Analysis 16 Nov 16

Bosnian War Crimes Claims Still Trouble Croatia

The political storm caused by war crimes allegations against Croatia’s defence minister again raised uncomfortable questions for Zagreb about its military role in the 1990s war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Boris Pavelic Zagreb

Croatian Defence Council soldiers in Dusine, Bosnia and Herzegovina in February1996. Photo: US Army.

Two decades after the Bosnian conflict ended, its ghosts still haunt Croatia as it struggles to tailor its account of its wartime role to its newly-acquired EU membership suit.

One of the latest obstacles to this effort was the arrest of ten Bosnian Croat ex-fighters on war crimes charges on October 31 in the town of Orasje in north-eastern Bosnia.

The arrests focused attention on a huge but only partly-tackled problem - unpunished war crimes perpetrated by the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), Bosnian Croat forces, or by the Croatian Army during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The problem grew after Serbian newspaper Vecernje novosti reported on November 12 that police in Bosnia’s Serb-led entity Republika Srpska had filed criminal complaints against several Croatian Army officers - including current Defence Minister Damir Krsticevic - accusing them of committing war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This remains an issue for Croatia because the Croatian Army was directly involved in the Bosnian war, while the HVO was organised and extensively supported - and at times even led - by the Croatian authorities in Zagreb.

But the picture is complicated, so it’s worthwhile highlighting the three main phases of Croatia’s involvement in the Bosnian war.

These are the period from the beginning of the war in spring 1992 until the start of a Croat-Bosniak conflict in October 1992; the Croat-Bosniak conflict in Herzegovina and central Bosnia from late 1992 until spring 1994; and the last phase, in which Croat and Bosniak forces united against the Serbs, expelling them from the half of the country in the late summer and early autumn of 1995.

During all those three phases, Croatia played a role in the Bosnian war which shifted politically and militarily, sometimes dramatically.

In late spring and summer 1992, the Croatian Army launched a military operation to crush the Serbian and Montenegrin siege of the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik, which included its engagement against Serb forces in the Dubrovnik hinterland of eastern Herzegovina.

One of the biggest mysteries of the Yugoslav wars remains the failure of the Croatian Army and the HVO to prevent Serb forces and the Yugoslav People’s Army from capturing Bosanska Posavina - the northern parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the banks of the Sava river - in the first half of 1992.

Croats and Bosniaks, who before the war were the majority in Bosanska Posavina, tried but failed to prevent Serb forces from taking the territory.

In 2007, Croatian Army general Petar Stipetic, who was its commander in the territory at the time, revealed that he wrote a report to Croatian President Tudjman about those events in 1994.

In the report, Stipetic accused some local Croatian politicians of “open diversion and treason”, which caused the Croatian-Bosniak military defeat.

“The reasons for the military fall of Bosanska Posavina were political,” Stipetic insisted again in an interview with Croatian newspaper Nacional in October 2007.

“I was wondering then if that situation in Bosnia had already been settled at a meeting between Radovan Karadzic and Mate Boban in Graz,” he added.

That famous meeting between the then Bosnian Serb and Croat political leaders, which took place on May 6, 1992, would completely change the role of Croatia in the Bosnian war, leading it to end its hostilities with Serb forces and start fighting the Bosniaks.

Five months after that meeting, in October 1992, HVO forces attacked the Bosniaks in the town of Prozor in northern Herzegovina, marking the beginning of a year-and-a-half-long war with the Bosniak-led Bosnian Army.

This conflict ended in April 1994, when Bosnian and Croatian leaders Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman signed the so-called Washington agreement under US auspices.

But that period of conflict with the Bosniaks continues to burden Croatia the most, since the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) delivered a verdict in May 2013 saying that “a joint criminal enterprise existed and had as its ultimate goal the establishment of a Croatian territorial entity [within Bosnia and Herzegovina]”.

The joint criminal enterprise existed, according to the ICTY, between mid-January 1993 and April 1994.

This Croatian ‘territorial entity’, the ICTY verdict says, “was either to be united with Croatia following the prospective dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or become an independent state within Bosnia and Herzegovina with direct ties to Croatia”.

The verdict came in the trial of six former military commanders and political leaders of the so-called Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, the wartime Croat-led ‘territorial entity’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of the defendants, like Slobodan Praljak, also had senior positions in the Croatian Army’s ranks.

This was one of the longest and most complex trials at the ICTY, lasting for seven years until 2013, and has now gone to appeal.

The trial chamber found that “as early as December 1991, the leadership of the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna [the unrecognised entity’s original name] and Croatian leaders, including Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, deemed that in order to achieve... the establishment of a Croatian territorial entity... it was necessary to modify the ethnic composition of the territories claimed to be part of the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna”.

“Evidence has shown that troops of the Croatian Army fought alongside the HVO against the ABiH [Bosnian Army]”, the verdict said.

It added that “the Republic of Croatia had overall control over the armed forces and the civilian authorities of... Herzeg-Bosna”.

The authorities in Zagreb however never accepted that Croatia was involved in any kind of joint criminal enterprise, as the verdict alleged.

In October 2000, the Croatian parliament adopted a ‘Declaration on the Homeland War’, insisting that “Croatia led a just and legitimate, defensive and liberating, not aggressive and invasive war against anybody, defending its territory from Greater Serbian aggression within its internationally recognised borders”.

But several ICTY verdicts have assessed the Croat-Bosniak war as an ‘international conflict’, although they didn’t mention the word ‘aggression’.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic doesn’t accept however that the country was involved in a ‘joint criminal enterprise’.

“We respect the independence of the judiciary. All war crimes must be processed, no matter which nationality the perpetrators and victims are. But I want to be clear: the political formulations of some judicial bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which include the concept of a joint criminal enterprise regarding Croatia, are unacceptable,” Plenkovic said on November 3.

The problem for the Croatian authorities is that the ‘joint criminal enterprise’ charge hasn’t been included in all the indictments filed against Croats for war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which means they can’t claim that those that don’t contain it are politically-motivated.

It also appears that investigations in Bosnia cover a much longer period than just the Croat-Bosniak conflict, meaning that there could be more indictments that the Croatian authorities are not expecting, for alleged war crimes outside the Herceg-Bosna period.

It was generally believed in Zagreb that there would be no more indictments from Bosnia and Herzegovina after Croatia entered the EU, but it now seems that conviction could have been wrong.

After the Washington agreement was signed in 1994 and ended the Croat-Bosniak conflict, Croatia returned to its alliance with the Bosniaks, and together they took two western parts of Bosnia from the Serbs in September and October 1995.

These military operations were legitimised by an agreement signed by Croatian and Bosnian leaders Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic in July 1995 in the Croatian city of Split.

But the Serb authorities in Republika Srpska filed criminal charges in 1996 against several Croatian and Bosniak generals for alleged war crimes perpetrated in the town of Mrkonjic grad during this military action.

Bosnian Serb officials claim that Croatian forces killed more than 100 Serb civilians after seizing Mrkonjic grad in revenge for the death of one of their commanders.

Current Croatian Defence Minister Damir Krsticevic led one of the brigades during that operation and is allegedly suspected of responsibility for those killings.

Krsticevic cancelled an official trip to Bosnia on November 7, after rumours in the press that prosecutors in the country had filed an indictment against him – although he insisted he was proud of the role he had played.

“We brought peace with those [military] operations. For me, everything else is an attempt by the [Serb] forces who didn’t want Bosnia and Herzegovina to exist to turn their defeats into victories,” he commented.

Prime Minister Plenkovic insisted meanwhile and that the Croatian Army was simply “involved in the liberation of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Greater Serbian aggression” and that the operations were legal.

“All we did was founded on an agreement between presidents Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic. We have no dilemma about our strategic contribution,” Plenkovic said on November 11.

Despite this, however, the Orasje arrests highlight how allegations that Croatia was connected to war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina will not go away as easily as the authorities in Zagreb might have hoped.

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