ANALYSIS: Racan Dithers Over Hague Cooperation

Croatian premier Ivica Racan fails to tackle war crimes issue head on.

ANALYSIS: Racan Dithers Over Hague Cooperation

Croatian premier Ivica Racan fails to tackle war crimes issue head on.

Saturday, 13 October, 2001

Despite the West's relief at having a more reliable partner in Zagreb than the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, the performance of the new government under Ivica Racan in meeting its international obligations over war crimes remains problematic.


The business of cooperation with The Hague tribunal has proved difficult and Racan's coalition government has been buffeted by right-wing outrage against any attempt to face up to Croat war crimes.


Most Croats see the 1991-5 war as an act of legitimate defence against Serbian aggression. They view the question of war crimes committed by Croats as an affront to the integrity of the Homeland War, as it is known, and as an attack on the dignity of those who defended their country.


Nevertheless, as human rights NGOs and sections of the independent media have raised awareness of war crimes, public acceptance has grown that Croat responsible for them must also be held accountable.


After it took power in 2000, the new government initially wavered over the transfer to The Hague of a Bosnian Croat war indictee, Mladen Naletilic, known as Tuta.


In part, this was a reaction to widespread feelings of shock following the conviction of Tihomir Blaskic, another Bosnian Croat, who was sentenced by the tribunal in March 2000 to 45 years' imprisonment. In spite of that, Tuta was extradited to The Hague that month and in April parliament issued a declaration on cooperation with the tribunal.


The authorities in Zagreb recognised the tribunal's jurisdiction over the two military operations in 1995, Flash and Storm, which had restored government control over Serb-controlled areas of Croatia. Tribunal investigators were given access to mass grave sites in Croatia, including those of Serb victims.


Although Croatia's cooperation with The Hague improved, the new government's relationship with the tribunal continued to be difficult. This reflected the nature of the ruling coalition, which included the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, of Drazen Budisa, a party that largely shared the HDZ's sensitivity regarding the dignity of the Homeland War.


Prime Minister Racan was also worried by the potential of the war crimes issue to act as a rallying point for the HDZ, other right-wing parties and war veterans' groups. Large demonstrations by them in support of war crimes suspects rattled the government.


The result of the administration's nervousness was a policy that attempted to meet two ultimately incompatible demands: the need to meet Croatia's international commitment to cooperate with the tribunal, and the need to demonstrate its patriotic credentials by defending the reputation of the Homeland War.


This balancing act could not be sustained. Whereas President Stipe Mesic repeatedly called for full cooperation with the tribunal and for all war criminals to be punished, Racan failed to explain why the war crimes issue even needed to be addressed. Like the previous HDZ government, the new one saw the court as a threat to be fended off.


Racan had won the election in January 2000 because the majority of the electorate no longer saw the nationalist agenda of the HDZ as relevant, but his timidity in facing up to the war crimes issue allowed the nationalist right to recapture the political agenda and promote the notion that the homeland was again under threat.


So, Racan was himself responsible for the way the war crimes issue became a problem for the government.


Relations with The Hague deteriorated sharply towards the end of 2000, when Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte criticised Zagreb's stance towards the UN Security Council. The government responded by upping the stakes, issuing a list of 13 conditions that sought to redefine the terms of Croatia's cooperation.


Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic suggested this cooperation was conditional and might be withdrawn, even if it harmed Croatia's international standing.


One bone of contention was an indication that several Croatian army generals were being investigated by the tribunal, on the basis of the court's practice of holding suspects accountable for everyone under their chain of command.


Matters came to a head in July 2001 after the transfer of Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, as Racan decided Croatia had no choice but to act on the indictments issued against the two generals. Budisa resisted, forcing a showdown that Racan won. Budisa resigned as party leader before the vote of confidence on the issue, in which most of the HSLS parliamentary deputies backed the government.


Racan made it clear he agreed with Budisa's objections to the tribunal's approach but believed Croatia had to fight its corner within the framework of the tribunal. A spate of new war crimes actions in the domestic courts in August and September 2001 may indicate a belated attempt to tackle the war crimes issue head on.


If the authorities can prevent the war crimes cases from becoming so politicised, treating them on their legal merits and not as issues where the national interest is at stake, right-winger may find it more difficult to exploit the darker side of the Croatian war.


Racan unnecessarily allowed the war crimes issue to capture the political agenda. The extent to which it threatens the government has in any case been exaggerated. A more serious threat is rising social discontent, fanned by cuts in social security and lay-offs in the public sector.


Racan's real nightmare is that discontent on the right over the war crimes issue converges with this wave of social discontent. The principal beneficiary of that would be the HDZ.


Peter Palmer is a senior analyst in the International Crisis Group's Balkans Program.


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