Disquiet at Hero's Homecoming

Nationalistic frenzy at freed Bosnian Croat’s return worries liberals with one eye on European intergration.

Disquiet at Hero's Homecoming

Nationalistic frenzy at freed Bosnian Croat’s return worries liberals with one eye on European intergration.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

When the Bosnian Croat general Tihomir Blaskic landed at Zagreb airport earlier this month, he was greeted with the kind of joy reserved for the national handball team when they won the world championship.

Hundreds of euphoric people screamed "Ti-ho! Ti-ho!" at Blaskic in the airport building. They were waving Croatian flags, carrying posters of the late president Franjo Tudjman, his hard-line defence minister Gojko Susak and the Hague tribunal indictees Mirko Norac and Ante Gotovina.

Some hundred or so people who all claimed to be his close relatives stormed the customs and passport control hall, running to greet him. Others remained behind in the arrival lounge singing patriotic hits last heard during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

Blaskic was returning from The Hague, where he had spent the last eight years of his life trying to prove that other people – including some whose posters were now been waved at him so joyously - actually framed him, probably to hide the extent of their own involvement in the ethnic cleansing of neighbouring Bosnia.

Blaskic, commander of the Bosnian Croat units who fought in the Croat-Muslim war in Central Bosnia in 1993, was cleared of the majority of charges against him this July. The Hague tribunal's appeals chamber slashed his sentence from 45 to nine years in prison, finding him not guilty of some of the worst crimes committed in that war - including the massacre of several hundred Muslims from the village of Ahmici.

The path to freedom began four years ago, when Stipe Mesic became Croatia’s president and opened the wartime archives of his late predecessor Franjo Tudjman.

In the archive, documents were found to corroborate claims that a parallel chain of command existed during the Bosnian war, connecting the Zagreb government with the Bosnian Croat political leaders and local military police units. The troops that committed the worst massacres at the time were not under Blaskic's control.

But Blaskic was still found guilty of other war crimes – such as using detainees to dig trenches and act as human shields.

This, however, seemed to be forgotten both in Croatia proper and even more so in the part of Bosnia under Croat control, where he embarked on what could best be described as a victory parade.

He was first received by the Croatian deputy prime minister Jadranka Kosor, who beamed on camera with Blaskic by her side, promising that the government in Zagreb would help pay for the schooling of not only Blaskic's children but also the children of all Croats indicted by The Hague.

Blaskic even had a short meeting with the Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader who – unlike his deputy – tried his best to avoid the publicity. His associates immediately leaked to the Croatian press that the premier wasn't happy about the arrangement, but wasn't ready to face the predictably fierce criticism of a public who regard Blaskic as a true national hero.

“It’s sad that the Croats still aren’t ready to face the fact that their compatriots committed war crimes,” said Zagreb psychologist Dr Marija Krizmanic.

She told IWPR that while the majority of the non-uniformed people who lined up to cheer the returning general could perhaps be excused on the grounds that they were under the false impression that Blaskic had been completely exonerated by The Hague, the government officials had no such excuse.

“What can you say about a deputy prime minister who was exhilarated when she told Blaskic that the government would school all the children of Hague tribunal indictees? That is a first-rate scandal which shows the attitudes that some people in top posts in Croatia continue to hold towards war criminals,” she added.

Blaskic had expressed remorse before the tribunal and did so again, voicing his regret for the crimes committed by Bosnian Croat forces in the Lasva river valley. But on the other hand, he stood in the stadium at Kiseljak while a crowd sang the wartime songs.

Not everyone feels in this way. Croatia’s liberals watched the tour with quiet distaste, fearing its message as much as its potentially damaging effect on the republic’s image at a time when it is trying to gain membership of the European Union.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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