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Croatia: Sanader Trapped by Gotovina Dilemma

New right-wing premier is struggling with the same controversy that he used to undermine his moderate predecessor.
By Drago Hedl

Croatia's right-wing prime minister is facing strong internal opposition to the extradition of General Ante Gotovina to The Hague tribunal, which may sabotage the country’s hopes of becoming a candidate for European Union membership this spring.


Ivo Sanader told the cabinet last week that EU officials had made it clear during his visits to Brussels and Strasbourg on January 12 and 13 that Zagreb would not obtain candidate status if Britain and the Netherlands failed to ratify the agreement on cooperation and association.


The two countries will not do so until the indicted general, currently on the run, appears in The Hague.


Despite public pledges to cooperate with the tribunal, Sanader now faces the same difficulties over the issue as his left-of-centre predecessor, Ivica Racan.


A large section of the electorate strongly opposes the extradition of war crime suspects, including some in the leadership of his own Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, more hard-line opposition parties and extremists elements in the police and military.


Only the voluntary surrender of General Gotovina can enable Sanader to fulfil his electoral promise to secure Croatia's admission to the EU.


Last December, when Sanader was forming his cabinet, there were rumours of talks between his associates and Gotovina over a voluntary surrender. Word had it that the government had pledged whole-hearted assistance and support for the general’s defence in The Hague.


Sanader then seemed willing to resolve the long-standing dispute with the tribunal, arguing that the "Gotovina case" was a legal, not a political, issue. He also said he would not violate existing legal provisions concerning cooperation with the tribunal and the hand-over of indicted suspects.


This was interpreted as an expression of determination to resolve the contentious issue keeping Croatia out of the EU.


The pro-government daily Vjesnik even reported that the general might be handed over by the end of January, though the paper did not disclose its source for this information.


Now the premier appears to be backing away from the issue. Despite expectations that Sanader would preside over talks with the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, the prime minister allotted the task to Justice Minister Vesna Skare Ozbolt, a political junior.


The action suggested the premier was deliberately lowering the level of Croatia's relations with the tribunal, enabling him to refer all the problems over co-operation with the war crimes court to the justice ministry.


The justice minister's position is weak, as she belongs to a party with only one deputy in parliament.


Circles close to the premier have also been sending messages to the public, suggesting EU membership now ranks low among most people's priorities.


On a visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul reminded his hosts that while Croatia still hankered for union accession, it wanted also to pursue an Atlanticist agenda, as the US's most reliable ally in the region.


The change of tack suggests Sanader encountered stronger resistance over extradition than he expected.


This became evident among HDZ loyalists, many of whom are already dissatisfied with Sanader's policy of tolerance towards ethnic minorities, which they feel is indulgent. Party supporters were shocked by his appearance at a Serb Orthodox Christmas reception in Zagreb and his greetings to ethnic Serbs.


The extradition of Gotovina would provoke bitter discontent and might push many in the direction of the extreme-right Croatian Party of Right, HSP, which fared well in January's local elections in the formerly war-torn Osijek-Baranja district of northeast Croatia.


The HSP won almost 15 per cent of the votes there, a big hike on its result in the same district in the parliamentary election last October, which was nine per cent.


Sanader faces strong resistance also among the party top brass, many of whom oppose the extradition of Gotovina, including two of his closest associates – the party's vice-president Andrija Hebrang and the speaker of parliament, Vladimir Seks.


Hebrang has long been a staunch opponent of co-operation with the tribunal. During the case of General Janko Bobetko, he led a campaign against Bobetko's handover to The Hague following the publication of his indictment in September 2002. The general's death then intervened in April 2003.


Sanader claims he has reformed the HDZ and expelled hard-line nationalists, but many senior officials resist the party's transformation into a moderate conservative force.


Gotovina enjoys huge support among the state security service and the army, many of whom consistently block efforts to track him down and arrest him.


Del Ponte herself told the Belgian daily La Libre Belgique last week that Gotovina was being protected by highly-placed officials in Croatia.


During Racan's term of office, the interior ministry issued an arrest warrant and promised a reward for any crucial information leading to Gotovina's arrest. The effect of this offer was diluted, however, when the Association of Homeland War Veterans announced it would reward anyone who revealed the identity of the person who provided information about the fugitive general.


"Sanader almost certainly knows, like Racan did, where Gotovina is hiding," a Racan ally said.


"Like Racan, Sanader is not exactly keen to keep insisting on Gotovina's arrest. Many people see him as a hero, which is why those who want to send him to The Hague may face serious political consequences."


The source predicted that Sanader, like Racan, would "pay lip service to the issue of cooperation with The Hague tribunal" but make no moves to arrest the general.


Gotovina, alongside the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, is one of the most wanted indictees whom Del Ponte wants to see in the dock.


He was charged in May 2001 with crimes against humanity, violation of law and customs of war and war crimes during the military offensive against rebel Serbs known as Operation Oluja (Storm).


He has been on the run ever since the indictment was made public in July 2001. The government has claimed Gotovina is not in Croatia, while the media have reported his presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, France, Italy and Ireland.


Gotovina has been tracked down on occasion. The owner of the weekly Nacional, Ivo Pukanic, last June published an interview with the fugitive including of the two of them together.


Police experts confirmed the authenticity of the picture. Pukanic was requested to present himself to the Zagreb police for interrogation but refused to disclose where he had met Gotovina.


In opposition, Sanader's party took advantage of the case to undermine the left-of-centre coalition. Now the new premier is himself a hostage of the Gotovina case.


Without a voluntary surrender, the premier faces one of two risky choices. One is to confront his party colleagues and supporters. The other is to close the door on membership of the EU.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek.


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