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

Regional Report: Controversy Follows Bobetko to the Grave

Zagreb faced dilemma over demands for “war hero’s” extradition and had to deal with another following his death.
By Drago Hedl

The funeral of Janko Bobetko – the retired Croat general indicted for war crimes by the tribunal – turned out to be as controversial and colourful as the man himself.

Around 25,000 turned out on May 2 in Sisak, some 50 km southeast of Zagreb, for the ceremony to honour Bobetko, viewed by many here as a war hero.

Late last year, the elderly general, who suffered from diabetes and respiratory problems, was indicted by The Hague for war crimes committed in the 1993 Medak Pocket operation – leaving Croatia’s centre-left government with a dilemma on its hands.

The authorities wanted to extradite Bobetko, a long-time associate of the country’s late president Franjo Tudjman, to show the international community that Croatia was willing to cooperate with the tribunal. But it could not risk alienating the significant part of the population that still revered the man if it was to stay in power.

The general’s death last week, at the age of 84, saved Zagreb from making that difficult choice. But it also presented the government with a new dilemma - whether or not to attend the funeral.

While many wanted to pay their respects to Bobetko, they feared the proceedings could be hijacked by nationalists and turned into a political protest over the government’s cooperation with the tribunal.

The omens were not promising. Before his death, Bobetko requested that his friend and protégé General Mirko Norac carry the cross at the helm of his funeral procession.

Norac, however, had recently been sentenced to 12 years in prison for war crimes committed against Serbian civilians in Gospic in 1991.

A written request from Bobetko’s wife Magdalena, requesting that Norac be allowed to attend the funeral – and an intervention from Croatian prime minister Ivica Racan – did not convince Judge Ika Saric, who ruled that prisoners are only allowed out to attend the funerals of next of kin.

The absence of Norac, however, did not make the funeral much less of a liability. The key speaker at the Sisak ceremony was retired General Ivan Basarac, a popular military leader who is openly hostile to the tribunal. In his speech, he said that Bobetko had won all his battles, even the last one “against the false accusations and propaganda from The Hague”.

The crowd, which included Tudjman’s older son, Miroslav, former defence minister Gojko Susak’s widow, Djurdja, and the wife of war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina - who is on the run - greeted Basarac’s words with applause and exclamations of approval.

Many of them arrived at the funeral wearing Gotovina t-shirts, and a few wore black t-shirts featuring Bobetko’s face with a caption, “At your command, General”. Badges picturing the two men were on sale on the day.

The ruling Social Democratic Party, SDP, which heads the governing coalition, was critical of such right-wing theatrics. “One doesn’t applaud and chant at funerals,” said the party’s vice president Mato Arlovc. “It is sad that [this] turned into a political gathering.”

President Stejpan Mesic chose to attend municipal celebrations in Orahovica instead. “I did what is expected of me in this post – I sent a wreath and my envoy (Kresimir Kaspar, the chief of his military cabinet),” he said.

Racan, who had initially said that he would not attend the funeral, changed his mind at the last minute.

Although he did not attend the ceremony in Susak, both he and the speaker of the parliament showed up for the burial in Zagreb’s Mirogoj cemetery, reportedly after his political rival, Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, leader Ivo Sanader criticised him for attending assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic’s funeral but not that for a Croatian general.

Sanader, who will challenge Racan in the next parliamentary elections, was one of the speakers at the funeral, stating that the general “became a legend even while he was still alive”, and that there was not “a single stain on [Bobetko’s] noble deeds”.

Some of the mourners criticised the Zagreb leadership for not turning up in force. “It is shameful that government representatives failed to attend the funeral in Sisak,” said Ivic Pasalic, a former Tudjman adviser, who now leads the anti-tribunal opposition Croatian Bloc movement.

But the SDP stood by its choice. “In the end everything turned out fine,” a senior official said.

“No one can hold it against [the prime minister] for failing to pay tribute to Bobetko in Zagreb. The speech delivered by General Basarac at the graveside confirmed that Racan and the other government members were right not to attend a funeral that the right-wing wanted to turn into a political gathering.”

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Croatia.

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