, as he is known online, claims to be a committed conservative Muslim.
He insists that the only system that will liberate Croatia from the political and other elites that hold the country captive is the institution of Sharia law.
Francišković argues that the jihad he envisions will in no way be violent. In his many interviews found on various vlogs online, Francišković makes it clear that to him, jihad is a matter of internal struggle or “a fight to better one’s self”.
At the protests he addressed crowds atop a double-decker bus, crowds made up of mostly conservative Catholics, some of which carried posters of the Virgin Mary.
“Can’t you see what is coming,” Francišković asked. “They are about to start hunting us down like rabbits. You can feel the beast’s breath, it is close.”
“I want us to defend ourselves, together with my brothers. Most people will be jealous of you for not getting vaccinated soon. We need to organise, here and now!” Francišković — a veteran of the 1991 Croatian war — insisted, to the cheers of many.
That night, Fracišković led a large group of people to the headquarters of the national public broadcaster, HRT. He and his followers wanted to enter the building, demanding that the editors allow them to address the Croatian public. The police prevented them from entering and the crowd slowly dispersed.
Francišković was taken into custody and now faces charges for terrorism. Not religious terrorism, but rather, for terrorist activities pertaining to his instigation of the crowd prior to and on the day of the protests.
In his first appearance in court after the arrest, Francišković repeated the same line: the calls to war he stands accused of making online in the run up to the protests were not calls to violence. “When I said war, I meant media and propaganda war.”
“I wanted to get the media interested it. I was calling for a visual, ideological war, which is completely legitimate,” he said in his appeal.
But that did not convince the presiding judge, who extended his stay in jail for another month, starting on January 3. This sparked protests in Francišković’s support in front of the Remetinec prison, with hundreds gathering to chant his name.
This is not Francišković’s first court drama. In 2013, he was deemed psychologically incompetent and sentenced to six months of mental health treatment after a series of online disputes with Ranko Ostojić, minister of interior at the time. He was arrested for making death threats and for the illegal possession of a firearm.
Francišković attributes this period to his discovery of Islam. In the meantime, he tried his hand at politics, unsuccessfully running for office in Zagreb, and now owns a number of anti-globalist, Eurosceptic and anti-vaccination pages on social media.
This, along with a string of anti-vaccination protests he organised in his native Zadar is how he drew the attention of the wider Covid-distrusting crowd — but also a number of far-right populist politicians, like the MOST coalition and the Domovinski pokret (“Homeland Movement”) who are a mainstay at gatherings of skeptics.
The hard right wins when doubt prevails
Dario Čepo, professor of sociology and political sciences at the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Law, believes that the decades-long decline of trust in Croatia’s institutions has created a space for anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists to profit from the scepticism and paranoia present in society.
“The combination of a low trust in institutions combined with a legitimately bad handling of the pandemic led to a cocktail of dissatisfaction and fear that has been weaponised by populists and demagogues,” he said.
And Francišković came in handy as someone who stands out in a crowd, ready to hear out everyone’s most radical opinions, Čepo argues.
“No one had heard of him, except for him appearing on some obscure websites, until these protests. A combination of a lack of leadership in the protests and a social media atmosphere that was thirsty for sensationalism led to him emerging as a leader.”
Croatian society is, just like many other countries in the world today, extremely polarised, Čepo believes. And the likes of MOST — a coalition of anti-establishment right-wing religious conservatives — are capitalising on the ever-increasing divisions and outright anger felt by wide swathes of the population, and directed at those in power.
According to the end-of-the-year Ipsos poll, MOST gained a 2 per cent advantage since November, and is now in third place with a total of 13 per cent, right behind HDZ (36 per cent) and SDP at 16 per cent.
“MOST, before recent elections, cleansed itself of all its moderate voices. The people left now are religious conservatives and national conservatives. Having that in mind, their playing field has been significantly narrowed and now they can only focus on the right, far-right and nationalist right-wing electorate.”
“The first thing they focus on is targeting the institutional right, which has for years been dominated by HDZ so they spend a lot of time highlighting HDZ’s corruption. The other thing they focus is their demand that the elites – who are bad – have to listen to the people, the citizens – who are inherently good.”
In their contempt for the elites, the more conservative factions of society are willing to neglect the fact that they are being led by an alleged jihadist — despite themselves being Islamophobic, Čepo explains.
“Any attempt to completely understand the actions of the anti-vaxxers is like trying to unpack three-dimensional chess. They don’t try to find logical connections between things,” he said.
“They function in the immediate present and react instantaneously to what is happening to them. They heard this man — they might know that he claims he’s a jihadist, they might not — but for their purposes he reiterates their views on vaccines and green passes and political elites.”
“I don’t think they peer deep enough into the analysis to pick apart the fact that the man claims to be a jihadist and that that is something they might be against,” Čepo concluded.
According to Ana Benačić, a journalist at Croatia’s most prominent fact-checking organisation, Faktograf, it was this exact fear of the protests that led the ruling centre-right HDZ to peg Francišković as a terrorist.
“That qualification is a joke,” she said. “They are turning him into a martyr, and long term, it will prove to do more damage than good.”
“Francišković is just a caricature of the right-wing anti-establishment spectrum, closely tied in with religious fanaticism. He has nothing to do with Islam,” Benačić explained.
Francišković’s supposed belief is only one part of a larger narrative he tells of himself, including stories on how he was privy to top-secret documents his uncle, who allegedly worked for the Yugoslav intelligence service, kept at his parents’ home, or how he studied at an elite royal school in Australia.
In his 2019 book, he explained how he chose to reclaim the symbol used on ISIL’s infamous black and white flags because it was “abused by world powers who put it there.”
But like Čepo, Benačić thinks that this matters little to the anti-vaccination crowd.
“The protests attract a wide number of customers,” she said. “The reasons are several: first, there’s the lack of understanding of basic tenets of epidemiology and how viruses work. Then there’s the so-called implicatory denial — people don’t like the measures, so they decide not to believe we have a problem to begin with.”
And after Croatia’s leaders failed to deliver on the promise of a better future made when the country declared independence in 1991, Benačić thinks the only thing people can unite over is that anyone who hates the elites is their ally — especially in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
“You had a system that developed public health, that introduced universal medical care, created health resorts for the working class,” she said.
“And then, 30 years since independence, Novi Zagreb (neighbourhood of the capital) still does not have its own hospital. Health services have been commercialised and are now your own financial issue.”
“So how do you trust a health system when it decides on measures that affect the entire population, when the system shows you every so often that everyone is expected to fend for themselves?”
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