In spite of his conviction by the ICTY, the Croatian general behind Operation Storm retains hero status in the eyes of most Croatians
It was a few months ago, on a grey day dominated by the freezing Bora wind that I saw Croatia with its holiday make-up removed. The bus route down the Dalmatian coast never deviates far from the shoreline that is so loved by the yacht and sailing crowd. But it already felt like a different world.
Bushy scrubland stretched out for endless acres towards the slopes of the barren Dinaric mountain range, interspersed only by piles of rubble and the odd plastic bag, caught like unfortunate flies in the intricate webs of the thorn bushes. By the side of the road, black-clad women shielded their faces from the fierce gusts with plump forearms, and the local bus stops filled with frowning youths.
I was most struck by the ubiquitous round face of former Croat General Ante Gotovina, peering down at regular intervals from billboards. He looked haughty in his military garb, and the caption under the billboard read "HEROJ". It left no room for ambiguity, even to a foreigner. But this was a poster of a man who was then a suspected war criminal and, as of today, is a convicted one.
Gotovina was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for ordering the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs in south-west Croatia during the war of the 1990s. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison. His fellow general Mladen Markac was also convicted and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment, while a third, Ivan Cermak, who was the Knin garrison commander at the time, was acquitted and released. Yet for many people in Croatia, all three are still considered to be "liberators." Gotovina, who planned and led the successful Operation Storm to retake land in record time, is considered the biggest hero of all.
At the end of the bus ride in Zadar, I found black T-shirts depicting Gotovina’s face in the town’s outdoor market, which nestles in the traffic-free streets behind the Roman remains and red-roofed churches. Again, Gotovina was shown in military uniform, his lips proudly pursed together and military visor pulled down over his eyes, rendering them impenetrable. The shirts in the market are said to make brisk sales. Zadar was besieged by Serbian rockets for three months in 1991, and the embittering experience means many Croats haven’t forgotten their gratitude towards the Croatian military leaders they thank for fighting their enemies back.
Operation Storm, which lasted just 80 hours and has been documented as the largest European land offensive since World War II, is seen by many Croatians as a legitimate action of self-defense. Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor has called it a vital battle in "a just and liberating war." The operation’s climax is still celebrated in Croatia on the 5th of August as Victory Day, but now two of the masterminds behind that victory are in jail.
Why? Because the operation involved the torching of Serbian homes and the murder of hundreds of Serbs, many of them elderly. Thousands of ethnic Serbs were expelled, while tens of thousands more civilians fled from the shelling. The Croats see them as invaders who had arrived with Serb advances, but many were families who had been there for generations.
Gotovina was indicted for war crimes in 2001, but although several EU members had made his arrest a precondition for accession talks with Croatia, he was only arrested four years later in Tenerife. It is thought he was able to remain at large so long because of his contacts within the Croatian government.
Sympathy for the former general remains strong. On a central square in Zagreb today, about a thousand people gathered to watch the verdict being read out live on specially mounted big screens. Many waved the blue, white and red Croatian flag and others carried pictures of Gotovina as well as his fellow accused. There were similar scenes reported in towns down the Adriatic coast.
When the verdict was read out, the crowds reacted with anger and disappointment. "People here say this was a verdict against the Croat nation," Zagreb-based journalist Mark Lowen told Austrian radio station FM4. "They say the 1995 war of independence was a just liberation struggle." Three days ago, Prime Minister Kosor said she was confident the court would acquit all three former soldiers.
But the Dutch judge at The Hague, Alphons Orie, ruled that "the Croatian military committed acts of murder, cruel treatment, inhumane acts, plunder, persecution and deportation." After the verdict, Kosor told the crowd in Zagreb, "We are not afraid. We are proud of our victory." Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said he was shocked by the court’s ruling. The Catholic Church in Croatia was also dismayed. Several bishops recently slammed the ICTY as a political court that couldn’t tell the difference between victims and aggressors.
This reaction is not a surprise to observers of Croatia, which is on course for EU membership by 2014, but it is nonetheless a disappointment to internationalists. A coalition of NGOs including Transparency International Croatia warn that for "some crucial benchmarks" – including the critical Chapter 23 of the accession Charter on the "judiciary and fundamental rights" – there was "a lack of evidence of a sincere political will" on the part of the Croatian government.
These and other critics inside and outside of the country say it is now time for the country to move on. They say Croatia should join other countries in the region in admitting that atrocities and war crimes were committed on all sides during the devastating wars of the 1990s and that Croats should be looking forward to a future of European cooperation, not backwards to nationalist bickering.