The Croatian president's remark is the latest in a line of controversial statements over the past year.
In an off-colour statement on Wednesday, Croatian President Zoran Milanović landed himself in hot water after comparing the Ukrainian patriotic chant “Slava Ukraini” to a Nazi salute.
At an awards ceremony in Zagreb, Milanović told reporters that the Ukrainian slogan – used widely since the Russian intervention in 2014 and even more so since last year's full-scale invasion – is a throwback to the killing of Jews and Poles during early 20th century conflicts in Eastern Europe.
"This is the chant of the most radical chauvinists from Western Ukraine who collaborated with Nazis, who killed hundreds of thousands of Poles, Jews, and anyone else they got their hands on," Milanović said at the event. "These are the facts."
"Slava Ukraini", which translates to "Glory to Ukraine" and is usually followed by the response "Glory to the Heroes", is a national salute and the official battle cry of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy regularly ends his public speeches with this phrase. It has become ubiquitous in the country as a sign of national resolve, similar to the British wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
Found on billboards, t-shirts, and even bank cards, it is perhaps the single most recognisable phrase in Ukrainian public life.
Milanović compared it to the chant used by sympathisers of the Croatian World War II-era Nazi puppet state, known as the Independent State of Croatia or NDH. It was led by some of Europe's most fervent Hitler adherents, who conducted brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns.
“There is no difference between the chant ‘For the Homeland, Prepared!’ and 'Glory to Ukraine,'” Milanović insisted, referring to a Nazi battle cry from NDH days.
The slogan has banned for public use by several Croatian Constitutional Court decisions. On three separate occasions, the court ruled the slogan's use to be an expression of racist ideology.
Milanović’s claims about "Slava Ukraini" mirror statements made by Russian officials about the chant.
Painting Ukraine in its entirety as a country overrun by neo-Nazis and equating every Ukrainian symbol, song, and form of cultural expression as being akin to fascism forms the bedrock of the Russian propaganda apparatus.
According to the Kremlin, "Slava Ukraini" is exclusively associated with the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists or OUN, a Ukrainian ultranationalist organisation whose radical faction led by Stepan Bandera collaborated with the Nazis.
Some Ukrainians dispute Bandera's affiliation with Nazism and perceive him as a fighter against Soviet expansionism and attempts by authorities in Moscow to crack down on any form of Ukrainian national expression.
Russian authorities have regularly neglected any nuances when discussing Ukraine's 20th century history.
According to academics and historians, "Slava Ukraini" predates the OUN, having been mentioned by the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko in the 19th century. It was also used by various Ukrainian revolutionaries and activists well before the events of World War II.
Milanović incorrectly claimed the two phrases were equally old and compared them to the infamous Nazi German salute.
“The Croatian salute is as old as 'Slava Ukraini' and the 'Sieg Heil' chant used in Nazi Germany. I don’t want to ever hear [those chants] in Croatia,” he said.
Although some Croatians contend that "For the Homeland, Prepared!" was also used before World War II, progressive historians point out that, unlike Ukraine, Croatia had a full-fledged Nazi state controlling significant territories, including not just today's Croatia but also parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.
The salute experienced a resurgence during the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and was used in particular by far-right politicians and paramilitaries during the Balkans conflict.
Unlike "Slava Ukraini", "For the Homeland, Prepared!" is exclusively used by ethnic Croats and usually in contexts where the goal is to establish ethnic dominance over other groups.
Croatia's president criticised his political colleagues in Croatia and beyond for using the chant "Slava Ukraini".
“The fact that some Western leaders got hooked to this, especially in Canada, means they are either illiterate or whatever, I will not use it,” he said.
The Russian government has long described the Ukrainian government as "Nazi" to denigrate Ukraine's statehood, but it is uncommon for Western leaders to level the same charge.
Milanović is a longtime member of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia and was lauded in the past for supporting progressive causes and criticising nationalists. From 2011 to 2016, he served as Croatia's prime minister and was widely regarded as a counterweight to the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union.
His election as president in late 2019 led to the ouster of HDZ's Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who was criticised for downplaying war crimes committed by the Croatian army and cozying up to apologists of the Croatian Nazi puppet state.
Milanović won the election largely as an alternative to Grabar-Kitarović, but has since become increasingly controversial. He frequently engages in public back-and-forths with Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who recently referred to him as "a pathological liar".
He is opposed the training of Ukrainian soldiers in Croatia, as well as Finland and Sweden's NATO bids.
In 2021, he launched a diplomatic scandal by describing Austria's Covid-19 control measures as tantamount to "a return to fascism" in 2021. Yet it appears that this only increased his popularity: in Crobarometar polls conducted earlier in May, he was rated as Croatia's most popular politician.