Balkan Express
by Nebojsa Malic

February 15, 2001

The Croatian Conundrum

So 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.

Croatia 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.

After 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.


In Split, a major port on Croatia’s extensive Dalmatian coast, over 100,000 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 plains.

Though 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.

It 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.


The 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.

In 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 found.

Shortly 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.

Mirko 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 1998.

Susak’s 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.

Another 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.


The 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 victory.

Mesic 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 revenue.

The 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.

As 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 ploy.


If the new Croatian government really thought the Serbs were victimized by its predecessor, it would not continue to arrest Serb exiles who return to claim their property in Croatia. The rate of return for Serbs expelled by Croatian Army’s massive attack in the August 1995 is still insignificant, despite the government’s claim it awards the returnees every legal right and protection on the books. In practice, Serb properties have been taken over by Croatian war veterans and Croat refugees from Bosnia.

Fact is, even though the new government is abolishing the outward excesses of Tudjman’s regime – such as the renaming of one of the main squares and the soccer team in the capital, Zagreb – it retains much of its nationalist rhetoric and symbolism. Most notable are the state flag, coat of arms and currency, all used during the brief existence of the fascist "Independent State of Croatia" (1941-45) and its genocide against the Serbs. Neither Mesic nor Racan seem in any sense bothered by their country’s ethnic purity – in addition to international recognition and financial ruin, probably the most notable legacy of Tudjman’s regime.

Ironically, there are still some Serbs left in one enclave in Croatia – which was surrendered by Slobodan Milosevic’s signature in Dayton in 1995. Last month, the moratorium on their conscription into the Croatian Army expired. The remnants of Croatia’s once sizable Serb population will now be forced to bear arms under the checkerboard flag of their cleansers – the notion many of them fought and died to oppose, first sixty, then ten years ago.

Chauvinist passions still run high in the HDZ and the veterans’ organizations, of course. Just this Sunday, HDZ’s post-Tudjman leader Ivo Sanader defended General Norac by saying his atrocities were justified by his struggle against the "Serbian aggression." Last June, a veterans association erected a monument in a formerly Serb town to a notorious fascist commander Jure Francetic. And two weeks ago, an explosion damaged the monument to antifascist veterans of World War Two at the national cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital…


Though the Racan-Mesic government is indeed liberal and democratic alternative compared to the HDZ, it is highly unlikely that the current confrontation over the fate of General Norac is really based on a fundamental disagreement about Tudjman’s legacy and Croatia’s treatment of Serbs. There is far more credence to speculations that the Norac case is being exploited by the HDZ to lash out at the government, while the government is using the war crimes issue to purge the ranks of the military of HDZ supporters (and coincidentally, prominent war veterans). Events point to this conclusion as well.

Barricades were lifted Monday afternoon, after the organizers announced they would hold a protest rally in Zagreb on Thursday. As Prime Minister Racan would be back from his visit to Poland on Wednesday, it seems that the goal of the protesters is indeed to challenge the government, using the prosecution of Mirko Norac – and through him, all the "war heroes" – as a powerful pretext.

The government, for its part, has responded by accusing the HDZ of "trying to stage a coup," and calling on the citizens’ sense of patriotism. Racan shows no sign he is ready to compromise on the issue. He cannot; giving in might jeopardize his political capital as well as disrupt the badly needed investments. The HDZ, however, is showing that it is far from dead, and signaling that thirteen months after Tudjman’s death, the new government’s honeymoon is definitely over.


This digression into Croatian politics is worthwhile because of the praise that NATO and the US had directed at the Croatian government for its "war crimes" probe and willingness to cooperate with the ICTY, which was subsequently thrown in the face of the new Yugoslav regime. Croatia’s "cooperation" may not be such a good example for ICTY prosecutors any more, and HDZ’s demands to protect the Croatian officers from foreign courts – though motivated by self-interest rather than belief in principles of sovereignty – may further discredit ICTY’s stature among the Balkans combatants. Given that court’s dubious legitimacy and procedures, that is not such a bad thing.

Justice for the victims of 1990s Balkans wars is the last thing on the minds of most people who claim to advocate it anyway, and it will be a long, long time before we see any. Until then, it will remain just another issue to be manipulated and abused for political purposes.

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