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

REGIONAL REPORT: Croatia: Gotovina Campaign Growing

Wine and football come to aid of Croatian war crimes suspect.
By Drago Hedl

It is probably the rarest Balkan wine, and certainly the most unusual. Featuring a picture of Hague fugitive General Ante Gotovina on its label, the bottles come with the Croatian coat of arms and text reading, “For our own freedom and for the freedom of our homeland.”


One hundred and twenty bottles of “Gotovina” claret have been produced as part of a campaign by the general’s supporters to persuade Zagreb to reject the tribunal’s demand for his extradition.


Gotovina, who is in hiding, was indicted in July 2001, accused of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war for his part in commanding troops involved in Operation Storm, which led to the capture of the Krajina region of the country from Serb forces in 1995.


The general is charged with responsibility for the unlawful killing of at least 150 Krajina Serbs, and the disappearance of several hundred more, during the offensive. He is further accused of the plunder of private property, destruction of homes and the illegal deportation of nearly 200,000 members of the minority community.


Many Croats, however, see Gotovina as a patriot. A website devoted to him, set up by the right-wing HONOS association, describes the general as “a true Croatian” whose “military courage defeated Slobodan Milosevic and his ominous dream of ‘Greater Serbia’, thus securing peace in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina”.


Wine bottles are only part of the protest against his extradition. Some supporters have formed a five-a-side football team, MNK Ante Gotovina, whose photograph is emblazoned on their shirts. Late last year, the side won a national tournament named after the late nationalist defence minister Gojko Susak. And a petition backing the general, signed by 555 people - comprising academics, generals, painters, actors, journalists and sportsmen - was sent to Premier Ivica Racan. A two-page advertisement listing the signatories subsequently appeared in several national newspapers.


Many of the 38 journalists on the list are employees of state media, including Croatian Television, the Hina news agency and two dailies in which the authorities are still a majority shareholder, Vjesnik and Slobodna Dalmacija.


Yale University professor Dr Ivo Banac says he’s appalled by the petition and the fact it was signed by so many people who cannot be described as extremists.


“They don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “ How do they imagine that they can use a petition to assert that the indictment against Gotovina has no legal foundation? The court should be the one that makes such a decision, shouldn’t it.”


The demonstrations of support for the general come on top of other protests against the indictment of former Croatian army chief of staff Janko Bobetko, now also fighting demands for extradition to face charges related to an offensive in the Medak pocket in 1993.


The protesters say Gotovina’s indictment is wrong because he was merely following orders, “Gotovina simply did what he was asked to do by Tudjman and defence minister Susak,” actor Velimir Cokljat, one of the petition signatories, told IWPR. “He just passed these orders on to his subordinates, soldiers who defended Croatia, which means that they are also responsible – men who defended their homeland. We disagree with that.”


Operation Storm saw Croatian forces retake control of the Krajina region, which had been grabbed by Serb separatists in 1991. A lightening two-day offensive saw tank forces smash the rebel’s front line, triggering a wholesale exodus of Serbs in a massive refugee convoy that at one stage stretched across from the province through Bosnia and into Serbia.


Gotovina remains free, with many believing Racan’s left of centre coalition government is reluctant to arrest him, fearing a nationalist backlash.


But neither is Zagreb likely to openly challenge the extradition. Late last year, it launched an unsuccessful application to The Hague to overturn the indictment against Bobetko, arguing that there were irregularities. A similar application on behalf of Gotovina is also likely to fail, for the key reason that, since an indictment is not a judgement on guilt or innocence, it is hard to appeal against. Hague officials say the place for such legal challenges and protests is the courtroom once proceedings have begun.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.