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Croatia: Government Survives Confidence Vote In Parliament

The Croatian government has easily survived a confidence vote in parliament. The vote early this morning came after a marathon debate on a controversial decision by Prime Minister Ivica Racan to extradite two war crimes suspects to the UN tribunal in The Hague. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 16 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the early hours of this morning, Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan's 18-month-old government comfortably won the confidence vote it had called.

A simple majority of 76 votes was required in the 151-seat Sabor -- or parliament -- for passage. In the proceedings, 93 deputies voted in favor of the government, 36 voted against it and 22 were absent.

The prime minister called on the lawmakers to ensure that Croatia is a respected member of the international community which "respects its international responsibilities no matter how painful it might be. Any other choice," he said, "would lead us back to our Balkan past [in which Croatia would become] a Balkan dwarf and an international outcast."

Racan called the confidence vote after the resignation earlier this month of four of his ministers. They were all from the Croatian Social Liberal Party, or HSLS, the junior partner with Racan's Social Democratic Party, or SDP, in the government coalition. HSLS leader Drazen Budisa subsequently resigned his party chairmanship, and was absent from the 12-hour debate and confidence vote. But the remaining HSLS deputies voted for the Racan government.

After the vote, Racan said he was satisfied that the Sabor had "shown sensitivity for the moment." But he said a government reshuffle will now have to wait until mid-September.

In a lengthy speech to the deputies yesterday, Racan explained why he had called the vote of confidence. He said Croatia's international obligations made cooperation with The Hague tribunal essential, and that the government's decision last week to forward two tribunal indictments to the Justice Ministry constituted a decision to continue to cooperate with the tribunal.

The government has said one of the two men indicted is Croatian army General Rahim Ademi, an ethnic Albanian who has promised to surrender voluntarily next week. A Croatian court has issued an arrest warrant for the other defendant, believed to be retired General Ante Gotovina. The two were commanders in Croatia's war for independence from 1991 to 1995.

Racan stressed in his speech to parliament that the decision to forward the indictments to the Justice Ministry did not mean that the government supports the indictments. "On the contrary," he said, "the government will do everything it can, through legal proceedings, to assist the defense of the suspects in relation to charges we cannot accept." But Racan went on to say that his government remains "convinced that the truth is the best way to achieve not only justice and lasting peace, but also the establishment of a legally governed state and the protection of values in the [1991 to 1995] war."

Part of the sealed indictment is believed to allege that the suspects, with others, participated in the persecution -- including forced deportation -- of Serbs in the so-called Krajina region of Croatia. In a reportedly sharply worded letter he sent to the tribunal, Racan rejected some of the allegations, including the forced deportation of between 150,000 and 200,000 Krajina Serbs in 1995. He explained to parliament:

"I said that this cannot be true. It was a well-known fact that the Serb exodus was planned, and that they moved away immediately after the beginning of [the Croatian 1995] Operation Storm. Their own leaders directed them to do so."

Similarly, Racan says he called on the tribunal for a precise definition of the Krajina, which he described as a "self-declared, illegitimate, and insurgent creation."

"I said that unless this is defined, the issue may arise of the responsibility of [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and his associates for the aggression and the criminal consequences of the attempt to create a Greater Serbia."

Announcing her party's intention to vote for the government, Croatian People's Party Chairwoman Vesna Pusic described the vote as absurd, and suggested that the suspects should be tried in Croatia.

"We have to vote about whether the Croatian government needs to abide by Croatian laws. What the government has done until now is merely respect the 1996 constitutional law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal."

Deputies from the late Franjo Tudjman's opposition Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, walked out of the Sabor because, they said, the debate on the confidence vote was not preceded by a discussion on cooperation with The Hague tribunal. HDZ Chairman Ivo Sanader said that his party, though in favor of cooperating with the tribunal, believes the UN court has exceeded its authority and that the indictments contain what he called "unacceptable elements."

But Justice Minister Stjepan Ivanisevic assured the Sabor that the indictments do not contain genocide charges.

"The allegations against the defendants under discussion here do not contain genocide or serious violations of the Geneva Convention. Not one of the allegations against the defendants is linked to personal responsibility."

At HDZ's request, the Croatian parliament this afternoon convened to discuss cooperation with The Hague tribunal. The opposition party is calling for changes to the constitutional law on cooperation with the tribunal, a law that the Sabor enacted when Tudjman was still president and HDZ still controlled parliament. HDZ also wants the government not to hand over the two indictees.