ANALYSIS: Croatia's Gotovina Cult

Indicted Croatian army general has become a symbol for right-wing opposition to the Zagreb authorities.

ANALYSIS: Croatia's Gotovina Cult

Indicted Croatian army general has become a symbol for right-wing opposition to the Zagreb authorities.

Saturday, 29 September, 2001

Ante Gotovina, the Croatian army general indicted by The Hague tribunal for war crimes, was the missing star behind the war songs and insults hurled against the government and President Stjepan Mesic, from the loudspeakers in the main square of Osijek, in eastern Croatia.

This late September ear-shattering event in front of the town hall was an example of the burgeoning Gotovina cult, organised by right-wing supporters to publicly protest the prosecution of Croatian army personnel for war crimes.

Gotovina has become a symbol for right-wing opposition to the current Croatian authorities. Locally, there are several ongoing war crimes trials, including that of General Mirko Norac, much protested against, but hardly any of the cases have raised such stakes as the Gotovina prosecution.

Since the international arrest warrant was issued for him, Gotovina has gone to ground. The former French Foreign Legionnaire who joined the fledgling army of the newly independent Croatia in the 1990s, commanded several key operations, including Operation Storm in July 1995, which effectively ended the country's military struggle with anti-independence Serbs.

His colleague, General Rahim Ademi, indicted by the international tribunal at the same time, has voluntarily surrendered to The Hague, saying that he was not guilty and would defend himself.

There were rumours that Gotovina had fled to western Herzegovina, or was hiding on a ship near his home town of Pakoctane. In the meantime, he has become an almost legendary figure and the object of a growing cult.

To coincide with the Osijek pop concert on September 20, a book in his honour entitled "Warrior" was launched in the town, about his adventurous life, virtues and deeds.

The author, Nenad Ivankovic, was editor of Vjesnik, the Tudjman era mouthpiece of the ruling party. He later founded the right-wing Croatian Identity and Prosperity party, an offshoot of the HDZ, together with Tudjman's son Miroslav.

The Gotovina cult consists of nostalgics for the late president's administration. It includes right-wingers such as Tudjman's chief adviser Ivic Pasalic, ex-HDZ officials and veterans' associations. They see Racan's coalition government as a communist clique which has betrayed the national interest to receive a pat on the head from the international community.

From the start, Racan's administration declared its intention to investigate and try all perpetrators of war crimes from 1990 to 1995, regardless of their motives or ethnic background. However, while the public at first accepted this campaign pledge, the creeping realisation that this process will involve trials of leading officials in the Croatian army has proved traumatic and deeply unpopular.

At the same time, the opposition has sought to turn the whole issue into a question of patriotism, accusing the authorities of treachery for trying to put "war heroes" behind bars.

The Yugoslav army and their Serb paramilitary allies inflicted serious atrocities as well as material damage on Croatia, which has not been forgotten, or forgiven by the public.

And there's a view, put forward by some judicial figures influential in the Tudjman era, that Croats should not be prosecuted because, the argument goes, a nation waging a defensive war cannot be accused of committing war crimes.

The HDZ during its reign never prosecuted any Croats for war crimes, even though it was known that Serb civilians and prisoners of war in Croatia had been executed; that Serb homes were set on fire after Operation Storm; and that there were other acts of retaliation against the non-Croat population.

The former authorities consistently used their propaganda machinery to demonise all Serbs, including many peaceful citizens, as a danger and a foreign element in the state.

A combination of these factors makes it difficult for many Croats to accept that anyone on their side of the conflict has committed war crimes.

Such attitudes are hard to shift, especially among those who suffered in the war and among the least educated. Even members of the new government, such as Drazen Budisa, leader of the second-largest party in the coalition, the Croatian Social-Liberal Party, publicly supported Gotovina and General Mirko Norac, who is standing trial before a court in Rijeka for war crimes against Serb civilians around Gospic.

Budisa's resistance to the extradition of Gotovina to The Hague placed enormous strain on the coalition, which was only resolved when he stepped down from the leadership of his party.

The opponents of the current administration are playing the Gotovina case for all it is worth. The HDZ, the other small right-wing parties, and most of the veterans' associations have already organised mass public demonstrations, road blocks and other actions against war crime trials, the Hague court and the policy of Racan and Mesic.

While some are merely demanding fresh elections, such as the well-known retired general, Janko Bobetko, other more extreme elements are threatening widespread disorder if the authorities finally arrest Gotovina.

In spite of the mounting pressure, the prime minister has refused to alter any of his key policies and the polls have shown he still enjoys considerable public support. Only last week, several war crimes suspects were arrested for alleged war crimes in the Split military prison, Lora, and an investigation has been launched in Osijek into the wartime activities of former interior minister Ivan Vekic.

But the threat posed by the right-wing remains real. The question is whether Racan will be able to defy his critics in the long term. His great weakness is that he heads a state on the brink of economic collapse. In the long term, his fragile coalition can only survive the threat posed by a resurgent nationalist right if it starts to solve the problem of sky-rocketing unemployment and the voters begin to feel living standards are once again on the rise.

But there are insufficient signs of the promised economic recovery. In the meantime, Gotovina remains at liberty. Racan must be hoping that he will remain lurking in the shadows, for it certainly would not be in the interest of the government to have to arrest him. That could be the signal the right was waiting for.

Sanja Modric is the deputy editor-in-chief of Jutarnji List.

Support our journalists