Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Anger Over Sentencing Could Lead to Calm

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Apr 18 2011 (IPS) - Sentencing of two former generals ignited protests across Croatia over the weekend. Thousands of angry people protested in the streets of Zagreb and other major cities, claiming injustice had been done to heroes of the homeland war for independence that ended 16 years ago.

The United Nations (UN) founded International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) based in The Hague pronounced Ante Gotovina (56) and Mladen Markac (56) guilty of war crimes and evictions of more than 200,000 Croatian Serbs in Operation Storm. The operation marked the end of Croatia’s independence war from former Yugoslavia back in 1995.

Few Serbs have returned since. Immediately after Operation Storm, the deserted Krajina was closed for months to civilians and international observers as Croatia hid the extent of destruction in the region.

Gotovina, the Croatian war hero, received a 24-year prison sentence. Markac was sentenced to 18 years.

Operation Storm is officially considered a legitimate and unblemished victory over Croatian Serbs in Krajina. They were backed by Belgrade, and had opposed Croatia’s independence since 1991. More than 20,000 people were killed in the 1991-95 war.

The decision of the ICTY immediately became the top political issue both in Croatia and in Serbia, to which most of Krajina Serbs fled.

Many Zagreb politicians said Croatia will fight for the generals in appeals proceedings, while Serbian politicians approved the ICTY ruling. But suggestions also arose that the sentence could put an end to two decades of mostly poor relations between the two neighbours.

Serbian Justice Minister Snezana Malovic told reporters that the ICTY ruling could become a turning point.

“Confirmation of truth that was kept quiet in Croatia for more than a decade will mark a turning point for improvement of relations between Serbia and Croatia,” Malovic said. “It makes many things clear and represents a partial satisfaction for victims and families of the killed, as their loss can not be compensated otherwise.”

Law professor Milan Skulic said that first reactions to the sentencing will remain fierce for a while “among both Croatian and Serbian nationalists, raising the tensions. But, in the long run this puts the basis for clearer views on both sides and shows the path of reconciliation.”

For Savo Strbac, who heads the Krajina Serbs’ documentation centre Veritas (Truth) in Belgrade, “there is hope for reconciliation now between Croats and Serbs.”

In an interview with the IPS, Strbac said that “Croatia will go through catharsis now, as there will be an overview of recent history.”

“The whole new generation has grown up since 1991, people who were 10-15 then. They are to take over in modern Croatia. They grew up indoctrinated with the fact that Serbs are villains, aggressors and that the war of independence is a sacred, untarnished thing.

“The time has come for many to learn the truth and it will only help people see how things went on. True reconciliation is on its way, but it takes time, a long time, and calls for change in the thoughts of many.”

In Croatia, the particularly painful point of the sentences was the fact that Gotovina and Markac, together with late president Franjo Tudjman and top military leaders, were members of the so-called “joint criminal enterprise” whose goal was the permanent removal of Serbs from Krajina. “Serbs must disappear,” Tudjman told his top brass.

Elements of the enterprise were aimed at settling Croats into the lands left by Serbs and taking over their abandoned yet mostly torched down property, Judge Alphons Orie said.

The conclusion was based on the “Brioni minutes”, the document from a meeting between Tudjman and his generals that described how to conduct Operation Storm back in 1995.

Croatian media published complete minutes for the first time only after the sentences against Gotovina and Markac were pronounced, to the astonishment of many who did not know their contents. The minutes, buried in secret archives, were provided to the ICTY only in 2007.

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