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Court Told Serbs Not Prevented From Krajina Return

Witness tells Hague that incentives were provided to encourage Serbs to go back after Operation Storm.
Dr Jure Radic, the former Croatian minister for development and reconstruction, told Hague judges this week that Croatian officials encouraged Serb civilians to return to the Krajina region following Operation Storm.

Radic, appearing as a witness for the court in the case of former senior defence officials Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, denied that officials wanted to pay Serb civilians not to return to the region, but rather that those who did not wish to return had been offered compensation.

Judge Alphons Orie quoted former Croatian president Franjo Tudjman as saying that Serb civilians “should be honoured to be compensated for what they have here instead of return[ing]. Compensation should be offered to displaced persons so they don’t return”.

“[Neither] I, as the minister in charge, nor the prime minister or the president issued any kind of instructions for this idea to be carried through,” Radic told the judges.

Gotovina, Markac and Cermak are accused of responsibility for crimes committed against Serb civilians, including looting, arson and killings, during and after Operation Storm, a Croatian military offensive aimed at retaking the Serb-held Krajina region in August 1995.

The indictment alleges that the accused participated in a joint criminal enterprise, along with Tudjman, the ex-Croatian minister for defence Gojko Susak and others.

The goal of this was the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by means of force, fear, persecution, forced displacement, transfer, deportation, and destruction of property, the indictment says.

It further states that the members of this joint criminal enterprise pursued their plan by creating a “climate of fear” among Serbs in the region through propaganda, disinformation, psychological warfare, and by “promoting, instigating, facilitating, encouraging and/or condoning the perpetration of violent acts against Serbs”.

Judge Orie questioned Radic about a law that allowed for the use of Serbian homes following the removal of Serb civilians after Operation Storm.

“You’re reported as having said that the law on property for the state allows the state to grant that property for temporary use,” Judge Orie said, reading from the minutes of a meeting of Croatian officials held on December 17, 1996. He added that the minutes implied that officials said that Croatian citizens could not be expelled from a house when the owner of the property returned.

Radic told the judges that officials sought the “preservation and guarantee of private property”, but also wanted to provide shelter for those who had been expelled from Bosnia or other parts of Croatia.

“The goal was to preserve property at all costs and provide shelter for people, not to prevent anyone who wanted to return or apply to come back as a Croatian citizen,” Radic said.

Judge Orie asked Radic whether there had been money offered to displaced citizens so that they would not return to the Krajina, quoting President Tudjman as saying, “Compensation should be offered to displaced persons so they don’t return.”

Radic told the judges that at the time he understood such a proposal differently as meaning that “anything should be done for them to return, and for those who did not return, there had to be a way to compensate them”.

Judge Orie quoted Radic as saying in the December meeting, “Serbs are the most corrupt people in the world… I believe we can achieve more than we just said by buying their property.”

“Earlier, you explained how some people… may have been thinking about giving priority to compensation but that was not your view,” Judge Orie said. “This remark could be interpreted to suggest… that compensation should be offered to displaced persons so that they would not return.”

“As the discussion went on, we increasingly were reaching the conclusion that it was the correct thing to do, to let everyone return,” Radic responded.

“I was not clear at the outset what the best way to proceed would be,” Radic continued, adding that there were not enough funds to cover the compensation plan at that point in time.

Judge Orie pointed out that the December 1996 meeting took place 15 months after Operation Storm, and noted that the minutes did not suggest that there was no money for the compensation plan.

“The language suggests you can achieve much more by buying their property,” Judge Orie said.

Radic told the judges that officials had “a good picture” of who was willing to return to Krajina, but it was those who had decided not to return that would benefit from the compensation plan.

“Let me just remind you that we actually extended the timeline for applications for return by three months, several times over,” Radic said, adding that many Serb citizens who left Croatia did not wish to return. “After this, even those who directly took part in their rebellion in Croatia and did not opt for Croatia as a state where they would settle down, the final option would be to offer them money as compensation.”

Radic told the judges that officials invited citizens to return, and that they provided tax incentives and salaries to those professions that were needed in the Krajina, such as doctors. He said that if such individuals wished to live in areas that had been proclaimed as of “special state interest”, they received higher pay than they would have in Zagreb, as set out by law.

“We couldn’t actually supply sufficient incentive for people to come back without this kind of stimulus,” Radic told the judges. “It was an attempt to revitalise this region.”

Judge Orie read from the minutes of meeting of Croatian officials held on August 11, 1995, where it was suggested that a law be passed declaring all abandoned property as state property. If someone returned, the state would give the citizen back his or her property, Judge Orie read.

Radic emphasised that such a law would preserve property and was “non-discriminatory”.

Judge Orie cited the testimony of Peter Galbraith, the former United States ambassador to Croatia, who had testified with regard to the passing of the state property law.

“The notion of preserving property was simply a pretext for taking the property and making it impossible for the Serbs to return to their own property”, which “changed [the] strategic complexion of the Krajina from being Serb to being Croat,” read Galbraith’s statement.

Radic said that Galbraith had exerted pressure on Croatia for the Serb civilians to return before the infrastructure had been renewed or the area had been prepared for “normal living conditions”.

Judge Orie noted a meeting of Croatian officials on August 22, 1995, in which upon learning that the mayor of Knin was a Serb, Tudjman said he was “no good for anything” and should be replaced as “there is no reason for a Serb being there right now”. According to the minutes, Radic agreed with the president’s conclusion.

“The emphasis was not on whether someone is a Serb or Croat, but whether they are capable of managing a town… more complex than Zagreb,” Radic told the judges, adding that many individuals living in Knin were members of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, and that they had attacked Croat citizens.

“I never personally discriminated between Serbs and Croats but people who could be the manager or be part of a group,” Radic said. “Taken out of context, it could appear that we were picking mayors based on whether they were Serbs or Croats but that was not the goal at all.”

The trial continues next week.

Julia Hawes is an IWPR contributor.

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