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Nationalists Threaten Racan Government

The Croatian government's pursuit of an alleged war criminal triggers nationalist anger.
By Dragutin Hedl

The Croatian government will face perhaps its biggest challenge later this week when right-wing demonstrators gather in the centre of Zagreb to protest over moves to detain a former army general.


The demonstration, scheduled for February 15, follows a huge rally in Split last Sunday where an estimated 50,000 protesters demonstrated in support of suspected war criminal General Mirko Norac.


The organisers of the rally, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and a right-wing war veteran association, called for the government to resign over its decision to issue an arrest warrant for Norac.


Nationalists hope their protests will weaken or even break up the six-member ruling coalition which, until now, has presented a united front.


The weakest link in the administration is the nationalist Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, which could leave over the Norac affair.


The arrest warrant was issued after the 34-year-old general, who many revere as a war hero, went into hiding. Norac is being investigated for his alleged involvement in a 1991 massacre of Serbs.


Ivo Sanader, leader of the former ruling HDZ, ousted last year in presidential and parliamentary elections, led the call for the government's resignation. Sanader appealed to 'nationally-aware parties' among the ruling coalition to step down.


Nationalist parties and war veteran groups are opposed to the prosecution of Croatian soldiers who fought in the 1991-1995 'Homeland War', as it is known.


When the HDZ was in power, Croatia refused to work with The Hague. They still see any cooperation as treasonable. From the nationalists' point of view, the government is guilty of criminalising war heroes and insulting the state of Croatia.


Any indictment on war crimes charges, they say, reduces Croat soldiers to the level of criminals and aggressors.


President Stipe Mesic expressed his desire to distance his government from its pro-nationalist predecessor by forcing Norac and eleven other generals into retirement last year.


Mesic's decision followed publication of an open letter, co-signed by the generals, which denounced the government's co-operation with The Hague tribunal.


Since HDZ lost power last January, the Croatian government has sought to mend fences with the international community by addressing the issue of war crimes.


Racan, in a bid to appease The Hague, has set up a special department to investigate war crime allegations. It is believed that he agreed to indict Norac when The Hague's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte visited Zagreb in January.


Norac is wanted in connection with the execution of Serb civilians near Gospic while serving as commander of the 118th Croatian Defence Force, HVO, brigade in October 1991.


The Gospic killings have been under investigation by the District Court in Rijeka for several months now. Justice Minister Stjepan Ivanisevic told parliament that Norac's name had been brought up by both suspects and witnesses during the trial.


According to the witnesses' statements, Norac ordered the execution of Serbs at Pazariste near Gospic, on October 16. Witnesses testified that Norac shot one woman before ordering his men to open fire.


Racan has said the HDZ is manipulating the Norac case to attack his democratically elected government. He has said the HDZ and their supporters are not only opposed to co-operating with The Hague but to seeing any form of justice meted out to alleged war criminals.


"The HDZ wants to destabilise the country and provoke a new election, or even come to power without the elections," Social Democrat Mato Arlovic told journalists.


The Split rally had been extremely well orchestrated. HDZ supporters were brought down to the coast by specially designated buses and trains from southern Croatia and Herzegovina in Bosnia - traditional stronghold of the nationalist right.


But a second protest in the eastern town of Osijek failed to live up to the right's expectations, with only five thousand in attendance.


Among the most vocal protestors were veterans' associations, fearful the administration's anti-nationalist policies will result in them losing their high pensions, disability benefits and other privileges.


Despite the size and organization of the Split protest, it appears that, for the moment at least, the nationalists have failed to elicit widespread public support.


Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor