Seven thousand Croats roared their approval, many raising their arms in the Nazi-style salutes that are the trademark of Mr Paraga's Croatian Party of Rights (HSP). Mr Paraga, 31, is the HSP presidential candidate in tomorrow's elections in Croatia, and the rally on Thursday in a Zagreb park was the climax of a campaign that has embarrassed Croats sensitive to their country's image abroad.
Mr Paraga is a chubby-faced, bespectacled man with a taste for sober dark suits. His supporters wear black, consciously evoking the memory of the Black Legion, the elite troops of the Nazi- backed Croatian puppet state of the 1940s. When the HSP's parliamentary candidates take the stage and shout 'Za dom' (For the Homeland), the crowd gives the salute and shouts back: 'spremni' (We're ready). That, too, was the slogan of the Croatian state which slaughtered several hundred thousand Serbs and Jews in the Second World War. Before Mr Paraga's appearance, the crowd swayed to the music of a rock band belting out patriotic songs, including one whose lyrics talk of Croatian forces invading Serbia as far as Zemun, on the outskirts of Belgrade.
Many young men at the rally wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the letters HOS, which stand for Croatian Defence Force. This is the HSP's paramilitary wing. It has fought many ferocious battles with the Serbs, often operating outside the control of the Croatian government. Indeed, Mr Paraga and his allies denounced the ruling Croatian Democrat Union of President Franjo Tudjman as a pack of former Communists who have betrayed the homeland by allowing the Serbs to conquer one quarter of its territory. Worse, Mr Paraga says, Mr Tudjman signed an accord with the United Nations that placed UN troops in these areas and permitted the Serbs to consolidate their control.
The HSP denies it is a party of the far right. Instead, one woman candidate told the crowd, before leading them into the salute, 'the Croatian Party of Rights is a party of young people'. It believes Croatia should annex Bosnia, ignoring the fact that this republic has full international recognition.
Polls suggest the HSP has no chance of winning the election. They would do well to score above 10 per cent. But the party and its paramilitary forces are well organised and devoted to their cause. Their anti-Serbian message strikes a chord with a population radicalised by the war and by an election campaign in which nationalism has drowned out moderation. As the newspaper Slobodna Dalmacja observed, if the HSP does not win many seats, 'they could go looking for justice with their weapons in their hands'.