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Regional Report: Gotovina Interview Splits Croatian Leaders

Croatian president supports General Gotovina’s plea to be heard, while premier demands he goes to The Hague.
By Drago Hedl

The sensational interview with fugitive general Ante Gotovina that ran in a Zagreb magazine last week has created a public rift between the country's prime minister and president, even though both men are publicly committed to the war crimes tribunal process.


In the interview, which appeared in the weekly Nacional on June 3, Gotovina said that after two years in hiding, he would be willing to cooperate with The Hague if it would agree to withdraw the indictment against him until it heard what he had to say.


Gotovina insisted that the government of former president Franjo Tudjman never told him that the tribunal wanted to talk to him about his role in the Croatian army’s operations in the Krajina region in 1995, and said that if he had the opportunity to explain himself, he could clear his name.


“I am sure that The Hague would not have issued an indictment against me if the former authorities had given me a chance to talk to investigators in 1998,” he said.


“I am willing to talk to the investigators, if they give me the status of a suspect. Should they insist on the indictment against me once they have heard my statement, I am willing to go to The Hague voluntarily.”


The tribunal indictment against Gotovina says that as overall operational commander for part of Operation Storm, the Croatian army campaign to capture the Krajina region in 1995, Gotovina was either implicated in a range of crimes including killing and expelling local Serb civilians, or he was aware of these acts committed by his men.


While both Prime Minister Ivica Racan and President Stjepan Mesic stand to gain from Gotovina's accusations against Tudjman's right-wing government, they reacted to the interview in very different ways.


Racan said that it was unrealistic of Gotovina to ask The Hague to drop the charges, and called on him to surrender immediately, “The indictment might eventually be changed or dropped, but General Gotovina must first accept full cooperation with the Hague tribunal. Cooperation cannot be made conditional on a request for an indictment to be dropped.”


Mesic took an entirely different tack. Although only a month ago he refused to meet with the mayor of Zadar because there was a picture of Gotovina hanging in the city hall, the president was apparently so convinced by the general's interview that he vowed to assist in any way he could.


On June 12, Mesic wrote a letter to the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, stating that he believed that Gotovina had been treated unfairly and asking for the indictment to be amended or withdrawn until he had a chance to explain himself. Mesic offered his personal guarantee that Gotovina would not flee.


Attached to the letter, Mesic included several documents which are said to show that Gotovina filed about 150 reports requesting punishment for soldiers who committed war crimes while under his command.


Although the tribunal said it would examine the new evidence, it refused to amend or withdraw the indictment. “It's not the first time an accused person has pressed his government to take a stance on his case because he believes he's innocent,” prosecution spokeswoman Florence Hartmann told IWPR.


“If Gotovina presents sufficient evidence against the indictment in his communication with the prosecutors, the prosecution will withdraw the indictment. However, this cannot happen before he comes to The Hague,” she said.


On June 17, Del Ponte responded to Mesic, writing that although she could ensure that the documents he had sent would be examined carefully, it was “premature to evaluate them outside the regular court procedure and in the absence of the accused”.


“The only solution is for the accused, Gotovina, to surrender or be arrested, to be transferred to The Hague and appear before the tribunal,” Del Ponte said.


Although Mesic failed to get the indictment dropped, rumours are rife in Zagreb that he helped orchestrate the entire episode – the interview and the request to the tribunal – in order to curry favour with nationalist voters. He is known to be on good terms with Nacional chief editor Ivo Pukanic, and just a month ago, the Zagreb daily Jutarnji list reported that Mesic had spoken with Gotovina by telephone. The president's office never denied the report.


“Mesic is trying to use his good standing with the Hague tribunal to help Croatia get rid of the liability which is the Gotovina case,'' a source in the president's inner circle told IWPR.


''At the same time, he wants to shed more light on the role of Tudjman's HDZ [Croatian Democratic Union] and the fact that they concealed from Gotovina the fact that the Hague wanted to talk to him as a suspect.''


Whether or not there is any truth to the rumours remains unknown – but if there is, the tactic seems to be working. While Racan takes the heat from right-wing politicians for his insistence on cooperating with The Hague, Mesic is being lauded for his efforts to aid the general.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek.