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

Gotovina Trial Prompts Serb Complaints

As Croatian general’s trial begins, some Serbs ask why more high-level Croatian officials haven’t been prosecuted.
As Croatian general Ante Gotovina goes on trial next week, some Serbs complain that the case will only deal with a fraction of crimes committed by Croatian authorities against the country’s Serbs during the war.

While many hope the trial will reveal how Croatia’s Serb minority suffered in the 1990s, they still question why more high-level Croatian officials have not gone on trial as several of their Serbian counterparts have.

Gotovina - the highest-ranking Croatian to face international justice for crimes against Croatia’s Serbs - is charged with war crimes committed during Operation Storm of August 1995, which restored government control over the Serb-held area of Krajina in eastern Croatia.

However, the Veritas organisation, which represents Croatian Serbs living in Serbia, says the case will touch only the surface of the crimes committed by the Croatian authorities.

“During Operation Storm, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and his colleagues, Zvonimir Cervenko, Janko Bobetko and Gojko Susak headed the Croatian state and military, and the tribunal charged them with forming a criminal enterprise. But they are all dead now and will never face trial for war crimes,” said Veritas president Savo Strbac.

“All of them had the same idea - to ethnically cleanse Serbs from the Krajina - and they succeeded.”

While these Croatian leaders were never prosecuted, several Serbian officials, including former presidents Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Milutinovic have gone on trial, which many Serbs feel is unfair.

Strbac, whose organisation helped put war crimes investigators in touch with witnesses to the violence in Krajina, feels the trial has come too late for victims.

“The right time would have been in 1998, or in 2000 when Tudjman was alive,” he said.

Croatia’s Serb population was devastated by the war. According to a census cited by Strbac, Croatia’s 582,000 Serbs made up 12.2 per cent of the population in 1991.

In a census ten years later, just 201,000 Serbs were listed as living in the country.

United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, figures for May 2007 show that while 120,000 Serb refugees had returned to Croatia, less than half had decided to stay permanently.

“These are mostly old people and peasants. Many of them, around 13,000, have died since then,” he said.

Strbac also noted that war crimes trials of Croatian officials have negative consequences for Serbs in Croatia, as they tend to generate anti-Serb feeling in the country. This can discourage witnesses from testifying, he said.

“Some high-quality witnesses are afraid to testify not only at the tribunal, but also in Croatian courts,” he said

In Serbia, it is widely thought that the international tribunal is biased against Serbs, and opinion polls indicate that half the population would like to cease contact with it. Belgrade has also come under fire for failing to deliver top Bosnian Serb fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the Hague tribunal, despite international pressure to do so.

Filip Svarm, a journalist from Belgrade weekly Vreme and author of a documentary titled The Fall of Krajina, told IWPR that the Gotovina trial would show that there were villains on both sides during the war - something that the Croatian media has tended to ignore, although the situation is changing.

“We were in Croatia this month to show our documentary and I can say that people are starting to look differently at what happened in Krajina. This is not the majority, but I believe that things will change,” he said.

In Serbia, interest in the trial has been eclipsed by the anger felt over recognition of Kosovo’s independence by many western countries.

In demonstrations held in Belgrade, several embassies, including that of Croatia, were attacked by protesters. Since many of the countries pushing Serbia to cooperate with the tribunal are the same ones which have recognised Kosovo, many observers predict the country will continue to resist calls to hand over remaining fugitives.

Director of the Forum for Ethnic Relations Dusan Janjic wondered whether Gotovina’s trial might be a chance to apply more pressure on Belgrade to cooperate with the tribunal.

“If Gotovina’s trial in The Hague is professionally executed, I think that will strengthen the tribunal’s authority and put new pressure on Belgrade to transfer Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to The Hague,” he said.

Janjic also thought the trial could provide an opportunity to shed more light not just on what happened during Croatia’s war, but also on the country’s role in other regional conflicts.

“I expect that the Gotovina trial will be followed closely by the public in Croatia, just as the trial of [Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav] Seselj was in Serbia. This could explain not only the war in Croatia, but also Croatia’s involvement in the war in Bosnia,” he told IWPR.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR journalist in Belgrade.

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