Briefing / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

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

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