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

Regional Report: Racan Faces Gotovina Woes

“Misunderstanding” about tribunal statement on fugitive general provides further headaches for Croatian prime minister.
By Drago Hedl

Nobody ever told Prime Minister Ivica Racan that politics in post-war Croatia would be easy.


But over the past few weeks, the embattled premier has found himself caught between a feisty international war crimes prosecutor who is demanding that Zagreb hand over war crimes suspect General Ante Gotovina and a right-wing political party that threatens to end his political career if he complies.


For a while, it seemed Racan was deftly navigating the middle ground. On the one hand, he formed a special unit to hunt the general down and offered a 50,000 euro reward to anyone who provided information leading to the general’s arrest, which made The Hague happy. On the other, he managed to avoid extraditing the general, which kept the right wing quiet.


But last week, as he was touring the Croatian coast on vacation, the story took on a dramatic twist.


In the resort city of Zadar, the right-wing Croatian Bloc party organised a petition against the suspect’s extradition, which was signed by 5,000 people. They also printed posters and t-shirts bearing the fugitive’s image and the slogan “I’m helping General Gotovina for free”.


At the same time, Racan was pestered by a group of journalists demanding a response to allegations that his government was not cooperating with The Hague.


Apparently, in a statement before the United States Congress on May 16, tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte had said that Racan’s government was very well aware of the general’s whereabouts, but did not wish to arrest him for political reasons.


The normally taciturn Racan was visibly shocked by this, and said he had no idea what the journalists were talking about. “We will check whether that is exactly what she said,” he said.


“If the government knew where General Gotovina was, he would be arrested. I can categorically state that we do not know where [the fugitive] is.”


Racan immediately instructed the head of the government’s Bureau for Cooperation with The Hague, Frane Krnic, to contact the tribunal’s Zagreb office.


The tribunal’s Zagreb representative Thomas Osoro told Krnic that Del Ponte had been misquoted by Voice of America, VOA, but the media organisation flatly denied this. “The chief prosecutor’s words were quoted verbatim,” said Ivana Kuhar, editor in chief of the group’s Croatia service. As proof, VOA posted an audio file of Del Ponte’s statement on its website www.glasamerike.com.


On it, Del Ponte is heard saying the following, “I have to say I hope that Croatia will now secure [Gotovina’s] arrest, because this is not just about locating him, but about arresting him. Because they know, they know where he is.”


She adds that Zagreb does not wish to arrest Gotovina due to political reasons, because some Croats see the fugitive as a hero.


In spite of VOA’s denial and the posting of Del Ponte’s words, the tribunal prosecutor insisted that she had been “misinterpreted” and the Croatian government decided to let the matter drop.


Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic later said, “I am satisfied that we received confirmation that the disputed Carla Del Ponte statement is not true, for, if the chief prosecutor had actually said this, it would have made our cooperation with the Hague tribunal much more difficult.


“The rebuttal of the statement only proves that there is no dispute between Croatia and The Hague and that the cooperation process is following a normal course.”


A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that Zagreb had no desire to dramatise such a “misunderstanding”. While the authorities are aware of the content of the chief prosecutor’s statement, they believe that it should be viewed in the context of her efforts to secure American aid for the tribunal.


“We don’t want to strain relations, because we are aware of the fact that we haven’t done everything that is being asked of us,” he aadmitted.


That may be the case, but the fact remains that neither the tribunal nor Racan’s political opposition are satisfied - and both will continue to dog the prime minister as he prepares for Croatia’s upcoming parliamentary elections.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Croatia