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

Racan Emerges from Crisis Strengthened

Croatian prime minister Ivica Racan weathers confidence vote over decision to extradite two army generals to The Hague
By Zeljko Peratovic

Croatia's coalition government survived a marathon 16-hour parliamentary session on Monday, winning a crucial vote of confidence over its controversial acceptance of a Hague war crimes tribunal request to hand over two army generals.


The 151-member chamber voted by 93 to 36 to back the cabinet, a resounding seal of approval for the administration's policy of cooperation with the tribunal. It ensured that Prime Minister Ivica Racan emerged strengthened from a crisis, which had threatened early parliamentary elections.


The crisis erupted when Drazen Budisa, president of the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, opposed the decision to send two generals, Rahim Ademi and Ante Gotovina, to The Hague. The HSLS is the second largest party in Croatia's six-member coalition government, with five ministers in the cabinet, including deputy prime minister Goran Granic, in charge of dealings with The Hague.


On July 7, the day the cabinet was due to vote on the tribunal's request, Budisa said the indictments against the generals were unacceptable because they accuse the entire Croatian people of genocide. Budisa insisted his ministers vote against Racan's policy of cooperation. At the cabinet session, however, two HSLS ministers voted for extradition, two abstained and one voted against. The vote was carried, but given the HSLS's stated position on the issue, the party's five ministers resigned from their posts, triggering the confidence vote.


The Hague indictments against the two Croatian army commanders were announced only days after Serbia extradited former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte visited Zagreb on July 6 to confirm the indictments.


The HSLS ministerial resignations prompted speculation that the coalition government would collapse. Some analysts predicted Budisa's deputies would vote alongside the nationalist parties, led by the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, in the vote of confidence. Such a setback for Racan's administration could have precipitated early elections.


But the split between the HSLS ministers during the cabinet vote on July 7 indicated deep divisions within Budisa's party over the whole issue of cooperation with the tribunal. While Budisa and his backers claimed extradition of the two generals would endanger Croatian national interests, others within the HSLS, headed by Granic, argued non-cooperation would result in damaging international isolation for the country.


On July 11, internal pressure within the HSLS forced Budisa to stand down as party president. Jozo Rados, who'd just resigned as defence minister, took over as acting chairman. Only four of the HSLS's 24 deputies voted against the government in the confidence motion, delivering a definite defeat to the Budisa faction within the party.


Racan's cabinet will continue to govern for the time being, despite the HSLS departures. The prime minister announced a new cabinet would be formed in September.


An official from Croatian president Stipe Mesic's office, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed Budisa's actions stemmed from an agreement he struck with Croatia's former leader president Franjo Tudjman in autumn 1999.


The official said Budisa and Tudjman agreed that the HDZ would recognise the victory of the then opposition parties and would discreetly support Budisa's candidacy in the presidential elections. In return, continued the official, Budisa took upon himself an obligation that upon taking over power he and his party would do everything to prevent the prosecution of prominent members of the HDZ and members of the Tudjman family.


General Ademi promised to surrender voluntarily to The Hague. General Gotovina, however, refused to recognise the tribunal and disappeared from view over a week ago. A court in Zagreb has ordered his arrest, but there is speculation he has already fled the country. Some sources claim he is in Paraguay.


Ademi and Gotovina are charged with responsibility for war crimes in their capacities as commanding officers. Ademi, a Croatian Albanian, is accused of involvement in the deaths of around 100 Serb prisoners of war and civilians while he served as a commanding officer on the Lika front, in an area called the Medak pocket, in 1993. Gotovina is accused of having a hand in the deaths of 300 Serb civilians during the Croatian army's Storm offensive in 1995.


The Veterans' Associations have protested loudly against cooperation with the tribunal and the extradition of the two officers. But so far they have not brought their supporters out onto the streets. Some of its leaders, though, have threatened to block motorways at the height of the tourist season. But after Racan warned that the police would intervene to prevent such action, no such incidents have taken place.


Perhaps the biggest surprise amidst all the furore, was an open letter in support of the two generals, signed by 11 internationally-recognised Croatian sportsmen, including the newly crowned Wimbledon tennis champion Goran Ivanisevic. It later transpired that Ivanisevic, whose signature was allegedly scanned onto the letter, only partially agreed with the contents. The tennis star said he opposed the unconditional extradition of generals, but not cooperation with The Hague and the establishment of responsibility for war crimes.


What appears to have been forgotten by the opponents of the tribunal is that the constitutional law allowing for cooperation with The Hague was passed several years ago by a parliament dominated by the HDZ, the party now so overtly opposed to the policy. It was this law which enabled the Croatian government to extradite Tihomir Blaskic, a Bosnian Croat general in the Croatian army, in 1998. Blaskic is now serving a 45 year sentence for his role in the Ahmici massacre and other war crimes.


Events have turned out much better than Racan could have predicted when he took the controversial decision to hand Ademi and Gotovina over to The Hague.


A senior official from Racan's `Social Democratic Party, the main party in the coalition government, said the vote of confidence and the departure of Budisa from the helm of the HSLS could ensure that Croatia now presses ahead with reforms previously hindered by Budisa's presence and nationalist flirtations.


Zeljko Peratovic is a journalist with the daily Vjesnik in Zagreb.


More IWPR's Global Voices