VIEWPOINT: Croatia Still Holds Out Against The Hague

The 'reformist' government's position on war crimes is little different from that of the Tudjman regime.

VIEWPOINT: Croatia Still Holds Out Against The Hague

The 'reformist' government's position on war crimes is little different from that of the Tudjman regime.

The political crisis in Zagreb, sparked by the announcement by the war crimes tribunal of sealed indictments against two Croatian generals, has called into question the reformist credentials of the administration elected 18 months ago to clear away the legacy of Franjo Tudjman.


The prime minister survived a tumultuous period of parliamentary manoeuvring and debate over the affair. One of the indictees, General Rahim Ademi, has since voluntarily surrendered to The Hague, and a search warrant was issued for the other, General Ante Gotovina. Yet the arguments put forward by the government demonstrate how little its position has shifted on the issue of war crimes since the time of Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.


Under international pressure, Tudjman's government did pass legislation on compliance with The Hague, and some Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina were handed over. But Zagreb engaged in extended wrangling over requests for sensitive documents by then chief prosecutor Louise Arbour, which led to her issuing a complaint at the UN Security Council.


The new Croatian government, in line with its fresh image, pledged to cooperate fully with the tribunal and it has since given access to all the documents demanded by The Hague. Some judicial proceedings against war crimes suspects are also under way in Croatia, including the trial of retired Croatian general Mirko Norac for alleged war crimes against Serb civilians in Gospic in 1991.


The extent of Croatian resistance to war crimes prosecutions was demonstrated by rallies throughout Croatia, in support of General Norac. But fresh indictments handed down by Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte are the first by the tribunal against Croatian citizens, and Zagreb has been profoundly shaken. Several political parties, the ruling coalition and public opinion itself, are sharply divided on the issue.


Only lone voices call for full compliance with the tribunal, as a way for the country to come to terms with its responsibility for war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia. The argument that raged over the generals, including a marathon five-day debate in parliament, concerned tactics: whether Croatia could afford to withdraw from cooperation with The Hague or whether the best way to vindicate Croatia's war effort would be before the international court. The idea that Croatians could have actually engaged in war crimes during what they perceive as the "Homeland War", was hardly considered.


The immediate casualty of the debate was the man who did most to provoke it, Drazen Budisa, of the Croatian Social-Liberal Party, HSLS, the main coalition partner of Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democrats, SDP. Following Del Ponte's announcement, the HSLS opposed handing over any indictees, and when the government agreed to accept the indictments, all five of the HSLS's ministers, including a deputy prime minister, resigned.


The drama ended when Budisa himself resigned. The party returned to the ruling coalition, supporting the government in a confidence vote, and backing its decision to comply with The Hague's extradition requests.


The other loser appears to be the HDZ, now the main opposition party. During the extended parliamentary session, the HDZ called for an end to cooperation with The Hague, demanding that the government turn down requests for extradition; that it change legislation passed, ironically, by the HDZ, enabling cooperation with The Hague; and that it call a referendum that would virtually guarantee the immunity of Hague indictees. None of these were agreed.


Thus it appears that the government confirmed its policy proclaimed last year to follow a "new direction" - that is, full cooperation with The Hague. In reality, however, Racan's government has done nothing more than Tudjman's - complying with the court where necessary but doing nothing to open the debate at home.


To the contrary, the exhausting parliamentary session served as little more than a competition in patriotic rhetoric. Much was said about the heroes of the Croatian struggle for independence - the dignity of the generals and the honesty and decency of Croatian fighters.


But through all that, there was not a word about war crimes. Croatia is as silent about them today as it was under late president Tudjman.


Thus on the key issue, there is little difference between the authorities and the opposition. Both claim that the accusations against the Croatian generals are unfounded and that The Hague's treatment of Croatia is unjust. They argue that the indictments were artificially created in order to balance the scales following Serbia's extradition of Milosevic.


While the HDZ demanded that the government reject the indictments, the HSLS advocated cooperation with The Hague, but also opposed the generals' extradition. The party insists that individuals who perpetrated crimes should face extradition, not those in command.


Racan's deputies insisted that the only way to clear Croatia's name is in fact by cooperating with the court. The government insisted that its acceptance of the indictments did not mean that it endorsed the accusations. Rather, it said that the only way to defend the "Croatian truth" was to argue its case through cooperation with the international community.


What the so-called reformist authorities have altogether refused is any official questioning of the HDZ's policy in the recent wars. Far from denouncing any of Croatia's actions, they have in fact taken over where the previous government left off. Several months ago, the parliament passed a declaration on the "Homeland War", describing it as just and exclusively defensive and claiming that it was waged only on Croatian territory.


For the current government, as for the last, to speak about Croatian aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina is a political sin. To ask whether the legitimate actions of the Croatian army in "liberating" the country involved the crime of ethnic cleansing is "not correct".


Far from demanding an investigation into the burning of some 20,000 Serb houses and the killing of at least several hundred Serbian civilians, this supposedly non-nationalist government has drawn roughly the same conclusions as its nationalist predecessor about the "Homeland War".


Yet the government's position is unsustainable. As the monstrous character of Tudjman's war policies is revealed before the tribunal, will the administration continue to share the patriotic arguments of the HDZ? The only way out would be for Racan's team to defend those aspects of the conflict that had a legitimate defensive character but, simultaneously, to investigative and prosecute all criminal actions.


Such a sophisticated approach appears beyond their abilities. The government had ample time to prepare the ground for such a strategy before having to deal with Del Ponte's sealed indictments. Yet a year and a half has been squandered.


Meanwhile, right-wing, anti-Hague forces have played recent developments to their advantage. With social issues such as unemployment and the economy working in their favour, they have consolidated their weakened ranks and are vocal throughout the country. Exploiting the war crimes issue, they have accused the authorities of treason, claiming that they would physically prevent the arrest and extradition of the indicted generals.


It has notably failed to prepare public opinion to confront the full truth of war crimes. Belgrade readied the public for the transfer of its war-time leader to The Hague by broadcasting a TV documentary on Serbian war crimes. There have been no such broadcasts in Croatia. Only the press raises the issue, but national television, far and away the most influential medium, has continued to highlight right-wing assemblies and political rallies.


In short, the post-Tudjman authorities have missed an opportunity to end Tudjmanism. They failed not only due to lack of political will but also because they thought the task itself was unnecessary. Failing to shift the predominantly negative view of cooperation with the war crimes tribunal, the authorities will find that the Hague problem will return to haunt them again and again.


Jelena Lovric is a correspondent to the Rijeka daily Novi List.


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