far, that attention of this column has been directed largely
at the Balkans heartland – the current Yugoslavia – as that
particular area witnessed most of the important and newsworthy
developments. Given the nature of such developments, maybe
the rest of the peninsula is fortunate to have been excluded
from the focus of Balkan Express.
used to be in the limelight of world opinion at the beginning
of the 1990s. After its violent secession from Yugoslavia,
a ferocious war introduced the elements of Balkan drama that
would be repeated and recycled over the next decade. It was
the Croatian War of Secession (or The Homeland War, as Croatians
call it) that spawned the term "ethnic cleansing,"
saw the first mention of "Greater Serbian aggressors,"
provoked the UN arms embargo against former Yugoslavia and
caused the war in Bosnia. The most notorious Balkans warriors
of the late 20th century started their careers
in Croatia, from Ratko Mladic and Arkan to Muslim general-turned-politician
Atif Dudakovic and the KLA military commander Agim Ceku.
a cease-fire was brokered by the UN in 1992, Croatia retreated
into relative anonymity, to be brought back twice more: in
1995, when its US-trained army swooped on the Serb enclaves
and wiped them out, then proceeded into Bosnia and to the
Dayton negotiating table; and in late 1999, when its leader
and "Father of the Nation," Franjo Tudjman, died
of cancer. Now, thirteen months after Tudjman’s demise, Croatia
has again won a place in Balkans news reports – this time
because of Tudjman’s unresolved legacy.
Split, a major port on Croatia’s extensive Dalmatian coast,
people gathered and cheered as war veterans and opposition
politicians blasted the government and protested the arrest
warrants for several high-ranking Croatian officers – including
General Mirko Norac, who refused to turn himself in and became
a fugitive. Roads throughout Croatia were blocked by angry
protesters, on the coast as well as inland and in the northern
the rallies were organized by an organization pledging to
"preserve the dignity" of war veterans, they were
also supported by the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) – which
had suffered a humiliating defeat to a six-party opposition
coalition after the death of its founder, President Tudjman.
was in Split that Tudjman and the HDZ started their march
to power in 1990, signaling their determination to secede
from Yugoslavia by burning the country’s flag during a major
soccer game. In the war that followed Tudjman’s election,
Mirko Norac – the current martyr of the protesters – became
a war hero.
Croatian Army was little more than militia in 1991, when it
fought the Serb militias and the collapsing Yugoslav Army
with changing success. Norac, who commanded the 9th
Guards Brigade, took control of the town of Gospic in
the area known as Lika, which had a sizable Serb population.
By the beginning of 1992, that population was largely gone
– killed, expelled, or fled elsewhere. Gospic remained in
Croatian hands throughout the war.
the summer of 2000, a Croat from Gospic named Mirko Norac
was the officer who not only ordered the execution
of some 40 Serb civilians in 1991, but also took part
in it. The witness, Milan Levar, was never given any protection
by the "Hague Tribunal," and the Tribunal gave conflicting
statements on Levar’s status and the status of his allegations.
In August 2000, Levar was blown
up in his car shop in Gospic. The perpetrators were never
thereafter, a group of eleven
generals publicly denounced the government’s war crimes
probes. One of them was the 33-year-old Norac. Croatia’s President,
Stipe Mesic, forced the generals into early retirement in
September. There was already talk of a possible indictment
against Norac and several other officers.
Norac was not an ordinary officer, though. He was a protégé
of Tudjman’s former Defense Minister, Gojko Susak, one of
the most powerful men in Croatia. Susak, a political émigré
and devout Croatian nationalist, helped Tudjman come to power
in 1990 and dominated Croatia’s military until his death in
patronage explains why Norac was selected to command
the Croatian Army’s first real offensive – the infamous "Medak
pocket" operation in 1993, during which multiple
Serb villages were destroyed, and Canada’s UN peacekeepers
actually came to blows with the Croatian Army. Interestingly
enough, under the chain of command the officer technically
in charge of the Medak operation was Rahmi Ademi, (a Kosovo
Albanian). After the operation, during which Norac was injured
in a minefield, there was tremendous pressure on the Croatian
government to punish the officers responsible. General Ademi
and the local militia Captain, Mile Kosovic, took the fall
and were discharged from the Army. Because of his wounds and
his political connections, Norac became a war hero.
detail highlights the friends in high places General Norac
had during the former regime. Though the HDZ lost power in
Croatia, it is still the ultimate authority in the Croat sector
of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Norac is suspected to be hiding.
current Croatian government is chaired by Prime Minister Ivica
Racan (who made a comeback after a crushing defeat by the
HDZ in 1990). Its other pillar is President Mesic, who used
to be Tudjman’s right hand. As Tudjman’s hatchet man, Mesic
was appointed to Yugoslavia’s collective Presidency, and after
the intervention of European and US diplomats, declared President,
though he had vowed to be the "last
president of Yugoslavia." Shortly after his appointment,
he lived up to that promise. Having fallen out with Tudjman
over Croatia’s strategy in Bosnia, Mesic presented himself
as a new liberal in the 2000 elections, and pulled off a surprise
and Racan have since tried to present their Croatia as something
new and more tolerant than Tudjman’s party-state, which was
heavy on symbolism from the Nazi
past, anti-Serb and anti-Semitic rhetoric and deeds. Tudjman’s
party-state also concentrated most of the country’s resources
in the hands of party officials. After replacing them, the
new regime found an empty treasury and a catastrophic economic
situation. As glad as the Croatians were that the Serbs were
bombed in 1999, NATO’s glorious little war also meant a dead
season for their tourist industry – a major source of state
new government was elected based on their economic promises.
With the unemployment rate at shocking 22% and businesses
foundering, Mesic and Racan are in desperate need of cash.
Interestingly enough, their prosecution of "war criminals"
coincided with the increased level of international aid and
potential foreign investment opportunities. Recent financial
news spoke of possible foreign buyouts of major Croatian banks,
power industry and telecommunications.
recent events have graphically demonstrated, many officers
the new government has purged from the ranks or even indicted
are close to the HDZ and the former regime. Since HDZ controlled
most aspects of society, and relied heavily on the military,
it seems only logical that the new government would try to
eliminate this potential threat through purges. Presenting
them as prosecution of war crimes may only be a public relations