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Gotovina Blocks Croatia's March to Brussels

Fugitive general could still upset Zagreb’s hitherto successful EU drive.
By Sanja Romic

Pressures on the Croatian government of Ivo Sanader to deliver its most wanted fugitive, Ante Gotovina, are mounting ahead of a November 23 deadline set by the Hague tribunal’s Chief Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.

Gotovina’s whereabouts have been the subject of fevered speculation by both the Chief Prosecutor and the Croatian authorities ever since the International court indicted him in 2001 for war crimes against Croatian Serbs.

Gotovina was indicted for his role in the Croatian offensive Operation Storm, which led to the capture of the Krajina region from Serb forces in 1995.

The general, who was in charge of the attack, is accused of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war. It’s alleged that he is responsible for the unlawful killing of at least 150 Krajina Serbs, the disappearance of hundreds more, the plunder of private property, destruction of homes and the illegal deportation of around 200,000 members of the minority. He has been on the run since the indictment against him was unsealed.

The case is casting an increasingly long shadow over Croatia’s much-anticipated entry talks with the EU, due to start next spring.

The government insists that the general is not in the country. Many local analysts agree. But if this were not the case, it’s thought officials would face a serious dilemma.

Sanader is very keen to further Zagreb’s European integration ambitions and understands they hinge on Gotovina’s transfer to the tribunal. But he’s also acutely aware that the latter could cost him politically, as it would enrage many members of his party, the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.

Speaking before a meeting of EU ministers on October 11, in Luxembourg, Del Ponte sounded a warning note when she described Gotovina’s arrest as “long overdue”.

Del Ponte said pressure would mount on Croatia “to deliver or locate Gotovina by 23 November,” when she is due to give a final report on the case to the UN Security Council.

This November report will be crucial in determining whether Europe’s membership negotiations with Croatia go ahead in February or March 2005, as announced by the European Commissioner-designate for Enlargement, Olli Rehn.

“I was very disappointed because when we spoke in the spring, I was hoping for an arrest [of Gotovina] before the summer,” Del Ponte said on October 11.

“The practice [by which] fugitives keep walking freely in a country must be stopped,” she added, referring to reports that Gotovina had been spotted in the Croatian coastal town of Brela in August. Days later, an investigation revealed the person in Brela was not, in fact, him.

The latest warning from the Hague - coupled with an announcement from the EU Council of Ministers that it may suspend negotiations with Croatia at any time if it breaches EU criteria on democracy, freedom and human rights - have triggered a burst of activity from the Croatian authorities, including raids on the homes of Gotovina allies.

The Croatian media also published two important confidential transcripts, dating from 1995, which formed the basis on which Gotovina was originally indicted.

These transcripts purport to reveal plans by the late president Franjo Tudman and army generals to open exit “corridors” for Croatian Serbs in the Krajina in 1995, when government forces recaptured the Serb-held region in their lightning offensive, Operation Storm. They appear to suggest, in other words, that Tudjman intended to cleanse the recaptured the region of its Serb population. (Gotovina’s lawyers say the transcripts are false, while President Stipe Mesic’s office insist they are true).

“The holiday is over and we now want concrete results,” a top EU source told IWPR, referring to the Gotovina case. “The chief prosecutor believes the clean-ups and raids by the Croatian interior ministry and the secret service were only done to impress her. She is not convinced.”

The same EU source added, “As no new indictments can be made after mid-2005 and no new convictions after 2006, the coming period will be critical for both Del Ponte and Croatia.”

Amid signs of frustration in Zagreb over the escalating EU pressure, Croatia’s foreign minister, Miomir Zuzul, complained recently at a talk delivered in the NATO club in Brussels that Croatia had become “a hostage to a situation that it cannot solve” – a reference to the government’s belief that Gotovina is not in the country.

Zuzul added that although cooperation with the tribunal was difficult for all governments in the region, Croatia had already showed it meant business by submitting all the documents the tribunal had sought.

The justice minister, Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, also confirmed she felt trouble lay ahead with the EU. The minister told Croatian radio she “expected pressure to intensify from the Hague in the run-up to both the Security Council report and the announcement of the date for starting negotiations [with the EU] in December”.

Reflecting on the current government’s predicament, Croatia’s former prime minister, Ivica Racan, told the newspaper Nacional on October 19, “Del Ponte is a brisk and energetic person, very much concentrated on her role as a prosecutor…She knows what she wants very well and well remembers what anyone promises her.

“The problem is that Sanader is only behaving obediently to the EU because it is an order, not necessarily [because it is] something he and his party agree with.”

With public support for EU entry ebbing away, according to recent polls, the government’s pro-EU policy is imposing enormous pressures on the Sanader cabinet.

In an apparent effort to reassure Brussels of the government’s continued commitment to European integration, it is said Sanader nominated Jandranka Kosor as HDZ candidate for up coming presidential elections because she is viewed favourably by the West.

“Kosor doesn’t enjoy much support in her own party,” an unnamed party official was quoted as saying, in Nacional, on October 19. “But she is a likeable political figure abroad.”

Sanja Romic is a Brussels-based Croatian journalist.

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