Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fugitive was 'Milosevic Puppet'

War crimes suspect Goran Hadzic was an unlikely choice for president of the short-lived Croatian Serb statelet.
By Drago Hedl

“Everyone was wrong about me," the former Yugoslavia's latest war crimes fugitive Goran Hadzic once proclaimed. "They thought that I was semi-literate [and] stupid! But the moment I see a man, I know what he’s thinking.”

Hadzic, a former warehouseman who rose to become President of Republika Srpska Krajina, RKS, the self-proclaimed Serb state within Croatia, is described as very much a product of the times - and viewed by many as a poorly educated puppet of the Milosevic regime.

Like many of his Croatian Serb peers, Hadzic has now been indicted for war crimes by the Hague tribunal - but went on the run in mysterious circumstances just hours after the sealed indictment was presented to the Serbian government on July 13.

The news infuriated tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who called a press conference this week to allege that the suspect had been tipped off by someone in Belgrade.

"We can actually see for ourselves [an indictee] located by my office, fleeing in a hurry just hours after the Belgrade authorities had been requested to act upon arrest warrants," Del Ponte told the media, referring to a series of photographs allegedly showing Hadzic loading up a car parked outside his house on the day the indictment was delivered.

It is the latest controversial chapter in an unusual life. Hadzic was born in 1958 in the village of Pacetin, near the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar, and worked as a warehouseman at a local factory.

Deeply superstitious - he often consulted an astrologer and was later to refuse to travel to a meeting in Knin because of a prediction that he would be assassinated - poorly educated, and showing no obvious ambition, there was little about the young Hadzic to mark him out as a future political player.

But in the midst of the chaos of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, his rise was swift and sure.

He first gained prominence at the numerous Serb nationalist rallies held at the end of the Eighties, appearing alongside the then Croatian Serb leader Jovan Raskovic. In 1990, he was elected to Vukovar city council, representing the Croatian Party for Democratic Changes, SDP, although he later quit this movement to join the Serb Democratic Party, SDS.

The following year he was arrested by the Croatian police in Plitvice, where he had attempted to organise a Serb uprising, but was released – showing extensive bruising - after Belgrade exerted political pressure on the then Croat leader Franjo Tudjman.

Hadzic’s reputation as a Serb "national hero" was cemented not long after this, when he delivered a sharply nationalist speech to a rally in Vukovar.

Hadzic’s career within the SDS took off, and in February 1992 he was elected president of the Krajina republic carved out of Croatia. He remained in the post until mid-1993, when Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic - apparently aware that Hadzic was losing support - began to favour Milan Martic, who took over as RSK leader a year later. Martic is also accused of war crimes and surrended to the Hague tribunal in 2002. The proceedings against him are currently in the pre-trial stages.

After losing his job, Hadzic spent two years in the political wilderness before assuming the post of president once more, at a time when the rebel Serb republic was being broken up by the Croatian army.

When Knin fell in August 1995, Hadzic became president of the last remaining part of Krajina called the self-declared Serbian Autonomous District of Slavonija, Baranja, and Western Srem – an area adjacent to Serbia now known as Croatian Podunavlje.

He was defeated in the 1997 SDS leadership elections by Vojislav Stanimirovic, who is now a Croatian parliamentary deputy.

He opposed letting Zagreb take back control of the rump Krajina district, while Stanimirovic and the reformers around him accepted the mission of the United Nations transitional authority in the area and its administrator Jacques Klein.

Hadzic firmly believed that Serbs and Croats could not live together and this opinion - together with other hard-line political views - led to his influence growing weaker. And as the Nineties progressed, he realised that his time was running out. When Vukovar's wartime Serb mayor Slavko Dokmanovic was arrested in 1997 and transferred to The Hague as a war crimes suspect, Hadzic and his family fled the area and moved to Serbia the very next day.

Since then - until the Hague tribunal indictment against him was unsealed on July 16 - Hadzic has lived in Novi Sad, where he worked as a senior desk officer for the Serbian oil industry.

The indictment against Hadzic charges him with war crimes againstCroats and other non-Serbs in Eastern Slavonia. He is also charged with the murder of hundreds of Croatian civilians, including women and the elderly, in villages in Eastern Slavonija and with the murder of 264 Croatian prisoners of war who were taken from a Vukovar hospital and shot dead at Ovcara farm in November 1991.

Hadzic is further charged in connection with a crime committed on October 18, 1991 in the village of Lovas, when members of the paramilitary Dusan Silni force forced 50 Croatian civilians to march into a minefield on the outskirts of the village and then opened fire on them.

Because of his role in the war and the fact that he was the RSK president, Hadzic is extremely unpopular with Croats.

Ivica Vrkic, a Croatian politician who was in charge of reintegrating Podunavlje - the formerly Serb-held eastern area – into Croatia, and who reportedly developed a good working relationship with the Serbs during the process, said, “Hadzic is the only person from Podunavlje whom I never liked contacting, but since I was explicitly given a mandate by Tudjman to negotiate with him, I had to do it.

"His low intellectual level and the fact that even his own colleagues never respected him only confirmed my belief that someone manipulated him; that he was actually implementing someone else’s policy. I don’t really have to spell out here that I am referring to Milosevic.”

This impression was confirmed by one of Hadzic's close associates in the then Krajina goverment, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Hadzic was aware of the fact that he was a puppet and that he could not do anything without Milosevic, and I think that it was clear to him that he could only say what Milosevic thought," he said.

Former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic - who was sentenced in The Hague last month to 13 years imprisonment after pleading guilty to war crimes charges - also claimed that Hadzic was under the direct control of Milosevic.

Still, except for a few rare occasions, Hadzic had no access to Milosevic. According to testimony given by Babic - who appeared as a prosecution witness at the Milosevic trial - the closest Hadzic could get to the Serbian leader was former state security chief Jovica Stanisic, who has also been indicted by The Hague.

The feeling that Hadzic was Milosevic's puppet appears to be widespread. His former RSK colleague said, "Uneducated and lacking firm principles, he was an ideal person to manipulate, and Milosevic sensed this.

“If Milosevic hadn’t picked him, Hadzic would have been a warehouseman until his retirement.”

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek. Alison Freebairn contributed to this report in The Hague.