Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Should Croatia apologise for the Bleiburg massacre ?

BleiburgSpomenik

This article was published today in BCS translation by Al Jazeera Balkans

The Bleiburg massacre is the term used to refer to the mass murder of tens of thousands of prisoners of war and civilian prisoners from the ranks of pro-Nazi quislings and collaborators, by the Communist-led Yugoslav Partisans at the end of World War II. Named after the Austrian town of Bleiburg near the Yugoslav border, where the repatriation of these prisoners began, the killing process involved the forced march of the prisoners and their mass execution at multiple sites. The largest component of those killed were Croats who had served the Nazi-puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’ (NDH) and its Croat-fascist (Ustasha) leadership, but they included also Slovenes, Serbs and others.

The massacre became a cause celebre for the anti-Communist Yugoslav emigration after World War II. It implicated the British forces in Austria, who had either refused to accept the surrender of the prisoners and insisted they surrender to the Partisans, or had actually repatriated them to Yugoslavia and their deaths. The legacy of the massacre remained controversial after the war, because on the one hand the Yugoslav Communists and their supporters refused to accept any wrongdoing, while on the other, its commemoration was often bound up with expressions of support for the Ustasha regime. For anti-Communist Croats, including but not limited to Ustasha sympathisers, the massacre served as a foundation myth for their self-identification as victims of the Yugoslav Communist regime, which they identified as anti-Croat. Whereas this regime, liberal and left-wing Croats and the anti-fascist world generally have focused on the genocidal crimes of the Ustashas against Serbs, Jews and others, in particular at the notorious death-camp Jasenovac, anti-Communist Croats have commemorated the Bleiburg massacre. The choice of commemoration – Jasenovac or Bleiburg – depended upon political orientation and family background. Croats remain divided over this to this day, reflecting the nation’s division since World War 2 between pro-Partisan and anti-Communist camps.

Of course, the crimes of Jasenovac and Bleiburg were not equivalent: Jasenovac involved actual genocide against whole groups targeted purely on the basis of their ethnicity, while Bleiburg was a case of the victors in a civil war massacring the losers. The Partisans were not attempting to destroy or exterminate the Croat nation, as the Ustashas were the Serbs and Jews. Nevertheless, Bleiburg was undoubtedly a war crime: many civilians were murdered, as were many conscript soldiers who were not guilty of any crimes. And though many of those killed in the Bleiburg massacre were indeed Ustasha war-criminals, these too should have been given fair trials, not extra-judicial executions. The Croatian parliament supports the commemoration of Bleiburg, and Croatia’s Social Democratic president Zoran Milanovic has said he will lay a wreath at one of the massacre sites this year, but the commemoration has not received acceptance from liberal Croatia or from the wider liberal-democratic world. This is in part because of its association with pro-Ustasha revisionism, but also out of simple unwillingness to acknowledge Partisan or Allied war-crimes against Axis or pro-Axis victims. Nobody has ever been punished for Bleiburg. There is no doubt that many people from non-Communist families whose relatives were murdered or persecuted by the Communist remain hurt and bitter about this. Hence, the issue remains a wound that divides Croats.

Liberal principles would suggest that war-crimes by all sides should be acknowledged and repudiated if post-war reconciliation is to be achieved. This is the principle followed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) which has sought to bring to justice war-criminals from all sides in the 1990s wars: Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians and Macedonians alike. The same principle would suggest that an acknowledgement and apology are due for Bleiburg too. But this raises the question: who should give them ?

In fact, Bleiburg was a crime in which Croats were perpetrators as well as victims, and for which the state of Croatia was as responsible as any other. The armed forces that carried out the massacres were Yugoslav and Partisan. Croatia was a founding member of the Yugoslav federation, and had, until comparatively late in the war, contributed more Partisans than any other Yugoslav land. Tito himself was a Croat from Croatia. The contemporary Republic of Croatia is legally one of the successor states of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. The post-Communist Croatian constitution since 1990 has explicitly included among its ‘historical foundations’ the ‘establishment of the foundations of state sovereignty during the course of the Second World War, as expressed in the decision of the Territorial Antifascist Council of the National Liberation of Croatia (1943) in opposition to the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia (1941), and then in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Croatia (1947) and in all subsequent constitutions of the Socialist Republic of Croatia (1963-1990)’. In other words, the contemporary Croatian state formally affirms the Partisan legacy against the NDH legacy.

Furthermore, the Croatian struggle for independence in the 1990s was led by former Partisans, most notably Franjo Tudjman as president, Janko Bobetko as chief of general staff of the Croatian Army and Martin Spegelj as defence minister and founder of the Croatian Army, as well as Josip Manolic as prime minister and Josip Boljkovac as interior minister. The paradox for the Croatian right is that they commemorate Bleiburg while celebrating a Croatian independence that was achieved by former members of the army responsible for Bleiburg, and revere Tudjman, who rose to the rank of general in that army. Indeed, Tudjman until the very end of his life, continued to praise Tito for his services to the Croat nation, even suggesting that he may not have given the orders for the Bleiburg massacres. While Tudjman lived, a prominent square in central Zagreb continued to bear the name ‘Marshal Tito Square’. While there is a perception among conservative Croats that it is specifically the Croatian left that needs to recognise and apologise for Bleiburg, the reality is that the main Croatian centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) – founded by Tudjman and including many former Communists among its ranks – is just as bound up in the legacy of the Communist regime, including Bleiburg, as the left’s Social Democratic Party. Bleiburg was a crime of the Croatian state, not just of the Croatian left.

Paradoxically, the crime of Jasenovac is more readily associated with Croatian guilt than Bleiburg, even though Jasenovac was the work of a Croat-fascist puppet state that was destroyed and repudiated by the Partisans who founded the current Croatian state, which is not the legal successor of the NDH and is not legally culpable for its crimes. Croatian President Ivo Josipovic in 2010 nevertheless expressed regret for Jasenovac and other Ustasha crimes, which was the correct thing to do, given that members of his nation had perpetrated them.

There is a case for saying that the Croatian president should apologise for the Bleiburg massacre on behalf of the Croatian state. This could help to bring closure to the relatives of the victims. It could mean contemporary mainstream, liberal, anti-fascist Croatia acknowledging and taking responsibility for the crimes carried out by its predecessors. It would shatter both the right-wing narrative, that treats Croatia purely as a victim of, rather than a participant in, the actions of the Communists and Partisans, and the left-wing narrative of Partisan purity. It would affirm the fact that the contemporary Croatian state was founded on an anti-fascist basis, without glorifying or whitewashing the Communists and Partisans, instead by owning their negative side as well as their positive side. It could help to heal the rift between the two Croatias.

For all these reasons, it is doubtful that such an apology will ever happen. The left is unwilling to dwell on Partisan crimes, while the right is unwilling to acknowledge them as their own. The left is attached to a sanitised view of the Partisans, while the right is attached to a narrative of Croatia as innocent victim of Communism. There is too much bound up with these competing myths for any Croatian politician to take such a politically risky step of challenging them. Croatia will remain divided over Bleiburg, so long as its politicians want it to be.

Saturday, 16 May 2020 Posted by | Balkans, Croatia, Fascism, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vindication or travesty ? Operation Storm’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac acquitted

‘The largest single ethnic-cleansing operation of the Yugoslav wars’ – such was the soundbite that was linked to Operation Storm (Operacija Oluja), from soon after the successful Croatian military operation was waged back in August 1995. That atrocities were carried out by Croatian soldiers and civilians during and after the operation has never credibly been disputed. But the attempt to paint Oluja as an ethnic-cleansing operation – indeed as an ethnic-cleansing operation larger in scale than the Serbian assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 – has always been rightly contested. Yesterday’s acquittal by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of Croatian commanders Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac for crimes against Serb civilians between July and September 1995, above all during ‘Operation Storm’, leaves the victims without justice, but represents a defeat for long-running attempts in the West to redistribute guilt from the aggressors to the victims.

Had the ICTY’s prosecution simply sought to indict, prosecute and punish Croats guilty of atrocities against Serbs in the period July-September 1995, it would no doubt have been successful, and the victims would have received at least some justice. Unfortunately, the prosecution attempted something more: to write the historical record of the wars of Yugoslav succession, in a manner that reflected the predominant perception of Western policy-makers. This perception was that, whereas the Serb side was responsible for the largest proportion of the crimes and killing, there was ultimately no fundamental difference in the guilt and actions of each of the sides during the war; it was merely a quantitative difference. In her published memoirs, Carla del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY at the time when the original indictment against Gotovina was issued, explicitly equalised the blame of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman as the two individuals primarily responsible for the war (Carla del Ponte and Chuck Sudetic, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst War Criminals and the Culture of Impunity, Other Press, New York, 2008, pp. 37, 87, 125). Del Ponte was less of an equaliser than some others, and did at least insist on indicting some Serb perpetrators for genocide, in the face of resistance from other senior prosecution staff. But she also became inveigled in diplomatic and propaganda games with Serbian government ministers, who put her under pressure to prove that the Tribunal was not ‘anti-Serb’.

Consequently, the ICTY prosecutors pursued a policy of indictments that would result in judgements that would support their politics. As I have written before, these indictments thus disproportionately targeted Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians; the forces of the Serb side were responsible for well over 80% of the killing of civilians during the whole of the wars of Yugoslav succession, but their officials made up only 68% of indictees. Only six officials of Serbia or the rump Yugoslavia, as opposed to Bosnian Serbs, were ever indicted for war-crimes in Bosnia. The top Yugoslav military commanders and presidency members who led the assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 (Borisav Jovic, Branko Kostic, Veljko Kadijevic, Blagoje Adzic, Zivota Panic and others) were never indicted. Conversely, the ICTY prosecutors indicted such high-ranking and prominent Croatian and Bosnian officials as former Croatian Army chief of staff Janko Bobetko, Bosnia’s two most important military commanders Sefer Halilovic and Rasim Delic, and Bosnian commander in Srebrenica Naser Oric. When Alija Izetbegovic died in 2003, del Ponte indicated that he might have faced charges had he lived. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, however, the courts stubbornly refused to uphold the picture the prosecution sought to paint: Halilovic and Oric were acquitted, and Delic was sentenced to a mere three years in prison, after the prosecution had sought fifteen. Bobetko was already near death when he was indicted, and died before being extradited.

The sorry story of the Operation Storm indictments and trials should be seen against this background. In Operation Storm, the Croatians were not trying to conquer anyone else’s territory; they were engaged in a defensive operation to free their own territory from occupation by troops controlled by a foreign state (Serbia); troops that were engaged at the time in armed aggression against a neighbouring state (Bosnia) and threatening to carry out a further genocidal act against its population, following the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica a month before. As I have written, Operation Storm was a successful case of genocide prevention that saved the Muslim population in the Bihac enclave of north-west Bosnia from experiencing the fate of the people of Srebrenica. Yet for those seeking to equalise, as much as possible, the guilt of the sides in the former-Yugoslav war, Operation Storm had to be presented as a gratuitous act of ethnic-cleansing by Croat perpetrators against Serb victims – equivalent to the Serb crimes of 1991-1992.

The indictees, Gotovina, Markac and Ivan Cermak were accused of being part of a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ (JCE) whose ‘common purpose’ was ‘the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, forced displacement, transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property or other means.’ This accusation therefore paralleled the prosecution’s accusations of a JCE levelled against the top Serbian leadership, whose goals were ‘the permanent removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from a large part of the territory of the Republic of Croatia’ and ‘the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, from large areas of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’. But Operation Storm had not involved the acts previously associated with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia: the rounding up of civilians; their being made to sign away their property to the authorities; their imprisonment, torture and killing in concentration camps; their being bussed out of the area. Instead, at the time of Operation Storm, the Serb authorities themselves organised and ordered the evacuation of the Serb civilians in the face of the Croatian offensive; whatever their intentions, the Croatians never had the chance to organise their removal.

To attribute the exodus of Serb civilians to Croatian actions therefore required the prosecution to develop a new model of how ethnic cleansing occurs. The ICTY prosecutors therefore argued that the Croatians aimed and succeeded in bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina by artillery bombardment. This was already a dubious proposition – towns in Bosnia had been shelled for years by Serb and Croat forces without their entire population fleeing overnight. The prosecution nevertheless argued – and the original ICTY Trial Chamber accepted – that the exodus of Serb civilians was caused by the bombardment, not by the orders given by the Krajina Serb authorities to evacuate. However, attributing the cause of the exodus to the bombardment was not enough to establish the existence of the JCE, in the absence of evidence that this had been the intent behind the bombardment. Since only the most ambiguous support could be found for the thesis in the statements of the Croatian leadership – above all, the minutes of the Brioni meeting of 31 July 1995 – the intent had to be deduced from the character of the Croatian artillery fire, and whether it appeared accurately to be directed at civilian targets. So the prosecution argued that the existence of a JCE could be deduced from the fact that the Croatian artillery had targeted civilian areas in the so-called Krajina, and that this bombardment succeeded in bringing about the exodus of the Serb population. But since the Croatian forces were engaged in a lawful military operation against enemy armed forces in control of those same civilian centres, the prosecution had to show that Croatian artillery fire was not simply a part of those operations. The existence of the JCE therefore stood or fell on an analysis of the accuracy of Croatian artillery fire. At The Hague on Friday, it fell like the house of cards it essentially was. Most of the judgement of the Appeals Chamber consists, somewhat surreally, of a lengthy analysis of Croatian artillery fire.

ICTY prosecutors have long demonstrated a confused understanding of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Their indictments have tended to target ‘famous names’ and acts people in the West had heard of; hence the notorious Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan and Vojislav Seselj were indicted, instead of Serbian leaders less well known in the West, but whose responsibility for crimes was much greater. The accusation that the Croatian bombardment of Knin, the capital of the ‘Republic of Serb Krajina’, was a ‘war crime’ originated with the arch-appeaser Carl Bildt, who was the EU’s special envoy for the former Yugoslavia at the time of Operation Storm. It was made in the context of an EU strategy that opposed any military action against Serb forces – either on the part of the international community, or on the part of the Croatians and Bosnians – and that sought instead to achieve peace in the former Yugoslavia through collaboration with the regimes in Belgrade and Pale. Bildt’s loud condemnation, at the time, of the Croatian bombardment of Knin, and his suggestion that it was a war-crime for which Tudjman himself should be held responsible, may have stuck in the minds of ICTY investigators as they considered how to pick Croatians to indict. Yet Knin had suffered minimal damage and civilian casualties as a result of the bombardment, made in the course of a legitimate military operation to recapture the town. This was in stark contrast to Vukovar, which was wholly destroyed by Serbian forces in 1991, and for whose destruction nobody was indicted by the ICTY (though some were indicted for atrocities carried out against the patients at Vukovar Hospital after the town fell).

Seventeen years later, Bildt’s red herring regarding the bombardment of Knin has met its ignominious demise. Since the Appeals Chamber ruled that the existence of a JCE could not be deduced from the pattern of Croatian artillery fire, the central premise of the prosecution’s case was thrown out. And since Gotovina and Markac had been selected for indictment on the basis of this premise, the rest of the case against them collapsed with it: the Appeals Chamber ruled that they had either attempted to prevent crimes against Serb civilians and property, or had not had effective control of those Croatian forces that had committed them. Had the prosecutors not focused on a supposed JCE, but instead sought to indict Croatian perpetrators who could actually be definitely linked to actual killings, they would no doubt have succeeded.

The Appeals Chamber’s verdict has not exonerated the Croatian side of crimes carried out during and after Operation Storm; on the contrary, it explicitly refers to crimes against Serb civilians in its acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. These victims have not now received justice, and critics are right to point out that the ICTY has failed them. The failure should be attributed, however, to the prosecution’s flawed indictment, not to the decision of the Appeals Chamber.

Not all these critics have been ready to point out the converse: that long before this verdict, the ICTY had already failed the victims of Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing against Croatia. Almost no official from Serbia, Montenegro or the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) has been prosecuted and seriously punished for crimes against Croatian citizens in 1991-1992. Of the three relatively minor JNA officers tried over the Vukovar Hospital massacre, one was acquitted (Miroslav Radic) and one freed after serving six and a half years in prison (Veselin Sljivancanin), while only the third received a lengthy punishment of 20 years (Mile Mrksic). Of those JNA officers or admirals indicted over the shelling of Dubrovnik, Miodrag Jokic received a seven-year sentence and was granted early release after three years; Pavle Strugar received seven and a half years and was released on compassionate grounds less than a year later; the indictment against Milan Zec was withdrawn; and Vladimir Kovacevic had his trial transferred to the Serbian courts. Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Momcilo Perisic was sentenced to 27 years – not for his actions in Croatia in 1991-92, but in part for the rocket attack by the Krajina Serbs on Zagreb in May 1995. Otherwise, the ICTY’s punishment to date has spared Serbia and fallen on Croatia’s own ethnic-Serb citizens who collaborated in the aggression (Milan Babic and Milan Martic). No official of Serbia or the JNA has so far been convicted over the Serbian conquest and ethnic cleansing of the so-called Krajina in the first place – the crime that made Operation Storm necessary.

With the quashing of the Operation Storm sentences, the ICTY can be accurately said to have failed seriously to punish the officers on either side in the war between Serbia (including Montenegro and the JNA) and Croatia of 1990-1995. Whether, having failed to punish the Serbian officers who occupied Croatian territory, justice would have been better served had the ICTY at least succeeded in punishing some of the Croatian officers who defeated the occupation, is a moot point.

Monday, 19 November 2012 Posted by | Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Marko Attila Hoare, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments