Global Policy Forum

Croatia in Turmoil After Agreeing


By Carlotta Gall with Marlise Simons

New York Times
July 8, 2001

Croatia's Western-leaning government found itself confronting collapse and potential civil unrest today after it decided this weekend to send two of its citizens to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The government, Croatia's first in 10 years not dominated by nationalists, made the decision after pressure mounted since Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, was transferred to the tribunal on June 28. On Friday the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, visited the government in Zagreb and demanded that they live up to their obligation to hand over high-ranking suspects indicted a month ago.

Croatia has already handed over a dozen ethnic Croats from Bosnia who were indicted for crimes committed during the 1992-1995 war there. The new indictments remain sealed. But they are believed to question the conduct of Croatia's own generals and the campaign referred to by Croats as the Homeland War, which led to the consolidation of an independent state. In recent months, the very hint that Croatia's own senior generals and war heroes might be indicted by the tribunal set off street protests drawing tens of thousands.

Four members of the cabinet resigned after the government's decision Saturday evening, which came after eight hours of sometimes stormy debate. Prime Minister Ivica Racan now faces a collapse of his government and a possible no-confidence vote in Parliament. The four ministers who resigned were Goran Granic, deputy prime minister; Jozo Rados, the defense minister; Goranko Fizulic, the economy minister; and Hrvoje Kraljevic, the science and technology minister. They are all members of the Social Liberal Party, the second-largest party in the governing coalition. If their walkout causes a split in the coalition, it may precipitate new elections.

Today President Stjepan Mesic gave his backing to the government decision in a statement and called on Croats to "maintain peace and dignity." "It is known that during the war, there were crimes on the Croatian side, too," he said in the statement. The tribunal did not try "nations, but suspects," he went on. "The Croatian nation should not and will not be a hostage to those who bloodied their hands, bringing shame upon Croatia's name — no matter what credits they might have otherwise."

Mr. Racan said his government, which faced possible isolation from the rest of Europe if it failed to meet its obligation to the tribunal, "preferred to choose the way of cooperation to that of confrontation." The government's decision would come into force immediately, he said, but it was not clear when and how security forces would arrest the suspects. The largest association of war veterans fiercely denounced the decision and threatened to use "all means available" to fight the transfer of the two Croats, including mass protests and road blockades. In February, this group gathered over 100,000 supporters in Split to protest a local court's prosecution of Mirko Norac, a former general, for war crimes.

"The persecution and decision to extradite Croatian generals is a trial against the foundations of the Croatian state," the association's leader, Mirko Condic, said, as quoted by The Associated Press. "We demand that the Croatian Parliament dissolve the cabinet and call elections."

The names of the two suspects indicted have not been disclosed. But Croatian news media, including the state news agency HINA, have speculated that the tribunal has charged two army generals, Ante Gotovina and Rahim Ademi, with crimes committed against Serbs at Medacki Dzep in 1993 and during a 1995 offensive by Croatian forces, called Operation Storm, that recaptured lands held by Serbian rebels.

While the transfer of Mr. Milosevic and Mrs. Del Ponte's visit to Zagreb added pressure on the government, investigators at The Hague said the indictments were actually long coming. The investigations of war crimes allegedly committed by Croatian forces began as long ago as 1996. Former President Franjo Tudjman was one target of investigators, but this line of inquiry ended when he died in December 1999. The latest indictments were issued on June 5. Soon after receiving the indictments, the prime minister sent a sharp protest letter to the tribunal in which he objected to some of the language and demanded that several charges be withdrawn, according to lawyers at the tribunal. Politicians in Zagreb, too, said today that the indictments contained what they saw as "unacceptable qualifications, including genocide and ethnic cleansing."

Mrs. Del Ponte, in her visit to Zagreb on Friday, reportedly explained that the indictments could not be changed because they were legal documents, confirmed and signed by a tribunal judge. Future trials would have to establish whether the charges were justified, she is said to have explained. By the end of the meeting, she had apparently persuaded Mr. Racan. He committed himself to order the arrests, but said he would first have to call a cabinet meeting.

"The ultimate test of any government or state is the surrender of any suspect," Mrs. Del Ponte said. "There is never a good time for any government to make difficult decisions," she said, insisting that "Croatia fulfill its obligations."

Lawyers close to the tribunal said the focus of at least one of the indictments deals with Operation Storm, the 1995 Croatian offensive. In just four days in August that year, the Croatian military and police regained territory that had been held by Serbs since 1991. The offensive drove more than 200,000 Serbs from their homes and farms in the Krajina region. Canadian military officers who were present during the offensive have told tribunal investigators that "indiscriminate" and "unnecessary" shelling of civilians took place. The number of people killed is not precisely known.

European diplomats and military analysts have long believed that American military gave their tacit blessing and may even have helped plan the operation, which became a turning point in the Balkan wars. For many Croats the offensive amounted to a liberation of their territory. But tribunal investigators have described the operations as ethnic cleansing and compared them to actions taken by Serbs as they sought to create "ethnically pure territories" in Bosnia. But this time the victims were Serbs.

Until now, no senior Croatian political or military leaders had been indicted for war crimes against Serbs, a main reason why Serbs have charged that the tribunal is biased against them.

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