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Croatia: Bleiburg Plan Reopens Old Wounds

The government may purchase a controversial Second World War site in another sop to hard line nationalists.
By Dominic Hipkins

The authorities are considering buying the site of one of the most notorious massacres in the region as part of attempts to build bridges with radical nationalists.


Amid renewed debate over the country's Second World War legacy, government spokeswoman Iva Kralj a fortnight ago confirmed speculation that Bleiburg field in southern Austria may be purchased, saying, "the prime minister has promised to look into this possibility".


The move has angered liberals who fear the memory of the country's anti-facist movement is being destroyed by the hardliners' reappraisal of history.


Every May since Croatia gained independence in 1992, hard line nationalists have gathered at the site to pay homage to the Bleiburg victims who they describe as martyrs.


Towards the end of the Second World War, Communist partisans executed more than 50,000 people - mostly supporters of the puppet Nazi-backed Independent State of Croatia - on this plot of land bordering the Slovenian Alps.


Historians estimate that as many as 100,000 people fled to Bleiburg in May 1945 amid a Croat exodus in the wake of the German army's retreat. The number who died in the days that followed remains a contentious topic. Recent accounts cite a figure of around 50,000, which included conscripts, civilians and many followers of the fascist Ustasha.


Among those who surrendered to British soldiers at Bleiburg and were subsequently repatriated to face avenging communist countrymen were the Black Legions - notorious for the murder of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats in areas under their control.


Ivo Goldstein, an historian and author of "Holocaust in Zagreb", asserts that of those killed, "many would be considered war criminals today".


The land purchase was mooted following Prime Minister Ivica Racan's appearance at this year's Bleiburg commemoration. There he denounced as "evil" the killings of those many see as colluders in a fascist occupation that saw such horrors as the Croat-run extermination centre of Jasenovac.


Racan - who was born in a concentration camp and was chief of Croatia's Communist Party until 1990 - must surely have found this a hard speech to make.


Controversies such as Bleiburg were kept well off the agenda for more than four decades in the name of unity in post-war communist Yugoslavia. However, in the radicalised climate of the independence struggle, the Partisans' efforts to forge a multi-ethnic state were portrayed as a dark period while the Ustasha were depicted in a positive light.


The new state's first president, hardliner Franjo Tudjman, was widely accused of rehabilitating Croatia's extreme-right and, more than two years after his death and the decline of the HDZ political party that he founded, these questions still loom large.


Ivan Fumic, president of the anti-fascist Combatants Association, accuses the Catholic church of "attempting to destroy the memory of anti-fascism" and claims that the governing coalition led by Racan's Social Democratic Party, rather than living up to its reformist label, has been "celebrating the guilty" by indulging nationalist wishes. He points to 3,500 anti-fascist monuments devastated over the last decade that have yet to be restored.


The government's recent attempts at reconciliation with radical nationalists - which many see as a distraction from record levels of unemployment - may only have encouraged the latter's reappraisal of the past.


Enraged by The Hague's indictment of Croat army officers who took part in Croatia's independence struggle, war veterans leader Mirko Condic recently called for the country's courts to prosecute "real war criminals" by probing alleged partisan atrocities.


Two years ago Baltazar Jalsovec, the parliamentary deputy-speaker and a member of the reputedly moderate Social Liberal party - a crucial part of the governing coalition - suggested those killed at Bleiburg were the inspiration behind Croatia's independence drive.


The fate of the site will ultimately be decided when Racan meets his Austrian counterpart Wolfgang Schuessel in Vienna this summer.


Professor Gerd Oberleitner of Graz University's Institute of International Law cautions that while it would be relatively straightforward for a war veterans' organisation to obtain the land for private ownership, such a purchase by a foreign government would set "strange legal precedent".


But complex issues of international sovereignty could be side-stepped if, for example, the land was exchanged with part of the coveted Croatian Adriatic island of Rab, where Austria's war dead are buried.


Dominic Hipkins is a freelance journalist based in Croatia.