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Balkan Report: May 12, 2000

12 May 2000, Volume 4, Number 35

Croats Face The Past. Following the electoral victories in January and February of the two center-left coalitions, many Croats have come to reexamine their country's history during World War II and in its most recent conflict. Where the discussion will lead in practical terms remains an open question.

It is an old axiom that the Balkans have produced more history than can be easily consumed locally. This was particularly the case for the bloody 20th century, and Croatia is no exception.

As communism collapsed in 1989-1990 and at the time of independence in 1991, communist-era taboos were discarded. There was open discussion of the major massacre by Tito's Partisans of not only hard-core Ustase but also hapless teenage conscripts at Bleiburg at the end of World War II. Smaller, local incidents of communist brutality during and after the war also were investigated and discussed.

President Franjo Tudjman, for his part, repeatedly said that the pro-Axis puppet state of Ante Pavelic, known as the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), was a natural expression of the Croatian people's age-old desire to have its own state. He never repudiated this statement. But Tudjman himself is reported to have blocked attempts to name public places after Pavelic, whose cult was and is popular among extreme rightwing groups.

Many observers believe, however, that Tudjman's discretion in this and some other matters was not the result of conviction but the result of his desire not to unduly offend foreign public opinion, which generally regarded him as an insensitive nationalist. This image stems primarily from his famous comment that he was glad that his wife was neither a Serb nor a Jew and because of what many regard as his underestimation of the number of persons whom the Ustase killed at the Jasenovac concentration camp.

In any event, during World War II, Tudjman had fought in the Partisans and later became Tito's youngest general. He accordingly kept the Tito-era holidays celebrating the wartime struggle against Pavelic and his masters.

Some of these facts are generally little known abroad, where the subtleties and gray areas of southeast European history tend to be obscured. For example, when Tudjman introduced a form of the traditional checkerboard coat-of-arms, or sahovnica, as the country's national emblem, a cry went up among local Serbs and many foreigners that he was restoring the NDH's symbol. It was forgotten or overlooked that, in terms of centuries-old Croatian heraldry, the sahovnica is pretty much the only show in town. It was, in fact, part of the communist-era arms of the Socialist Republic of Croatia. Nobody at that time suggested that Tito had rehabilitated Pavelic.

Indeed, nothing is simple in this part of the world, where the nationalistic Tudjman blocked the rehabilitation of Pavelic, and the anti-communist Tudjman kept the Tito-era celebrations. Another complex issue was the legacy of one Mile Budak, a writer and NDH cabinet minister. To his detractors, Budak was one of Pavelic's henchmen who was linked to anti-Semitic legislation. He was executed after a Titoist military court sentenced him to death as a war criminal. It would be outrageous, Budak's detractors feel, to speak at all positively of him, let alone name public places after him.

Others are not so sure and want Budak's name to adorn streets or squares. In a part of the world where writers are revered and there are few--if any--honors higher than being elected to the PEN Club, some Croats see Budak primarily as an outstanding writer. The regard him as a fitting contemporary of often politically controversial literary giants such as Tin Ujevic, Miroslav Krleza, and Ivo Andric, whom Serbs regard as a Serbian writer and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his "Bridge on the Drina." To Budak's admirers, Budak is a literary figure who was pushed into the arms of the fascists after being physically mauled by Serbian police in an experience that left him bodily and mentally scarred for life.

Budak's detractors challenge this view. They argue that he was a mediocre writer at best, and that he owes his fame (or notoriety) to his politics. In any event, things are not quite black-and-white here, and the dispute over Budak's legacy will probably never be solved to everyone's satisfaction.

Yet another set of historical issues has come to the fore in recent days. On 8 May, President Stipe Mesic became the first Croatian president since independence in 1991 to preside over the annual ceremony to honor the victory of Tito's Partisans in World War II. He addressed his audience as "dear friends and comrades," which must have raised an eyebrow or two. He argued that the victory over fascism in 1945 had the support of the majority of "freedom-loving Croats and Serbs." The president stressed that "just as we opposed Nazi and fascist forces in 1941, so we opposed Milosevic in 1991." Most importantly, he called for giving back to the capital's Square of Croatian Heroes its communist-era name of Square of the Victims of Fascism.

All this was too much for some rightists. The day after Mesic's speech, some 2,000 rightists and leftists taunted each other on the square during the Left's annual protest for the restoration of the old name. Police arrested seven rightists for trying to incite violence. Some on the Right carried posters of Tudjman and of Pavelic.

Indeed, many rightists have increasingly been on the defensive since the beginning of the year. Their concern is not so much with the legacy of World War II as with that of the struggle against the Serbs from 1990-1995. Conservative veterans in particular feel that the new government is deliberately trying to "criminalize" that conflict because the wartime leadership was politically close to Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Accordingly, rightist parties and veterans' groups generally see the government's willingness to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal as a way of settling political scores with the Right.

Opinion polls suggest that most Croats scoff at this way of thinking. They agree with the government, which argues that only by exposing individual war criminals and bringing them to justice can the memory of the 1990-1995 conflict be preserved as something for all Croats to honor.

Meanwhile, the tensions continue. Marinko Liovic, who heads the association of veterans of the 1990-1995 war known as HVIDRA, said in Zagreb recently that his organization opposes the government's program to cooperate with The Hague and to fund the return of Serbian refugees. He stressed that HVIDRA will block roads, ports, airports, and border crossings to make its point, adding that any tourists who want to come to Croatia will have to "force their way through the veterans."

The government, for its part, has slammed HVIDRA's plans and has threatened to call out the police. The authorities are also planning to take legal action against at least 10 generals, who allegedly deliberately misrepresented the extent of their war injuries in order to collect fatter pensions. And in this part of the world where nothing is simple, it should be noted that the paper that broke the story about the generals and their pensions was "Vecernji list"--which is linked to the HDZ. (Patrick Moore)

Will Albania Get Domestic Air Service? Albania's notoriously bad road network has been an obstacle to foreign investments in tourism and production over recent years. Albanian business-people and government officials hope that domestic flights will attract foreign businesses and tourists. In a first effort, the Italian government is starting to upgrade an airport in the southern city of Vlora, "Shekulli" reported on 5 May.

Air traffic in Albania started in the 1930s. By 1944, there were airports in Tirana, Vlora, and Kucova, while construction was in process in Korca, Kukes, Gjirokastra, and Shkodra. At that time domestic air traffic consisted of about three light planes--all foreign-owned and operated--capable of transporting up to 10 passengers and mail. During communism, domestic flights came to a halt, with the exception of military flights.

Currently the only passenger airport in Albania is in Tirana, but Albania's two private airlines, ADA-Air and Albanian Airlines, have both expressed interest in launching domestic flights. In addition, there is an Albanian-Canadian joint venture operating two helicopters. That company has mostly served oil exploration and emergency services in recent years but would also like to expand its operations.

Vlora formerly had two military airports, one next to the beach and another in the south of the city, neither of which is currently in use or long enough to accommodate larger passenger planes. The longest of the two runways is just over 800 meters long. A third airport with a runway 3,000 meters in length is located 20 kilometers outside the city, in the plains near Akerni to the north. In the past it was used by the military aviation school but has been used only for a few flights of military helicopters in recent times.

This is nonetheless the airfield that will become Vlora's new passenger airport. Mayor Neki Dredha told the daily that Italy is financing the upgrading of the airport and that Italian engineers will do the work, which will be up to European standards. He did not specify the amount of money that Italy plans to invest, however. A group of engineers has set up shop at a former pioneer camp, which also houses special police forces. The construction started with a ceremony on 9 May. Dredha stressed that the airport will mostly serve the cities of Vlora and Fier, and will also offer flight connections to international destinations.

The airlines say they are prepared to launch domestic flights quickly. The commercial director of Albanian Airlines, Feliks Baci, told the "Albanian Daily News" of 2 May: "We are ready to start the flights... The only thing is to have sound runways and the necessary aviation equipment." He added that offering domestic flights in addition to international flights is likely to become a successful business. Albanian Airlines currently has four airplanes with a capacity of 76 seats each. They make a total of 20 international flights a week. But Albanian Airlines also can rent smaller airplanes from the Bulgarian air company Hemus Air. These could land at Albania's smaller military airports.

Infrastructure around the regional airports is still underdeveloped, however. The roads are in bad condition, there is a lack of appropriate hotels, and water and electricity supplies are not reliable. Also, the state of the runways and the navigation and lighting equipment at most airports fall short of international safety standards for passenger traffic.

In addition to Vlora, Baci said that investments in upgrading existing airports are likely to focus on Korca and Delvina, both of which are traditional tourist destinations.

Currently the General Department of Civil Aviation is working on a strategy to manage air traffic. It has pledged to conclude a feasibility study on introducing domestic air traffic by the end of the year. Doubts remain however, about the pace of the development. The main obstacle remains the lack of infrastructure investments.

But Merita Xhafaj, director of the General Department of Civil Aviation, told "Shekulli" on 1 May that she believes that donor countries will invest in airports. She added: "I am convinced that this effort will be a success because precisely foreign investors are interested in such a means of communication, which will provide them with a faster means of transport inside Albania, and which will facilitate their economic activities.... I maintain that [the construction of the Vlora airport] is the first step, and this will be followed by others in the future." (Fabian Schmidt)

Scoop Of The Week. The Russian news agency Interfax ran the following story from Prishtina on 8 May: "A band of Chechen fighters is stationed in the village of Dobrosin in the five-kilometer security zone between Serbia and Kosovo, sources in the U.N. police force in Kosovo told Interfax on Monday. KFOR or Yugoslav units are not allowed to enter the zone.

"There are about 100 armed Chechens in Kosovo, the sources say. Cars bearing Ichkeria flags and carrying bearded men have been spotted in various parts of Kosovo, so the final number of Chechen fighters in the area may be much higher, the sources say.

"They agreed that 'Chechen terrorism is an international factor.'"

Ocean-front property in Nevada or Kosova, anyone? (Patrick Moore)

Quotations Of The Week. "President Milosevic would be making a very serious mistake if he were to continue to meddle in the affairs of Montenegro and if he were to continue to challenge the democratic mandate President [Milo] Djukanovic has. I think he made a grave error of judgement in imposing the economic sanctions that he did from Belgrade recently on Podgorica." -- NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, to RFE/RL in Brussels on 5 May.

Croatia's "relationship with the European Union, NATO, Council of Europe, the Hague tribunal--it has all been transformed and the evidence is rolling along. It's a pretty impressive agenda for the first hundred days [of the new Croatian government] and, in all honesty, it is about as much as could have been achieved." -- Unnamed Western diplomat to Reuters in Zagreb on 8 May.

"No one really wants these children. [Prospective parents] say, 'Who knows about the father?'" -- Kosova Dr. Fellanza Gjergjizi, to AP in Prizren on 8 May, referring to children born to Albanian mothers who had been raped by Serbs.

"Communities are not going to accept [the children]. Nobody is going to accept them." -- OSCE human rights worker Corey Levine, who also described the children of rape as a "lost group."

"If anyone wants her, please take her, because no one here will. She would have a better life outside Kosova. No one [abroad] will know what happened. It's better that way." -- Dr. Gjergjizi, of the three-month-old baby Arta in the Prizren hospital.