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Croatia: Facing Up to War Crimes
Croatia: Facing Up to War Crimes
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia
Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Briefing 24 / Europe & Central Asia

Croatia: Facing Up to War Crimes

On 8 October 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) confirmed an indictment charging Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), with crimes committed in Croatia.

I. Overview

On 8 October 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) confirmed an indictment charging Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), with crimes committed in Croatia.  This indictment had been keenly awaited for years in Croatia, where a widespread perception of international indifference to Serb crimes perpetrated against Croats between 1991 and 1995 has been ably encouraged and manipulated by the right wing. 

Milosevic’s indictment was welcomed with particular enthusiasm by the Croatian government, which has struggled for months with the politically explosive issue of war crimes committed by Croats.  

Since the current government came to power following parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2000, the country's international standing has undergone a critical improvement. In the latter years of the previous administration of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Party, led by the late president, Franjo Tudjman, Croatia suffered increasing international isolation.  Due to its policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was widely seen as a factor for instability in the region.

The coalition government that replaced the HDZ has taken major strides in strengthening democracy and the rule of law in the country, and has also played a more constructive role in the region – towards Bosnia, above all. This progress has been warmly received by the international community, as reflected in the country’s admission to NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in May 2000 and the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union that was initialled in May 2001 and is scheduled to be signed on 29 October 2001.

Policy towards Croatia continues to be swayed by profound relief at having in power a government that is, from the international community's perspective, a much more reliable partner than its HDZ predecessor. Yet in a number of important respects Croatia's performance in meeting its international commitments has been problematic. Such areas include, crucially, cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, and the return and reintegration of ethnic Serb refugees. Croatia is committed to both these policies as a signatory and guarantor of the Dayton Peace Agreement, and compliance with Dayton is an element of the conditionality inherent in the regional approach the European Union has taken toward the ‘Western Balkans’ (i.e. the former Yugoslavia minus Slovenia, plus Albania) since 1997.

The refugee issue remains difficult, and Croatia’s progress continues to disappoint reasonable expectations. Perhaps as a consequence, this issue has largely ceased to serve as a rallying-point for right-wing opposition to the government on the national level. The matters of cooperation with the ICTY, on the other hand, and prosecutions for war crimes in domestic courts have proved sharply contentious, to the point of being able to undermine the stability of the government.

The prospect of Croats being held accountable for war crimes raises noisy opposition from the still powerful right wing and has repeatedly placed the ruling coalition under severe strain. While opinion poll evidence suggests widespread acceptance that Croats, too, must face justice for war crimes, discontent over this issue threatens to dovetail with mounting resentment at increasing social hardship and the government's perceived failure to get to grips with the country's economic ills. Painful economic reforms, which are being pressed on Croatia by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), threaten to bring rising social unrest. Popular disappointment with the government may eventually erode its support and its cohesion.

Thus the international community finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is seen as vitally important to maintain the current government in power, given that the possibility of a return to HDZ rule, perhaps in coalition with parties even further to the right, is so unappealing. Yet on the other hand, the international community insists on the fulfilment of unpopular obligations and the carrying out of painful economic reforms that put the government under severe strain.

This briefing paper examines the government's performance in meeting its international obligations with reference to the ICTY, and analyses why this issue causes such strain. It assesses the government’s capacity to overcome its political difficulties, and suggests how the international community might reasonably offset some of the damaging domestic pressure that the government incurs when it seeks to fulfil Croatia’s political and legal obligations.

Zagreb/Brussels, 16 October 2001

Report 50 / Europe & Central Asia

Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has dominated Croatian political life since multi-party elections in April 1990 brought an end to communist rule.

Executive Summary

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has dominated Croatian political life since multi-party elections in April 1990 brought an end to communist rule. The HDZ has been a broad movement rather than a modern political party, representing a wide range of political views and interests, united behind its leader, President Franjo Tudjman, in the aim of achieving Croatian sovereignty and independence. In 1990-91, large areas of the country were taken over by rebellious Croatian Serbs, with support from Belgrade. Thus for most of the period of HDZ rule in Croatia, large chunks of the country remained outside Zagreb's control, and the overriding priority was to restore Croatia's territorial integrity, a goal which was finally achieved in January 1998. Croatia also became enmeshed in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) as, supported by Croatia, the Bosnian Croats fought their erstwhile Bosniac allies in 1993-94. The obsession of Tudjman and the hard-line Herzegovina lobby in the HDZ with the dream of eventually detaching chunks of Bosnian territory and joining them with Croatia has been a persistent cause of international pressure on Croatia, as well as of division within Croatian politics.

Despite his own predilection towards the HDZ right, Tudjman valued the maintenance of balance between different strands in the party, and acknowledged the contribution of relative moderates in broadening the HDZ's domestic support and bringing greater international acceptability. After the end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in 1995, many supposed that Croatian policy would shift towards a peacetime agenda of completing the transition to democracy and a market economy, and integrating Croatia into western structures. However, in 1998 the HDZ has shifted firmly to the right, and hard-liners, led by Tudjman's adviser on internal affairs, Ivic Pasalic, have emerged triumphant in the party. This prompted the resignations in October 1998 of leading HDZ moderates Hrvoje Sarinic and Franjo Greguric, amid accusations that Pasalic had manipulated the intelligence services in orchestrating a campaign of political assassination against them. In addition, the defence minister, Andrija Hebrang, failed in his efforts to reform his ministry, which had become a key centre of the shadowy, non-transparent method of rule that has emerged under Tudjman. The defence ministry is also the main conduit of support from Zagreb to the Bosnian Croats. Hebrang too resigned in October.

The triumph of the HDZ right has dispelled any illusions about the nature of the party, as despite efforts by Tudjman to revive the impression of balance within the HDZ, the few remaining moderates are now isolated. The party of Tudjman has been revealed, under the direction of Pasalic, in its true colours, as a party of the nationalist, xenophobic right. Any hope of meaningful change in Croatian policy towards Bosnia while Tudjman remains at the helm will be disappointed. The HDZ has lost credibility due to a succession of scandals, including a crisis at Dubrovacka banka, in which senior HDZ figures were implicated, the allegations regarding the intelligence services, and revelations regarding Tudjman family finances. Deepening social discontent has combined with a widely held perception that a politically-connected elite has enriched itself, while the majority of the population has been impoverished, to bring a sharp decline in popular support for the HDZ.

The opposition may stand to capitalise on HDZ discomfort, and opinion polls suggest that a new six-party opposition grouping has a real chance of defeating the HDZ in elections due in 1999, if it can hold together. As the opposition has gained in confidence, the isolation of remaining relative moderates in the HDZ has increased. Speculation concerning a possible re-alignment in Croatian politics, bringing together HDZ moderates and the opposition, appears now to have been overtaken by events, as opposition leaders are faced with the prospect of winning power without the need of any in the HDZ. As efforts by Tudjman to revamp the HDZ in advance of the elections appear forlorn, whether or not the ruling party can be ousted is largely in the hands of the opposition. An extremely delicate problem for opposition leaders is how to deal with the likelihood that Tudjman, whose mandate as president, his health permitting, lasts until 2002, will try to obstruct the formation of a government excluding the HDZ. Disputes have arisen among the opposition parties on how to approach the HDZ. The leader of the strongest opposition party, Ivica Racan of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) urges that dialogue with Tudjman be maintained, so as to avoid a confrontation between two irreconcilable blocs and contribute to the building of a stable environment for an opposition takeover. Some other opposition leaders are more uncompromising, suspecting that there could be no constructive dialogue with Tudjman.

As the opposition and the HDZ manoeuvre before and after the elections, Croatia is in for a period of instability in the medium term. However, if the HDZ were to be defeated, the outlook for the evolution of a stable democracy in Croatia would be much improved, as would the prospects for an improvement in Croatia's strained international relations. Defeat for Tudjman's HDZ would also have very important consequences for Bosnia, as the current opposition parties would behave much more constructively towards Croatia's neighbour than has been the case under Tudjman.

The trends are encouraging, and there is probably little that the international community could or should do to influence that process. Open international support for a particular political option in Croatia would be likely to be counter-productive. Rather the international community should be consistent in its approach to the Croatian government, irrespective of the party in power. International pressure over such issues as Croatian policy towards Bosnia, the return of Serb refugees, media freedom and electoral reform should be maintained.

Zagreb/Sarajevo, 14 December 1998