Croatian Generals Sentenced at The Hague

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Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Zagreb and other Croatian cities over the past week to protest the conviction of two Croatian generals by the UN war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. The ICTY sentenced Ante Gotovina to 24 years in jail and Mladen Markač to 18 years for their role in the August 1995 Operation Storm, which resulted in the exodus of up to a quarter of a million Krajina Serbs. The tribunal found that the generals were part of an elaborate conspiracy headed by Croatia’s then president, Franjo Tudjman.

It would have been preferable for the Croatian domestic courts to deal with the legacy of the Storm. The reaction to the verdict indicates that a trial of men so widely considered national heroes was literally unimaginable, however, which is unfortunate. (The Croatian Army chief chaplain, Bishop Juraj Jezerinac, compared the predicament of Gotovina and Markač to the suffering of Jesus Christ.) The Tribunal’s proponents will use the reaction in Croatia as evidence that the ICTY remains relevant and necessary. Additionally problematic is the Tribunal’s use of the concept of Joint Criminal Enterprise—thus far used only against the Serbs—which is a blunt legal tool with Kafkaesque implications.

The political objectives of the Croatian state leadership in launching the attack are evident from a transcript of Tudjman’s meeting with his top military commanders and civilian aides at the Adriatic island of Brioni on July 31, 1995, five days before the attack. “We have to inflict such blows,” Tudjman announced, “that the Serbs will to all practical purposes disappear.” “It is important that those [Serbian] civilians set out, and then the army will follow them, and when the columns set out they will have a psychological impact on each other,” Tudjman went on. “This means giving them a way out, while pretending to guarantee their civil rights etcetera.”

The verdict at The Hague is a potential embarrassment for Bill Clinton’s national security team, including a number of “Balkan experts” who remain influential in his wife’s State Department.  According to a prominent Croatian investigative journalist, the late Ivo Pukanic, the United States was actively involved in the preparation, monitoring and initiation of Operation Storm: the green light from President Clinton was passed on by the US military attaché in Zagreb and the operations were transmitted in real time to the Pentagon:

The US was thrilled with the how fast and clean the operation was conducted, and with its outcome, which permitted the lightning fast entry of HV [the Croatian Army] into Bosnia-Herzegovina and … Belgrade’s consent to sign the Dayton Accords. [This] was later confirmed in the statements that the operation was carried out properly, and tthe US-Croatian cooperation in intelligence and military matters intensified. General Patrick Hughes, Clapper’s successor as director of DIA, visited Croatia, intensified cooperation in the sector of electronic monitoring of Serbia and Montenegro, other intelligence was swapped, MPRI began its intensive training of the Croatian military…

As Croatian troops launched their assault on August 4, U.S. aircraft operating under NATO command destroyed Serbian radar and anti-aircraft defenses. Croatian planes then carried out attacks on Serbian towns and positions and strafed refugee columns. Thousands of Serbs lost their lives during the exodus; hundreds of those too old or infirm to move were killed by the Croatian forces. It was the biggest act of ethnic cleansing in post-1945 Europe.

Most of the refugees ended up in Serbia and the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska). Massacres continued for several weeks after the fall of Krajina. UN patrols discovered numerous fresh unmarked graves and bodies of murdered civilians well after the ‘Storm’ was over. A suppressed EU report stated, “The corpses, some fresh, some decomposed, are mainly of old men. Many have been shot in the back of the head or had throats slit, others have been mutilated… Serb lands continue to be torched and looted.” Following a visit to the region the Zagreb Helsinki Committee reported that virtually all Serb villages had been destroyed: “In a village near Knin, eleven bodies were found, some of them were massacred in such a way that it was not easy to see whether the body was male or female.”

As the reaction to Gotovina’s and Markač’s sentences indicate, the war in remains controversial, many years after its end in 1995. To the Croats, it was a war of Serbian aggression and Croatian Defence of the Motherland, plain and simple. To the Serbs the war was a reaction to what they perceived as intolerable provocation, an existential response to the revamping of Ustašism in rhetoric, symbols, and substance. They were reacting to Tudjman’s escalating political ploys in Zagreb and his minions’ terrorist acts on the ground. The establishment of autonomous regions, and the subsequent proclamation of the Republic of the Serbian Krajina, was seen as an act of rebellion by most Croats and as necessary response by most Serbs.

Tudjman’s strategic objective behind Operation Storm was a Serb-free Croatia. That much is no longer in doubt. While circumstantial evidence had always been there, the Brioni transcript of July 31, 1995, provides the smoking gun. A week later, at a rally in Knin, Tudjman announced, “There can be no return to the past, to the times when [Serbs] were spreading cancer in the heart of Croatia, a cancer that was destroying the Croatian national being.” He then went on to speak of the “disappearance” of the Krajina Serbs, “so it is as if they have never lived here!”

Former U.S. Ambassador in Zagreb Peter Galbraith, testifying at The Hague, dismissed claims that Croatia had engaged in ethnic cleansing, “because most of the population had already fled when the Croatian army and police arrived.” But Galbraith was being disingenuous: Tudjman’s objectives had included ethnic cleansing all along. His objectives were stated with perfect clarity at a meeting with his closest aides on 23 August 1995, in the aftermath of Operation Storm:

[M]ilitary force can be a most effective means for solving the internal needs of the state. Considering the situation we face with the liberation of occupied territories, the demographic situation, it is necessary for military command precisely to become one of the most efficient components of our state policies in solving the demographic situation of Croatia. […] We have the fortunate situation that the liberation demands a distribution of military units that would simultaneously solve the demographical [problem].”

Croatia still celebrates August 5 as Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day. Almost sixteen years later, as Gotovina and Markač prepare their appeals, it seems likely that they will spend many years in jail, but they were the operation’s executors rather than masterminds. The key political leaders—starting with Franjo Tudjman, who died in bed in 1999—are immune or out of reach. The Hague verdict notwithstanding, the crimes of 1995—not unlike the Ustaša horrors that had preceded them in 1941-45—remain unacknowledged and unatoned for.

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