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In Croatia, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In Zagreb, a woman holds a newspaper with a portrait of General Ante Gotovina over the word "hero" as she watches the verdict in The Hague.
In Zagreb, a woman holds a newspaper with a portrait of General Ante Gotovina over the word "hero" as she watches the verdict in The Hague.
Croatia (along with its neighbors) has long had difficulty accepting the wartime atrocities committed by its forces during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. But the recent reaction of the Croatian public to sentences handed down to two retired Croatian generals -- still viewed by some as heroes -- was indeed out of all proportion.

Earlier this month, judges at The Hague found Croatian wartime generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac guilty of atrocities -- including the persecution and murder of more than 300 ethnic Croatian Serbs -- and sentenced them to 24 and 18 years in prison, respectively. The crimes occurred during and after the August 1995 Croatian military operation “Storm,” the intent of which was to recapture a key area held by Serb rebels. A third defendant, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted of the same charges.

In its ruling, the court said that the convicted generals “were part of a joint criminal enterprise whose objective was the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region." The verdict also said that the wartime Croatian president, the late Franjo Tudjman, was a key member of this so-called joint criminal enterprise.

This sentencing was devastating to a large part of the Croatian population, which considers the two generals to be heroes of the war and the country’s liberators. The response was colorful, telling, and self-destructive. Demobilized soldiers took to cutting themselves with razors and teenagers donned Ustasha outfits from the World War II era, protesting against The Hague tribunal and the European Union. At protests across the country, posters with pictures of two wartime generals, Branimir Glavas and Mirko Norac, both convicted of war crimes, and Bosnian Croat leader Dario Kordic, also sentenced for war crimes, were on display.

Unacceptable To Croatian Public

The Croatian government continues to maintain that Operation Storm was justifiable on the grounds that a sovereign state has the right to take control of its own territory, apparently by any means. The court, however, disagreed, essentially sending Croatia a message that its decisive victory during the war and the sealing of its independent statehood was a criminal act. This, of course, is unacceptable to both the Croatian authorities and the public. Indeed, in a survey conducted prior to the verdict, only 50 percent of Croatians believed that the three would be convicted; and no one expected that the entire wartime government would be implicated in a “criminal enterprise."

Rather than accept that this military victory came at the unacceptable cost of civilian lives, internal displacement, and destruction, the Croatian government has chosen to form a team of “experts” to help Gotovina and Markac appeal the verdict. This is likely to raise more than a few international eyebrows and could slow the country’s EU membership aspirations, at a time when Zagreb is making significant progress and has indeed been the shining example of Western Balkan stability. A red carpet welcome was given to Cermak, who was acquitted, and met personally by Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor at the Zagreb airport upon his release from custody in The Hague.

What has happened, primarily, is that both the public and the government have pressured each other into overreacting. The Croatian authorities’ situation is not an easy one, squeezed as they are on one side by nationalists and war veterans supported by a powerful Catholic Church that is not averse to dabbling in politics, and on the other side by Brussels, which expects Zagreb to face up to the crimes committed by the Croatian military.

Balancing Act

With the country gearing up for competitive parliamentary elections later this year, the pressure for politicians to express their patriotism will be ever greater. Managing this balancing act between EU integration and jingoism is a formidable challenge, and it’s not clear at this point if Zagreb is up to the task. At the same time, its own reaction to the situation has provoked even greater public outrage.

Despite these simmering tensions, the international media’s headline-teasing predictions of a new war are an overreaction.
Regardless of the sentiments, these are the facts: Around 250,000 Croatian Serbs left Krajina within a few days in early August 1995, having made up the majority of the population in the region since the 18th century. Operation Storm, ordered by Tudjman, began with heavy shelling of the area, which forced many Serbs to flee to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In total, Operation Storm resulted in the deaths of between 1,600 and 2,200 people, mostly civilians, and the creation of nearly 230,000 Serb refugees. The majority of the population continues to live in exile in Serbia, Montenegro. and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The prewar census of 1991 was the last Yugoslav census held in Croatia, when around 580,000 citizens declared themselves Serbs, comprising around 12 percent of the population. Today, this figure is around 4 percent.

There is the other side of this story, in which Croatian Serbs rebelled against Croatia’s much-desired independence and found backing in Belgrade -- a move for which the vast majority of Croats still cannot forgive their Serb countrymen. As such, those Croatian Serbs who have been bold enough to return to the country are often viewed as intruders rather than citizens.

Media Overreaction

For their wartime role, The Hague has indicted the leaders of Croatian Serbs for crimes committed against Croats. Milan Martic, who held various leadership positions in the short-lived Republic of Serbian Krajina, including president, defense minister, and interior minister, was sentenced in 2007 to 35 years in prison. Another president of the rebel region, Milan Babic, was sentenced to 13 years in prison but was found dead in his Hague prison cell in March 2006. He was the first indicted Balkan war criminal to admit guilt and accept a plea bargain with the prosecution. His cooperation resulted in the presentation of evidence in several other cases, including the one against Martic, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and several others. A third president of Republic of Serbian Krajina, Goran Hadzic, was indicted by The Hague but remains at large, along with former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic. All three lived in Serbia following the fall of their rebel republic.

Despite these simmering tensions, the international media’s headline-teasing predictions of a new war are an overreaction. What is likely to happen now? Perhaps the creation of a national Operation Storm celebration day, or a few more streets named after heroes-war criminals. But not another conflict, despite the Western media’s sensationalist predictions.

Serbs can be expected to react in their turn, and there will be more protests. However, nothing much is expected to change, either on the domestic political scene or even with regard to cooperation between the governments of Serbia and Croatia, which has strengthened significantly as of late. The situation will gradually cool down and business will resume as usual. This is par for the course in the recent history of the Western Balkans.

As a side effect of the Gotovina and Markac verdicts, several other questions are surfacing, including whether Croatian authorities will be obligated to pay compensation to the Serbs, or to grant them special rights in Croatia, and, most importantly, whether Tudjman -- viewed by many as the father of Croatia -- will be diminished in status.

Support For Accession Drops

The verdicts could prompt the EU to step up pressure on Croatia to improve its own war-crimes prosecution and protection of minority rights, but these are already major goals of Brussels. The EU has been carefully following Croatia’s reactions to The Hague verdicts, and the continuation of Croatia’s cooperation with the international court will certainly remain a condition for Zagreb’s accession.

Croatia hopes to complete EU accession talks in the coming months and hold a referendum on membership in the union soon afterward. A recent poll. however, shows that public support for accession has dropped to 50 percent, the lowest ever. And it is possible that this anti-EU sentiment will increase even more as the Croatian authorities, in order to complete the membership process, are obliged to conduct some very unpopular reforms, including widescale privatization. One of these privatization projects entails the closure of five shipyards that employ some 25,000 people. The shipyards are a particularly sore point and all previous attempts to privatize them have failed. They now operate only thanks to hefty state subsidies.

Furthermore, the rights of the Serb minority in Croatia must be secured before Croatia can hope to join the EU. The international community offers constant criticism on this note, accusing Zagreb of holding back on cooperation with war-crimes investigations and for its failure to adequately address refugee repatriation and minority rights. The ICTY’s verdict against the Croatian generals is likely to contribute to anti-EU sentiment, as will the announcement that several other war crimes cases against Croatian officials will be opened. Both incumbent leaders and the opposition will likely attempt to nip this overly patriotic fervor in the bud by focusing their election campaign efforts on the benefits of EU accession, particularly the long-term economic ones.

As it takes steps to bring the Western Balkan countries into its fold, the EU is first and foremost concerned with regional relations and continues to dump billions of euros into crossborder projects aimed at creating lasting economic cooperation. Unfortunately, just when relations appear to be improving (particularly between Croatia and Serbia, thanks to bold steps taken by the Serbian and Croatian presidents to acknowledge the victims of both sides in Vukovar, for instance) there is another setback. But the protests in Zagreb are for public consumption and are not taken as seriously by officials as they are by the media. For everyone knows what is at stake: a European future, the only future that is viable.

Anes Alic is the Sarajevo-based executive director of ISA Intel, a senior analyst for ISN Security Watch, and a contributor to Oxford Analytica. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL