1 May 2003, Volume 5, Number 11
CRIMINALS AND POLITICS IN SERBIA AND CROATIA.
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) with Omer Karabeg and Natasa Kandic (Belgrade), director of the Humanitarian Law Center, and Zarko Puhovski (Zagreb), president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
RFE/RL: Mrs. Kandic, following the killing of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, it became obvious that the mafia and criminals had come very close to taking power in Serbia. Now that the government is settling scores with the criminals, do you think the battle can be won quickly, or might it be prolonged?
Natasa Kandic: I do not think it going to be just a fight against criminals. This is also a battle for ending continuity with the past and the rule of [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Time will tell whether the government of Serbia can or cannot finish the job of breaking with the legacy, mentality, and ideology of Milosevic's regime, which are still very pronounced -- not only in some institutions but throughout society.
RFE/RL: Mr. Puhovski, the mafia in Croatia strengthened its position during the [1991-95] war, but how strong is it now?
Zarko Puhovski: It certainly is a fact of life in Croatian society, but I am convinced that no mafia whatsoever can ever be as dangerous and strong as a state. A mafia is strongest, however, when it operates together with the state.
One of the most important consequences of radical nationalism is that crimes are declared to be good deeds. It starts by justifying killing as being for the good of the nation, and then it condones theft, and so on.
For me, the most important question is whether those who are likely to win the battle against the mafia are going to become even more powerful and potentially even more dangerous than the mafia.
RFE/RL: Milosevic's and [the late Croatian President Franjo] Tudjman's governments made deals with people with murky pasts and used them for dirty jobs. In return, those people were allowed to get rich and be feted as national heroes. This is what happened in Serbia with Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" and Milorad Lukovic "Legija"; and in Croatia with Ante Gotovina, Mladen Naletilic "Tuta," and many others.
When the war ended, their status was legalized, and they became respected citizens. Why did the new governments not get rid of them after the fall of Tudjman's and Milosevic's regimes (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 18 and 25 April, 7, 14, 21, and 28 November, and 12 and 19 December 2002, and 4, 11, and 18 April 2003)?
Kandic: After 5 October 2000 the new government clearly said that the practices of previous regime would end. However, that did not happen.
They kept on talking about Serbian heroes who "defended the honor of the Serbian people" in the war. Members of the Red Berets were hailed as very capable professionals, especially in antiterrorism. Some politicians appeared in public with commanders and bosses of many different criminal groups.
Finally, it was hard to tell the difference between some institutions and the mafia within those institutions. The new government was not strong enough to start ridding the institutions of those who carried out the directives of the previous regime and who even were policymakers of that criminal regime.
RFE/RL: Mr. Puhovski, do you think that the new government in Croatia was not able to or did not want to settle scores with the wartime mafia [after the change of government in early 2000]?
Puhovski: I find the situation in Croatia is different from what is going on in Serbia for several reasons.
First, what happened in Croatia is that some people got medals, while others became rich. The so-called war heroes thus did not become wealthy, and those who did were mostly inconspicuous people who were not even among the top-ranked politicians in their parties. It was a kind of clientelism [that enabled them to prosper].
Second, the mafia in Croatia was linked to a group of people who left power in 2000.... The public blamed them for stealing, not for killing....
The new government in Croatia made an attempt to bring those thieves, racketeers, and mafia murderers to justice. Some of them were held responsible for five, six, seven, or even eight murders, which, of course, is quite a lot, but almost all of those responsible for hundreds of killings were left alone.
When [the authorities] finally started to arrest [alleged war criminals], there were big protests at first, as in the case of [General Mirko] Norac. But then, when Norac's verdict was finally announced, it turned out that less than 1 percent of the entire population was ready to go out and protest.
In other words, the new state leadership in Croatia was more solid [than its Serbian counterpart], primarily because the head of the former regime died before the election. In Serbia, the personal link remained, first with Milosevic and then through [Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav] Seselj.
And, finally, one should not forget that the mafiosi grew rich not only thanks to local bosses, but also by virtue of the arms embargo. This was especially true in the case of Croatia, which had fewer weapons at its disposal than did Serbia [when the fighting began in 1991].
The embargo forced the authorities to buy arms illegally, and it is well-known that arms dealers are very well connected to drug lords. This is how drugs entered the army and were further distributed throughout the army.
RFE/RL: Even now that the Red Berets have been dissolved, members of this special police unit are widely regarded as fighters of whom some top officials of Milosevic's regime took advantage. Although they are simply criminals, the public sees them as misguided patriots. Mrs. Kandic, how would you comment on that?
Kandic: Representatives of the civil society in Serbia demanded the dissolution of the Red Berets immediately after the [ouster of Milosevic], but this was very unpopular at the time....
The Red Berets' job was to kill people during the war -- 100 people here, another 100 there -- and then to hide the bodies in order to cover up their crimes. When the war was over, they were told to kill [the regime's] political opponents.
They were allowed to make money and become rich any way they chose. However, probably due to [the authorities'] fear of what revelations still lie hidden, some Red Berets will simply be reassigned to other police units. It is not clear whether their crimes will be investigated, arrests made, and links to the other security forces and to politicians exposed.
RFE/RL: Mr. Puhovski, are those who committed crimes during Operation Storm [against the Krajina Serbs in 1995] treated as misguided war heroes in Croatia?
Puhovski: Not really. Some people still cannot accept that "our guys could have possibly committed crimes" since the war was defensive in character. Others think that such things simply cannot be avoided in a war, so they accept them as normal.
People make excuses by saying things like "if the Americans can call it 'collateral damage,' why can't the Croats do the same?" This is as much as Croatian nationalists are willing to admit.