The conciliatory messages by Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general recently acquitted by the Hague Tribunal, have disappointed Croatian far right.
“I don't recognize the Hague Tribunal,” were the last public words from Ante Gotovina before he ran away, escaping from the ICTY indictment in the summer of 2001.
For almost five years, nobody knew where he was. But Croatia’s anti-European right knew how to benefit from Gotovina as their political symbol.
The war commander turned into a sort of Croatian Rambo, a Che Guevara of the right. In the meantime, Gotovina’s escape blocked Croatia’s EU path for five years.
After it became clear that Croatia could not start EU negotiations without Gotovina in The Hague, he was arrested in the Spanish Canaries in December 2005.
Then, an unexpected change started to happen: from the start, the indictee obviously honoured the Hague Tribunal.
Not once did he show it disrespect. Moreover, he made gestures that angered his rightist would-be mentors in Croatia.
When Slobodan Milosevic died in Hague prison in 2006, Gotovina expressed condolences to his family.
In January, when Croats voted in an EU referendum, Gotovina publicly opted for a “Yes” vote.
By then he was convicted war criminal. In April 2011, the ICTY sentenced him and Mladen Markac to 24 and 18 years respectively for participating in a Joint Criminal Enterprise to expel Croatian Serbs from the Krajina during the 1995 operation “Storm”.
Then, on November 16, Gotovina came home a free man.
In a few hours, everything was ready for a spectacular revival of anti-European sentiment in Croatia: tens of thousands gathered on the main square in Zagreb, shouting: “Waiting for your command, general.”
But the command didn’t come. On the contrary. “The war is behind us, let's turn to the future,” the ex-commander said.
“I thank Croatia’s institutions,” he added. The crowd whistled and booed.
But in the following days, he continued in the same tone. His first interview, to the Serbian tabloid, Kurir, called on Croatian Serbs to come home. “Croatia is no more my home than theirs,” he said.
The surprise was so strong that many in Croatia believed the interview was invented, until Kurir published it in audio form.
In his native village of Pakostane, a bastion of right-wing sentiment for years, Gotovina spoke of the famous inventor Nikola Tesla as his ideal, repeating his conciliatory message.
“This is too much, even coming from Ante,” Zvonimir Trusic, a rightist activist and wartime comrade of the infamous Tomislav Mercep, complained angrily in the newspapers.
“The nation asks whether this is our Gotovina?,” cried Hrvatski list, a rightist weekly from the coastal town of Zadar, where Gotovina was a wartime commander.
“I can't be wrong because I'm honest,” Gotovina replied, as the hopes that the Croatian extreme right had invested in him vanished like morning dew.
Apart from his personal and symbolical destiny, important questions remain unanswered about what really happened in Operation “Storm”.
Dialogue about that is needed more than ever, especially because the Gotovina-Markac acquittal prompted opposing reactions in Croatia and Serbia.
For a start, a will to understand the other side’s convictions could be useful for warming mutual confidence.
Yes, war crimes were committed during and after Storm - at least 49, the ICTY proved, and up to 600 civilians were killed, so the Croatian Helsinki committee has counted. Nobody has been convicted for these war crimes.
And, yes, at least 200,000 Serbs left the territory, less than half of whom returned over the last 17 years.
And, yes, the Croatian government and institutions prevented their return.
Yes, even today, the obstacles to their return are hard to eliminate.
It’s not very pleasant to be Serb in Croatia - and harder words could be used here.
But, if you ask Croats, it’s not fair to mention only that side of the coin, they say.
That feeling, that Storm couldn't be understood without mentioning what happened before, could be seen as one of the main reasons for such massive, loud celebrations after Gotovina and Markac were released.
The main feeling about the war in Croatia is that it was just and justified.
Croats feel they had a right to liberate the third of their country they couldn’t access for four years.
If “liberate” means “to get rid of the Serbs”, that's more complicated, one must admit.
When President Franjo Tudjman reacted to the Serb exodus in 1995 by saying to the Serbs, “Farewell”, Croats didn't oppose it.
Had Tudjman acted, say, like Vaclav Havel, “ordinary people” would have accepted that the same way.
Unfortunately, he didn’t. And he knew Croatians wouldn't oppose him. Because, bloodshed had taken place from 1991 to 1995 for no reasonable cause.
In October 1991, the first massive expulsion on non-Serbs happened in Croatia: all non-Serbs from little town of Ilok, on Croatian side of the Danube, were expelled in a long sad column.
Nobody was killed - yet.
But over the coming months, according to Croatian government data, about half a million non-Serbs, ethnic Croats mostly, were forced from their homes in Croatia.
The Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, participated in this. The ICTY verdict against Milan Martic, the former leader of self-styled Republika Srpska Krajina, noted that the attack on the village of Kijevo on August 26, 1991, led by Ratko Mladic, marked the JNA’s transformation into an openly Serbian army.
Which means that, from August 1991, the JNA waged war in the former Yugoslavia as a Serbian army, with Mladic as a connecting figure.
Towns were destroyed. People lost lives and homes. Main transport routes were cut. The country was paralysed. It is estimated that 15,000 people were killed on the Croatian side.
It was obvious that Croatia couldn't survive if that situation remained as it was.
Political negotiations brought no results. The international community proposed the so-called Z-4 plan, a kind of pretext for Dayton Peace Accords. Tudjman formally accepted, but Martic refused even to read it.
The right to defence was the word of the day.
That's roughly what most Croatians think about Operation Storm. Yes, crimes were committed, but they were the malicious fruit of four years of occupation, which they had the right to end, and they did.
Martic and Milan Babic were convicted as war criminals at the ICTY after all - enough to understand what kind of “state” the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Krajina was.
So, in the end: crimes on both sides? Yes. Neighbours, regardless? Yes. Peace and dialogue? Hopefully, yes. Quarrels and war? Hopefully, no.
Dialogue is the only way forward, and the more banal it sounds, the more needed it is. Ante Gotovina has not impeded it - enough for a start.