Croatia one step from shedding war crimes as hot issue By Boris Raseta


dpa German Press Agency
Published: Sunday December 31, 2006

By Boris Raseta,
Zagreb- With one foot at the threshold of the European
Union (EU), Croatia is still struggling to pull the other one from
the quagmire of the "Homeland War," which ended 11 years ago.
Croats see the 1991-1995 conflict, which ended with the pounding
of insurgent Serbs, as a glorious fight for freedom. But they also
increasingly face up to the dark side of the war, including
corruption and even cold-blooded murder of innocent people.

Croatia has made an effort to progress further and faster in
dealing with its difficult past than its former foe, Serbia.
Incidentally or not, it is much closer to membership in EU and NATO.

The latest step on the way, though reluctant, was made with the
war crime indictment against Branimir Glavas, a high official in the
late "father of the nation" president Franjo Tudjman's regime.

Now a deputy, Glavas was the defence commander in the eastern city
of Osijek, which tottered on the verge of destruction by the Yugoslav
army, which was the fate of Vukovar just 40 kilometres away in 1991.

Under the murky shroud of war authority, Glavas allegedly ordered
the torture and execution of several Serb civilians. His power kept
prosecution at bay for a long time, until parliament finally stripped
him of his immunity, leading to his arrest in October.

He is the highest-ranking official of Tudjman's regime to stand a
war crimes trial. But he went on hunger strike in protest at his
detention and, 37 days later, the judge in the trial relented to
pressure, stopped the trial and ordered Glavas' provisional release.

While the declining Croatian far-right rejoiced, Croatian media
and most local media, which rarely agree, described the outcome as a
"collapse of the legal state." Now bringing Glavas back behind bars
and trying him is a test of the Croatian judiciary.

Sorting out atrocities - which were abundant on all sides and in
all combat zones in the former Yugoslavia - remains the tallest order
for the Croatian judiciary, even if numbers alone may indicate
otherwise.

"According to the state prosecution, 1,107 indictments were
raised," Igor Palija, a minority issues expert of the Zagreb-based
Serb Democratic Forum, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

However, "in 90 per cent of the cases, the defendants were Serbs
and in just one out of 10 they were Croatian soldiers," he said. Only
three officers were sentenced, though hundreds of Serb civilians were
executed and tens of thousands of Serb homes were torched or mined.

While courts liberally slapped 20-year prison sentences on many
Serb war crime suspects - often in absentia, secretly and often for
crimes much less vicious than those Glavas was charged for - Glavas
could not even be kept behind bars.

"The Glavas case shows just how hard it will be trying Croats for
crimes committed against the Serbs," Palija said. "It shows that
Croatia is still not a legally stable country in which anybody may
expect the same trial conditions, regardless of ethnicity."

The political side of the Glavas case could however cement Prime
Minister Ivo Sanader's drive to shift his Christian Democratic Union
HDZ from the Tudjman-era far-right to the current centre-right.

Though Tudjman's heir at the helm of HDZ, Sanader has spearheaded
changes sometimes called "de-Tudjmanization" - a drive which already
included a risky move against a popular soldier.

Facing a choice of EU or "patriotism" in late 2005, he
"sacrificed" general Ante Gotovina - considered a far greater war
hero than Glavas - by helping track him down in Spain, where he was
arrested and sent for trial at the UN tribunal in The Hague.

That not only unblocked Croatia's EU membership bid, but also
crucially proved that the "patriots" were not capable of toppling the
government, as some feared. In addition, latest surveys indicate that
HDZ is entering 2007 as easily the most popular party in Croatia.

The Glavas case is probably the last one of that magnitude in
terms of public attention in Croatia, as it is expected to turn to
issues of the future ahead of parliamentary elections in 2007, which
the nation hopes would be the last held outside the EU.

Zagreb has been pressing for an EU entry date by June 2009. The EU
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said this month that "the end of
the decade was (a) realistic" aim, while European Parliament
president Josep Borrel said that 2009 should remain the target date.

In any case, it is not war crimes, but problems like institutional
corruption which could hamper Croatia's EU accession bid, as the
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said on December 6.

Serbia's approach to EU meanwhile remains blocked since May over
its reluctance to arrest its own dubious hero, the Bosnian Serb
general Ratko Mladic.

© 2006 - dpa German Press Agency