Croatia’s Missing General

17 March 2005

Croatia’s Missing General

By Gwynne Dyer

The British, Dutch and German governments finally got so fed up with Croatia’s failure to deliver General Ante Gotovina to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague — “I’ve been travelling to Zagreb for four years getting promises on Gotovina and we’re still not there,” said Denis MacShane, Britain’s minister for Europe — that they decided to block Croatia’s bid for European Union membership. Croatia was due to start EU entry talks this month, together with Romania and Bulgaria, but it is now on hold until it can convince Brussels that it really is trying to find Gotovina.

The Croats are furious, and much of the Croatian media is insisting that it’s all a British plot to keep their country out of the EU. Exactly why Britain would have it in for Croatia remains unclear, but nationalists in smallish countries with turbulent histories often believe that people elsewhere stay up late at night plotting against them.

And just when you thought that it couldn’t get any stranger, here comes the ghost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, shambling out of the shadows to declare its solidarity with Catholic Croatia. Other EU members that also once belonged to that officially Catholic empire — Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia — still see the Balkans south of Croatia as a wilderness full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians who cannot be trusted, and don’t really care if Gotovina ever faces trial for cleansing Croatia of its Orthodox Serbs. So they have warned the EU that if Croatia doesn’t get in, neither does Turkey.

Asked directly if Austria was prepared to block the scheduled start of Turkey’s accession talks in October, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said: “I won’t answer on that. The topic is Croatia right now.” The threat was clear enough, but it probably won’t end in a crisis that splits the EU, because in the end Croats really do want to obey the law.

The Croats are very upset about their entry talks being suspended, but it’s not only the promise of prosperity that attracted them to the EU. Like most prospective new members in eastern and southern Europe, they have lived for many decades under arbitrary and lawless governments, and now they want to live in countries where human rights are protected and everybody must obey the law.

Croatia’s difficulty is that, unlike other EU candidates, it has recently been through a war. Much of Croatia was occupied by Serbian troops for over three years, and hundreds of thousands of Croats were driven from their homes in border areas that they had shared with the local Serbian minority for centuries. Emotions run high after something like that, and even sensible, law-abiding people can lose their balance.

General Ante Gotovina commanded the Croatian army in the 72-hour blitz that won the war with Serbia and recovered the lost territory in 1995. Some 150,000 Croatian Serbs fled or were driven from their homes, and some were massacred. Gotovina may or may not be a war criminal, but he had command responsibility during the operation, and there is certainly a case to answer.

The Hague tribunal has been seeking Gotovina’s arrest for years, but he is a war hero to most Croats, and no government until the present one was willing to him up for trial (though they pretended to be looking for him). Perhaps the current government, led by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, is willing to hand him over in principle, but in practice it has been unable to get its own intelligence and police apparatus to help in the search.

There is no doubt that large parts of the Croatian military, intelligence and police establishments have been actively trying to thwart the search for Gotovina, and so far the Croatian government has not felt strong enough to take them on in a direct confrontation. Many people in the EU have sympathy for the Croatian government’s plight, but nobody is willing to set a precedent by overlooking such open defiance of the rule of law, so Croatia will have to wait outside the door.

It may not be for a very long time. Carla del Ponte, the UN’s chief war crimes prosecutor, will report again to the Security Council in June, and if she says that Zagreb is now really trying to find the missing general (who is not believed to be hiding in Croatia) then the bar will be lifted. “None of us are making (the surrender of General Gotovina) a precondition,” explained British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. But the Croatian government must face down its own security forces and start cooperating in the search, or it cannot join the club.

As the EU expands to the south and east — Serbia and Bosnia will be joining the queue one of these days — this sort of thing will arise again, and it’s important to get the rules clear. Wise Croatians will welcome the pressure that Brussels is exerting on their government, as it is their best chance to normalise their country and fully restore the rule of law after the nightmare of the Balkan wars. They will probably sort things out in time to catch up with Romania and Bulgaria and join the EU in 2007.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Asked…law”; and “It may…club”)