Balkans: Croats come face to face with their history
20 April 2011
The conviction of former General Gotovina for war crimes on April 15 has been received very badly by a people who consider him a hero of the wars in former Yugoslavia. But this verdict is also a chance to think about what happened, a Croatian columnist writes.
The bad news from the Hague Tribunal (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) caught the Croatian government off guard, hunkered down behind its walls, protected by the police and apparently stunned by the verdict. The generals Ante Gotovina and Markac Mladec were sentenced to 25 and 18 years in prison, respectively, for crimes committed during Operation Oluja (Storm) of 1995. The operation allowed the Croatian forces to regain control of Krajina (in the south of the country). According to the ICTY, 324 Serbs were killed and 90,000 others were forced to flee.
From a legal and political point of view, the verdict will provoke conflicting interpretations, but the epilogue will have to be written only after the appeal that the generals’ defence lawyers have decided to launch. By then, three things should be clearer to a Croatian public left white-hot by a conviction it considers unfair and humiliating.
First, the ICTY has not in any way questioned the legitimacy of the war against the Serbian occupation and Operation Storm, which led to the liberation of one third of Croatia’s territory. The Tribunal has thus demolished the arguments of those who maintained that The Hague was the scene of an anti-Croatian conspiracy that challenged the people's legitimate right to defend itself.
Crimes committed against Serbian citizens
Second, the ICTY has in no way questioned the creation of the independent state of Croatia in the early 1990s, which coincided with the armed aggression of the forces of Slobodan Milosevic and the rebellion of part of the [minority Serbian population]. In no way has the Tribunal even implicitly suggested that the Croatian state was founded on the crime.
Third, the generals have not been convicted because, as commanders-in-chief, they led this assault. They were sentenced for having shut their eyes to crimes committed against Serbian citizens, for failing to prevent these crimes and for not removing from their ranks those who were tempted to burn houses, murder old people and loot their property. If the generals had indeed accepted this indispensable part of the responsibility of every commander in war, they would not have been convicted – or even tried.
These three details are very important: for principles of fairness, for respect for our national history, and for the emotions and self-esteem of citizens of Croatia. They are also important in ending the manipulative notion that any conviction of a Croatian war criminal is automatically considered an act against Croatia.