It’s not that the Croats didn’t expect the ICTY to convict Generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. They knew very well that operation Storm in 1995 was a violent military operation, in which Serbian civilians weren’t spared. Justly so, according to most of them, because a couple of years earlier the Serbs had expelled most Croats from the Krajina region.
By David Jan Godfroid, Zagreb
So, many Croatians silently reckoned on some kind of conviction.
And still there was an outburst of anger in cities, towns and villages in Croatia after judge Alphons Orie finished reading the verdict. Twenty four years in prison for Gotovina, a former French Legionnaire, eighteen years for Markac.
The outrage was not so much caused by the conviction itself. It found its roots in what the generals were sentenced for: participation in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Croatia.
For many Croatians, the court’s decision placed their war heroes in the same category as the ultimate enemy, men like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Four years before Operation Storm, the Republic of Krajina, founded by the Serbian minority, which feared for its future in Croatia, was on its way to secession from Yugoslavia. President Tudjman, like all Croats, of course didn’t want an independent statelet on his territory. But the military situation was such that he could do nothing against it. But gradually Croatia gained strength, as the Serbs of Krajina weakened because of internal struggles and a lack of support from the man they relied on: Slobodan Milosevic. It was on 31 July 1995, that Tudjman met with his military commanders on the Adriatic island of Brioni to decide how to get rid of Krajina. Ante Gotovina was there too.
According to the ICTY not only military targets were discussed on Brioni. It was also decided that there was no place anymore for Serbs in Croatia. What followed was operation Storm, in which the ramshackle army of the Krajina was easily defeated. The Croats could have been satisfied with their victory. But instead they decided to heavily shell civilian targets, to kill Serb civilians, to loot and to destroy Serbian property, says the court. And that was the joint criminal enterprise.
Croatian prime minister Jadranka Kosor was among the first to react to the judgement, calling it “unacceptable”. She said the generals had been convicted as ethnic cleansers and offered to assist their appeal. Many others expressed their support for the Great Fatherland War.
Reporters from the public broadcaster HRT did not hide their anger nor their sadness interviewing people in Zagreb, Rijeka or Pakostani, where they had prepared a glorious welcome for Gotovina, in vain. The day after the verdict, a week before Good Friday, one popular newspaper in Croatia published a front page image of a pierced Croatia on a cross. “They convicted Croatia”, read the headline. The Dalmatian city of Split decided to rename its central square as Ante Gotovina Square.
It’s striking to hear the Croats say now that the ICTY is anti-Croat and that the west has a grudge against Croatia, echoing the Serbs, who for many years have claimed it is anti-Serb. Once one of their own is convicted, the peoples of the Balkans don’t regard the court as a UN institution anymore, but merely a western dominated, biased bunch of kangaroo judges.
The ICTY prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, tried to ease the tension by stating that the verdict doesn’t mean the court convicted Croatia for fighting a defensive war. It didn’t help very much.
Remarkably, the discussion in Croatia also goes another direction. It’s not about the fact that president Tudjman and his generals decided on a campaign of ethnic cleansing on Brioni. It’s about who delivered the documents that prove that to the ICTY. The one responsible is considered as the ultimate traitor of the Croatian cause. Up to today, no one has owned up to say, “I did it”.
Still, cooperation with the ICTY is a legal obligation for Croatia. This is simply a matter of the government handing over documents. Judge Orie, however, complained that a lot of pressure was required to get them and that not all documents ended up on his desk. But the European Union demands full cooperation. As Croatia hopes to join the EU this year, so it’s not yet clear if the ICTY judgment will jeopardize this.