Some 100,0000 Croat war veterans demonstrated in the port city of Split yesterday in support of a Croatian war hero wanted by police on suspicion of war crimes. The demonstrators are calling on the government to resign. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the protests appear aimed at bringing down Croatia's fledgling democracy in favor of a return to the authoritarian policies of late President Franjo Tudjman.
Prague, 12 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The massive demonstration yesterday in the Croatian port of Split and protests elsewhere around the country have sent a strong message to President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan that prosecuting war crimes could lead to the collapse of their political power.
Former general and suspected war criminal Mirko Norac failed to show up last week for a court hearing in Rijeka on his role in the murder of 40 Serbian civilians near Gospic in September 1991. Norac has gone into hiding, and police have since issued a warrant for his arrest.
The demonstrations come at a difficult time for Croatia's one-year-old, six-party coalition government. The government is prosecuting war criminals on its own territory but is still too weak and fractured to risk extraditing citizens to the UN tribunal in The Hague.
The crowd in Split chanted: "Mesic, you're a Gypsy ("Mesicu, Cigane") and "Racan, you're a pederast (Racane, pederu").
The chief organizer of the rally and first to speak, Mirko Condic, denounced the two leaders, whom he labeled "communists."
"We will not let the communists take away our democracy and freedom. We say to Racan and Mesic: no way forward." The crowd chants: "Let's go to Zagreb!" Among the other speakers was the head of the late President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, Ivo Sanader.
"Submit your resignations and call for new elections," he said.
Also participating was retired General Janko Bobetko, Tudjman's former army chief of staff.
"In this country, we are making the decisions." The crowd chants: "That is right! We will elect and we will dismiss."
The speakers called for unifying their parties into a single bloc in order, they said, "to bring down the current coalition government by democratic means."
The ruling coalition has accused HDZ of trying to take advantage of Norac's arrest warrant to stage a political comeback.
Racan said last night he was relieved the demonstrations had passed peacefully. But he denounced the slogans and accused HDZ of being behind the protests: "the government's firm standpoint is: democratic dialogue -- 'yes,' peaceful protests -- 'yes,' violence -- 'no.'" While there has been no violence to date, the veterans groups last week staged several roadblocks and renewed some roadblocks today.
In addition to HDZ, a variety of other right-wing parties and groupings were involved in the Split rally and at a rally in Osijek in eastern Slavonia attended by over 5,000 people. Some protesters in Osijek held aloft portraits of Croatia's World War II fascist leader Ante Pavelic, who founded the fascist Ustasa (insurrection) movement in 1926.
The Osijek crowd chanted Tudjman's name and shouted "red bandits" and "down with the traitors" whenever speakers mentioned the names of Mesic and Racan.
Norac was one of seven generals whom Mesic retired in September. The seven were among 12 signatories of an open letter read to the Split rally calling for an end to what it called the "criminalization" of Croatia's war of independence from 1991 to 1995. A declaration read at the rally called on the government to state its views by Thursday, when a rally will be held in Zagreb. It said: "we will not allow the authorities to identify with the state, and Norac is the symbol of the defense and victory."
In Zagreb last night, a member of the ruling coalition, Drazen Budisa, said he doubts the majority of protesters back the declaration.
"If the tens of thousands of people who rallied in Split today were to read carefully the document they approved, they'd see the document's demands -- if implemented -- would mean the end of a state of law, the end of constitutional order in the Republic of Croatia, and political chaos with unforeseen consequences."
Budisa, who heads the Croatian Social Liberal Party, notes the government has not extradited anyone to the tribunal during its year in power, while Tudjman's HDZ -- when it held power -- "extradited some people, even some who were subsequently acquitted."
But the president of the Croatia Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Zarko Puhovski, says the coalition lacks sufficient public support and is not in a strong enough position to extradite Croat citizens to the tribunal. Nevertheless, Puhovski insists those who committed war crimes in Croatia must be brought to trial to ensure "normal living and the moral health of the nation."
So far, the Serbian news media has all but ignored the Split rally and debate over extradition. The Belgrade authorities have pledged to cooperate with the Hague tribunal, but have ruled out extraditing former President Slobodan Milosevic.
In Dubrovnik last night, Tudjman's son Miroslav, who heads a nationalist group calling itself the Association for Croatia's Identity and Prosperity, said the government cannot meet the Hague tribunal's demands until, as he put it, the aggressor is tried and war crimes committed by Serbs and Muslims against Bosnian Croats are punished.
The heads of the six parties in Croatia's ruling coalition met in Zagreb last night to discuss yesterday's protests and reject demands to end the prosecution of Norac and other suspected war criminals, resign, and call early elections.
One of the six, The Croatian Peasant Party's Zlatko Tomcic, the speaker of Croatia's parliament, says the veterans should reject attempts to manipulate them. He says state institutions and the rule of law must continue to function. Tomcic perceives the Split demonstration as an attempt to radicalize the political scene.
"First of all, they want to ensure early elections -- not legitimate and legal elections -- but rather elections which have a single goal: to ... [make] a lot of noise and obstructions to force early elections."
The chairwoman of another coalition member, Vesna Pusic of the Croatian People's Party, describes the situation as "a struggle for the preservation of the institutional integrity of the Croatian state." She says the ruling coalition has an obligation to protect state institutions.
Just how powerful HZD is remains unclear. This week's rally in Zagreb is expected to provide a better picture.