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

REGIONAL REPORT: Racan in Bobetko Bind

Zagreb authorities face crisis over tribunal demand for Croatian general.
By Drago Hedl

The Croatian government, in a serious bind over calls for the extradition of Janko Bobetko, is attempting to duck the issue by arguing that the general is too ill and frail to stand trial.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan is faced with the prospect of international sanctions if he refuses to hand over the 83-year-old war crimes suspect, regarded as a national hero in Croatia. But if he agrees to the extradition, his government could be toppled by a wave of nationalist fury.

Recent opinion polls suggest more than 60 per cent of the population is against the handover, and with parliamentary elections only a year away, the issue could sound a death knell for the fragile ruling coalition.

The Hague indicted Bobetko on September 19 for crimes committed by the Croatian army against Serbs in the Medak pocket. Zagreb has so far refused to extradite him, claiming his actions were entirely legal.

Croats had argued that their constitution ordered the armed forces to protect the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty, and so viewed the Medak pocket action as a legitimate operation aimed at liberating land held by rebel Serbs.

But analysts point out that even if the Croatian army was within its rights to attack the pocket, there was no justification for committing war crimes.

Perhaps aware of the flaw in its argument, Zagreb is now desperately seeking to persuade the tribunal that the general is far too old and sick to face trial. This may be the only way of both placating nationalists and averting sanctions.

It's not the first time Zagreb has pursued such a strategy. It long resisted the extradition of Mladen "Tuta" Naletilic, a Bosnian Croat accused of war crimes, on the grounds that his heart was too weak for him to travel to The Hague.

After a tribunal medical team visited Zagreb and pronounced him fit to make the journey, Tuta was brought to the international court's detention centre, where he remains to this day.

Bobetko does have a serious heart condition - he's suffered two cardiac arrests in the past year - and is a diabetic. His movement is restricted and he relies on a walking stick. However, he appears to be fresh and vigorous in his television interviews - quite the opposite of the fragile picture Racan is trying to paint.

Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte remarked on this in an interview with the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List. "Bobetko is appearing on television, he is moving about [and] appears to be well, even aggressive. I really cannot see why he could not stand the trip to The Hague and appear before the judges," she said.

Del Ponte has assured Racan that the prosecution would not oppose Bobetko's provisional release, but there are no guarantees that The Hague judges would approve such a move.

The Croat health minister Andre Vlahusic visited Bobetko at his luxurious villa in the plush Zagreb suburb of Tuskanc last week, ostensibly to talk about his well-being. However, well-informed sources told IWPR that Vlahusic was tasked with persuading the general to agree to an examination by tribunal doctors.

The prime minister, it seems, may already be trying to convince the indictee that surrendering to The Hague and playing the health card would be best for him and Croatia.

Racan was aware that his initial opposition to the indictment could not be maintained indefinitely. Analysts say his early stance was designed to prevent his fragile pro-western coalition from being swept away by a tide of nationalist anger.

The change of tactics came after parliamentary speaker Zlatko Tomcic recently returned from Rome without winning support from the Vatican - one of Croatia's most important allies - over Zagreb's opposition to the Bobetko indictment.

Subsequently, a senior foreign ministry official told IWPR that it had been ordered by the government to drop its assertion that the indictment was unconstitutional. "We were told to concentrate on Bobetko's health instead," he said.

Meanwhile, Croatian president Stjepan Mesic has come down heavily on the pro-extradition side of the debate. In a television address on September 25, he said Croatia must not be held hostage by "anyone's ambitions, privileges or the fear of truth and responsibility".

"The general was accused of very concrete crimes," he said. " We have to stress that Croatia is a law-abiding state, that our legislation applies equally to all and that no one should have special privileges."

Mesic's stance, while warmly welcomed by the international community, has angered the majority of Croatian politicians and further stirred nationalist emotions among the population.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek