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Croatia: Fugitive War Criminal A 'Great Danger' To EU Bid

Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan was in Brussels today to hand over a dossier containing answers to some 4,500 questions from the European Commission intended to establish whether the country is ready for EU candidate status. Croatia's chances hang in the balance -- not so much for lack of preparation but due to its inability to apprehend fugitive General Ante Gotovina. Gotovina is wanted for war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague.

Brussels, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan arrived in Brussels today with roughly 10,000 pages of answers to questions posed by the European Commission as it prepares to assess whether the country is ready for European Union candidate status.

Racan said the document presents an all-inclusive cross-section of what he called the "new and democratic" Croatia.

"The text of the document we have here, I would call it openly -- without any false modesty -- a small encyclopedia of the modern Croatia. It is good to have, even if it weren't for this immediate reason, [this] immediate motivation. Of course, the task before us, it forced us to do some investigations into different fields, gather some data we didn't have before [and] also identify what is left for us to do," Racan said.

Croatia hopes its answers will enable the Commission in April to recommend that EU member states open formal accession talks with Zagreb. In Racan's view, reforms in Croatia will advance quickly enough to allow it to join the bloc -- together with Bulgaria and Romania -- sometime after 2006.

Yet he acknowledged this morning that because of its involvement in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, his country is in a "unique position" compared to the other candidates.

Apart from the usual economic and political reforms, Croatia must also come to terms with its past. It must play its part in a comprehensive settlement allowing for the return of the refugees displaced by the wars, and hand over those indicted for war crimes to The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Right now, it has all come down to one man -- fugitive General Ante Gotovina, who stands accused by the ICTY on a number of counts, among them the murder of 150 Krajina Serbs in 1995.

A number of EU member states -- led by Britain -- have refused to ratify the bloc's Stabilization and Association (SAA) agreement with Croatia before Gotovina is handed over to The Hague. Accession talks with Croatia cannot start before the full ratification of the SAA.

Today, Racan acknowledged the "great danger" that the country's EU membership bid is being "held hostage by one man." But he once again said his country is cooperating fully with the ICTY.

"I want to make a very firm statement on my own behalf and on behalf of my government," he said. "We want to cooperate with The Hague tribunal. We have proven this on many occasions, including some that took place in very difficult times for Croatia. We want to have the issue of war crimes resolved, regardless of who were the perpetrators."

Racan says his government has no information about Gotovina's whereabouts. He said there is some indication that Gotovina is not in Croatia and could be hiding elsewhere in Europe. Racan said Zagreb is appealing for the cooperation of all relevant law enforcement agencies in the region and beyond.

Racan said his government is not prepared to negotiate a separate deal for Gotovina's surrender, saying there will be no talks that bypass The Hague.

Racan also appealed to the four EU member states blocking the Stabilization and Association agreement not to punish Croatia for something beyond its control.

"I'm all for Croatia being criticized and facing harsher consequences than criticism for failing to do something it is within its powers to do. But let me ask this question: should Croatia be punished for something it wishes to do, but cannot do, is not able to do?" he asked.

Racan said he recently held talks with the British government on the issue. London has indicated its position will not change without Gotovina's arrest.

Racan noted that an important element in the process will be a report submitted by ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte to the UN Security Council today. Racan said he hopes the report will reiterate the existence of the problem but will avoid an "overall negative assessment" of Croatia.

Addressing Croatia's progress on preparing for the return of thousands of refugees, Racan said Zagreb has committed 5 percent of its budget to the problem and hopes to have it resolved by the end of next year. He said the situation in some locations where the war was at its fiercest and the worst war crimes took place remains "delicate," necessitating measures going beyond mere material assistance.

He also noted that despite Croatian assistance, reconstruction work in Bosnia on preparations for the return of Croatian refugees are not going well. Racan stressed that the principle of the right of return must apply equally to all sides.