comment 19 Nov 12

Generals’ Release Poses Dilemma for Croatian Courts

Once the euphoria surrounding the Gotovina-Markac verdicts fades, the justice system will still have to address the question of war crimes committed in 1995.

By Drago Hedl

Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, the two generals that the Hague Tribunal acquitted of charges of war crimes in Operation “Oluja” [“Storm”] in 1995, have now officially become what the majority of Croatian citizens claimed they were anyway: heroes, not criminals.

News of the release of two generals created euphoria all across Croatia, primarily because of their release, but also because of the explanation of the verdict.

The fact that the court explained in the verdict that there was no joint criminal enterprise, that there was no planned expulsion of the Serbian population, or excessive shelling of Knin, additionally heightened that euphoria.

Tens of thousands of delighted people gathered on the main square in Zagreb, as in other cities, and the Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic, sent two ministers, of defence and veterans, on a government plane to The Hague to bring the two generals home.

Such euphoria is unprecedented in Croatia, and could only measure up to such a hypothetical event as Croatia winning the World Cup.

But when the euphoria settles down, Croatia faces a new problem. Now that Gotovina and Markac are found not guilty, the Croatian judiciary will have to answer a part of the question that the Hague Tribunal raised in the explanation of the acquittal: the victims of Oluja existed, and were not that few.
The President, Ivo Josipovic, said so himself, noting that the Croatian state has the responsibility to take care of all the victims of war, but also punish each and every crime. “The Croatian state is not responsible for crimes committed by individuals, but it is responsible  for punishing each perpetrator, regardless of who that may be,” Josipovic said.

Prime Minister Milanovic said something similar, talking of what Croatia faced now. “They [Gotovina and Markac] are obviously innocent, but that does not mean that the war was not bloody and that no mistakes were made,” he said.

“When it comes to what it did wrong, Croatia will settle its debts,” he promised. The non-government organisation, Documenta, said immediately after the verdict: “The crimes committed during and after Oluja must not remain a tragedy without an epilogue.”

However, will Croatian politics – despite the announcements from highest positions – have the will do this, and the Croatian judiciary the strength? The lack of political will and the lack of readiness by the Croatian judiciary to deal with war crimes, according to many, brought Gotovina to The Hague in the first place.

When, in the late 1990s, Hague investigators wanted to interrogate Gotovina, the highest officials in the state did not allow him to answer them. The then president, Franjo Tudjman, probably fearing he could be charged by the Hague court himself, did not allow him to contact the investigators. Had they acted differently and allowed Gotovina to reveal what he knew, he might not have been indicted in the first place.

Thus the return of the generals to Croatia will have interesting political implications both in domestic and foreign policy. When it comes to internal affairs, everyone will try to extract the maximum political benefit from it. It is certainly a prize that Prime Minister Milanovic did not hope for.

In the dramatic economic circumstances the country found itself in the last thing he needed was possible unrest, had the outcome in The Hague been different. For his Social Democratic Party and the centre-left coalition he heads, the release of generals is a great plus. He himself admitted that hearing the verdict, he felt a great sense of relief.

The main opposition Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, however, will find it hard to profit from the acquittal. It is the party that was in power at a time when Gotovina – with help from the Croatian secret services – was arrested in the Canary Islands in early December 2005 and transferred to The Hague.

The current president of the HDZ, Tomislav Karamarko, at the time was head of those secret services. One of the founders of the party and the man who held the highest party and state positions for 20 years, Vladimir Seks, authored the slogan “Locate, identify, capture, transfer”, which heralded Gotovina’s arrest and transfer to the Hague over five years ago. That is why the HDZ will not profit at all from General Gotovina’s release.

High hopes of profiting politically from the verdict were cherished by the ultra-right: days before the verdict they saw their chance: to radicalise the public if the verdict was a conviction, or put Gotovina forward as their icon if he and Markac were released. But since the right, without support from the HDZ, can do little by itself, it won’t gain much political advantage from generals being at liberty.

While still in the Hague’s custody, General Gotovina on several occasions, via his lawyers, asked that his name not be used for political purposes, especially not those mentioned when protests and possible unrest were being announced. He was consistent in that request. It is likely, now he is free, that he won’t become active politically but will merely enjoy his status as a national hero, which is no longer hindered by anything since the Hague acquittal.

When it comes to relations in the region, the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac (and earlier, Cermak), judging by the fierce reactions from Belgrade, could slow the establishment of better political relations for some time.

Since the departure of Boris Tadic as President of Serbia they were already on a downward path. We should hope that it is a temporary trend, because Belgrade, too, knows that the decision to acquit the Croatian generals was not made in Zagreb, but in The Hague.

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