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Croatia: Political Crisis Over Arrest Of War Crimes Suspects

The Croatian government's decision to arrest two Croatians and hand them over to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague has triggered a political crisis in the country. Four ministers have resigned from the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Ivica Racan, which is now threatened with collapse. But President Stipe Mesic has defended the decision to hand over the suspects, saying a lawfully elected government cannot neglect its international obligations. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke assesses the issues involved and what could happen next.

Prague, 9 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Shock waves are reverberating through Croatia following the government's decision over the weekend to arrest two war crimes suspects and to hand them over to the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

The move threatens to bring down the reformist coalition government of Prime Minister Ivica Racan, which has been in power only 18 months. Four ministers have resigned in protest, and the government faces a vote of confidence in parliament in the next few weeks. It's unclear whether the five-party coalition government can survive that challenge, which could endanger the reform process. And in the background lurks the specter of possible social unrest caused by those who oppose any handover of Croatians to the international tribunal.

The identities of the war crimes suspects have not been officially disclosed, but Croatian media reports identify them as two senior military officers. One, named as General Rahim Ademi, is still active in the Croatian army. The other, former General Ante Gotovina, is now retired. Both are widely viewed as heroes of Croatia's 1991 to 1995 conflict to establish its independence from Yugoslavia.

This is the first time that the war crimes tribunal has indicted Croatian citizens for alleged war crimes against Serbs, who staged a bloody rebellion against Croatia for its 1991 decision to quit Yugoslavia. The charges apparently relate to actions during the 1995 Croatian military offensives that recaptured most of the territory held by the rebel Serbs. The offensives -- the main one of which was called Operation Storm -- brought death to hundreds of Serbs and caused wide devastation.

The leader of Croatia's Social Liberal Party, or HSLS -- the party from which the four ministers resigned -- is quoted (by Reuters) as saying that the indictments against the two suspects contain "unacceptable" references to genocide and to ethnic cleansing over the course of Operation Storm.

Many Croatians view the 1995 military strikes positively, as the liberation of Croatian territory from rebels, and reject any notion of wrongdoing. Anto Djapic, head of the opposition Croatian Rights Party (HSP), says deciding on cooperation with the war crimes tribunal is a matter for the whole Croatian people.

"The Croatian Rights Party believes a referendum of the Croatian nation should be held as to whether we should send our generals to The Hague or not."

In a speech carried by Croatian Radio on 8 July, President Stipe Mesic strongly defended the decision to send the two suspects to The Hague.

"The news on The Hague tribunal's charges against two citizens of the Republic of Croatia has perhaps come as a surprise to some, even though there is no reason for this. The Hague tribunal's indictments were to be expected. Only the fact that the Croatian public does not yet know the full truth about everything that happened and was done during the war can be surprising. It is well-known that the Croatian side, too, committed crimes during the war. It is well-known that the crimes were committed during operations Lightning and Storm and afterwards, and, most probably, in the Medak pocket operation. [And] this is probably not all."

In his remarks, the president appealed for justice and honor to triumph over narrower nationalistic interests. He said that "crime has no nationality," and that individual suspects -- not countries -- are on trial in The Hague. Mesic added:

"The Croatian people must not and will not be hostage to those who bloodied their hands and brought shame on Croatia's name, no matter how deserving they might be in other respects."

Reformist Prime Minister Racan also spoke of the necessity of cooperating with the UN tribunal. He stressed that Croatia's future in Europe is at stake.

"We have a chance of struggling for Croatian independence in Europe, in cooperation rather than in contradiction with Europe. This is the conflict we are facing now in Croatia, and will continue to face in the coming days and weeks."

Racan also said he believes that the majority of Croatian citizens will understand the need for the decision to extradite. He indirectly called for calm, saying that demonstrations would only damage the country's main industry, tourism.

Mainstream political figures in Croatia are aware that the situation could threaten the nation's political and social stability. With a view to limiting potential difficulties, Mate Granic, the head of the opposition Democratic Center Party, called for depolitizing the issue.

"We should organize an emergency session of the Croatian parliament, a closed session, to rule out all possibility of politicizing [the issue] or [using it to] rally forces for parliamentary elections."

According to an unofficial poll carried out by the Croatian daily "Jutarnji List" today, more than 50 percent of Croatian citizens support the extradition of war crimes suspects to the tribunal in The Hague, while 31 percent of Croats do not. One of the reasons opponents give for their position is the belief that such a move could discredit the whole Croatian war effort.