Ante Gotovina


The View from Washington

Croatia's Present Crisis

Date: 7/8/2005, Type: News, Media: Hrvatski list

 By Jeffrey T. Kuhner

Croatia is facing its most severe crisis since it won its war for independence in 1995. During the next few months, the fate of Gen. Ante Gotovina—and more importantly, that of Croatia—may be decided. Zagreb is launching an all-out attempt to capture him; the government hopes that this will facilitate Croatia'sentry into the European Union.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and President Stipe Mesic have made it their top priority to send Gen. Gotovina to The Hague. Both leaders claim they believe the general is “innocent.” Hence, they argue he should defend himself in court against the malicious accusations put forth by the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.

“We really believe he has a winnable case,” a senior Croatian diplomat recently confided.

Moreover, it is a common view among Zagreb's political elite that the voluntary surrender or capture of Gen. Gotovina will remove the final obstacle blocking Croatia'saccession into the EU. “Gotovina is holding us back from Europe. He is holding back our prosperity and economic development,” declared Croatia'sformer Ambassador to the United States, Ivan Grdesic, at a 2004 banquet in Chicago sponsored by the Croatian American Association. “If he was really a patriot and a man of courage, he would surrender to The Hague immediately.”

Mr. Grdesic, as usual, is wrong. More importantly, Mr. Sanader and Mr. Mesic are also wrong. In fact, their policies of appeasement towards Del Ponte pose a mortal threat to Croatia's national security interests and to the existence of the country itself. Rather than bringing Croatia into Europe, sending Gen. Gotovina to The Hague will be the death blow to Zagreb's national sovereignty; the country will thereby be relegated to third-class status as a permanent part of “the Western Balkans.” The Gotovina indictment is the poisoned chalice of Croatian politics. By drinking from it, Zagreb's elite will be committing national suicide.

Dangers of Unconditional Cooperation with The Hague

The first problem with Croatia's policy of “unconditional cooperation” with The Hague tribunal is that it violates the legal theory at the core of international relations for the past several centuries—namely, what scholars refer to as “territorial exclusivity.” This theory holds that national governments have exclusive sovereignty over their territories, especially regarding the prosecution and punishment of war crimes committed on their soil. The only exception to this established theory is if a state is unable to pursue war criminals because of legal anarchy created by a protracted war or because the national territory is under foreign occupation (such as Germany and Japan immediately following World War II). The reason national governments historically have refused to cede sovereignty over war crimes cases to an outside, international tribunal is that it implies moral and legal inferiority. It is saying that those governments do not have the moral legitimacy or the legal capabilities to try cases in their domestic courts.

This very principle in fact is held so dear by nations around the world that they are even willing to go to war in order to defend this right.  For example, in 1914 the Serbian government vehemently objected when the Austrians sent an ultimatum insisting on investigating the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand within Serbian territory. The Serbs ceded on every item in that fatal ultimatum but not on this last one—a point of honor that was understood and supported by many other foreign nations including France and Britain.

Also, more recently, the Chilean government was deeply insulted when a Spanish judge sought to try former strongman Augusto Pinochet in a foreign court for crimes committed in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s. Chile rightfully insisted that Pinochet be tried in a domestic court. The Chilean government eventually succeeded in its bid. This marked a significant victory for the country's fledgling democracy.

However, instead of defending Croatia's territorial exclusivity, Zagreb has frittered away its hard-won sovereignty and constitutional self-government by allowing The Hague tribunal to dominate the country's legal jurisdiction. Like all great statesmen, former President Franjo Tudjman had his strengths and weaknesses. But one of his greatest mistakes is that, this supposed arch-nationalist, badly undermined Croatia'sinternational standing by agreeing to cooperate with the tribunal. Ultimately, he did so only because Zagreb was facing diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. Nevertheless, his decision put Croatia on the road to becoming a colony of The Hague and more importantly, of Brussels. By accepting the policy of unconditional cooperation with the ICTY, Tudjman did what very few leaders have done: He allowed his nation's democratic institutions to be degraded, and put its civilizational destiny in the hands of an unelected, foreign tribunal that is neither accountable nor responsive to the Croatian people.

Most self-respecting democracies would never allow their constitutional sovereignty to be so arbitrarily and needlessly violated—no matter how much international pressure is exerted upon them. Israel, for example, had numerous wars with its Arab neighbors and continues to occupy Palestinian territories. Yet Israelis on both the Left and the Right are united in their opposition to having their soldiers be subject to the whims of an international court.

Also, despite incessant demands that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and his brutal Baathist henchmen be tried by a foreign tribunal, Iraq's feisty democrats insist the Butcher of Baghdad face his victims in an Iraqi court. They are not willing to cede their demands for justice to some obscure, supra-national entity.

Tudjman's Legacy

Yet it is doubtful that Tudjman would have allowed Gen. Gotovina to be sold down the river, regardless of the diplomatic consequences. Although Tudjman sent more Croatian military officials to The Hague than Ivica Racan, Mr. Sanader and Mr. Mesic combined, their indictments never threatened the dignity and legitimacy of the Homeland War. Tudjman was many things—a Central European conservative, a romantic intellectual, a born-again Catholic and a former communist apparatchik—but above all he was Croatia's Bismarck: a first-rank statesman who forged his country's independence through “blood and iron.”

Tudjman understood that Croatia fought a just war for national liberation not only from Serb-dominated Communist tyranny, but from centuries of foreign repression. He understood that the Homeland War represented the legitimate aspirations of the Croatian people to affirm their God-given rights to life, liberty and self-government. He understood that Croatia'seventual triumph in its war for independence, especially the spectacular success of Operation Storm, signified a great victory for the forces of democracy and national self-determination. Gen. Gotovina's troops liberated large swaths of Croatian territory that were brutally occupied by Serb paramilitaries; he also saved tens of thousands of besieged Muslim refugees from being slaughtered in northwestern Bosnia. Gen. Gotovina's forces delivered a decisive blow to Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal project of an ethnically pure “Great Serbia,” which butchered over 250,000 people (many of whom were the elderly, women and children) and drove nearly 2 million from their homes.

In Croatia alone, Milosevic's marauders murdered nearly 20,000 Croats, ethnically cleansed over 180,000, raped countless women (often in front of their children or husbands to terrorize the population), pillaged and looted dozens of villages, destroyed entire cities and towns, and annexed nearly one-third of the country for three-and-a-half years. Gen. Gotovina's brilliant military leadership ended Croatia's long nightmare. And more remarkable still, General Gotovina achieved this by incurring minimal civilian casualties. If ever there was a just war and a just military campaign, this was it. Tudjman understood all of this. That is why he never would have agreed to send Gen. Gotovina to The Hague to face trumped up charges of “command responsibility” for the operation because this threatens everything Tudjman sought to accomplish.

Numerous international law experts and news publications—from Newsweek to the Wall Street Journal to the Jerusalem Post to my paper, The Washington Times—have examined the charges against the general and have rendered a unanimous and unequivocal verdict: the indictment is weak and deeply flawed. So why then shouldn't the general voluntarily surrender and fight it out in court?

Gen. Gotovina Must Never Surrender

The answer is simple and it is one that Gen. Gotovina is perfectly aware of: the indictment is a trap from which he—or for that matter any other general in human history—can never be found innocent. By indicting him on the basis of “command responsibility,” which advances the completely radical notion that senior commanders are responsible for crimes carried out by their subordinates, even if they did not actually order or sanction these crimes, The Hague tribunal has set the legal bar so high that no general of Gotovina's stature could evade a guilty verdict. The tribunal is essentially accusing him of not being God. It is claiming that, by virtue of his position, he should have had the foresight to anticipate and prevent any possible future crimes committed by his soldiers during Operation Storm.

Yet the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that the military campaign was carried out exceptionally quickly, ending within three days; civilian casualties were minimal (roughly 150 Serb civilians), and even many of those atrocities were carried out not by Gotovina's troops, but by returning irregulars bent on revenge. Moreover, during Del Ponte's prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, she herself has revealed that it was the local Serb leadership in Knin, and not Gotovina's forces, that ordered the evacuation of the civilian Serb population prior to the commencement of the operation. Recent evidence has also come to light showing that Gen. Gotovina investigated nearly 300 isolated cases of alleged wrongdoing by his soldiers, and he punished many of them. Hence, he led a surgical, American-backed military campaign that minimized civilian deaths, restored his country's territorial integrity and averted a humanitarian catastrophe. He deserves the Noble Peace Prize rather than to be indicted as a war criminal.

According to the rationale being used against Gen. Gotovina, every military commander since the beginning of human history is a “war criminal” because atrocities have been committed in every campaign. For example, George Washington's troops committed numerous crimes, including rape, indiscriminate murder of civilians and the looting of Loyalist homes during the American Revolution. Was Washington also a war criminal according to the ICTY's new definition of “command responsibility” because he failed to prevent the barbarities committed by some of his soldiers?

Furthermore, is the commander of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks, a war criminal because some of his troops murdered innocent civilians or did nothing to prevent the mass looting that took place after Saddam's fall? According to the ICTY's twisted logic, he is. (In fact, it is precisely the incoherence and legal absurdity of the ICTY's theory of “command responsibility” that has angered senior Bush administration officials, such as John Bolton, the President's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) But, of course, Gen. Franks or any other Western commander has not been indicted by an international court. The anti-American internationalists at the United Nations are aware of the public outrage it would cause. Gen. Gotovina, however, has become the laboratory rat for Del Ponte and her fellow activists at The Hague. Their goal is to rewrite international law; they hope to pave the way for a utopian global order that seeks to eradicate war through judicial fiat.

It is the nature of military conflict that evil acts are committed. What distinguishes the good side from the bad one is the purpose and overall conduct of the war. Milosevic's marauders waged an aggressive campaign based on mass murder and ethnic cleansing. Gen. Gotovina's forces launched a defensive operation that saved untold numbers of lives and liberated the region from Milosevic's genocidal grip. Del Ponte is trying to rewrite the history of the break-up of Yugoslavia. She is seeking to equate the actions of monsters like Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic with those, such as Gen. Gotovina, who defeated them.

Establishing the Basis for a Greater Serbia

If Gen. Gotovina is handed over to The Hague, he will face a rigged trial where he will be found guilty. An innocent man and a war hero will thus be falsely imprisoned; his life and reputation will be destroyed. The Gotovina case has repercussions that are much larger than the fate of one man. Croatia will be branded in the eyes of the international community as a nation based on ethnic cleansing and mass murder. This will destroy the country's international standing, its sovereign legitimacy and its territorial integrity. In short, a guilty verdict will establish the moral and legal basis for Belgrade to launch another attempt to reconstitute a “Greater Serbia.”

In fact, Serbian revanchists openly acknowledge this, which is why Belgrade and the Serbian lobby in Washington are adamantly insisting that the general be sent to The Hague. One of Del Ponte's key sources of misinformation in her witch hunt against Gen. Gotovina (and other Croat generals) has been Savo Strbac, a former government secretary in the rebel Serb self-styled “Krajina” para-state. Investigative journalist Brian Gallagher has incisively uncovered that Strbac was a high-ranking official of the RSK (Republika Serpska Krajina). In other words, Strbac was an important participant in what The Hague itself has called “a joint criminal enterprise.”

“Our wish is to live with the other Serbs of the former Yugoslavia,” he told the New York Times on Dec. 4, 1994. “The Croats never asked us about secession, and the fact is we don't want to live with them because of our memories of genocide during World War II. So let us secede from Croatia the way Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia.”

Mr. Gallagher has revealed that Strbac, as the head of a non-governmental organization, known as “Veritas,” which purports to help Serbs displaced from Croatia, has been intimately involved in helping the tribunal prosecute leading Croats. According to Mr. Gallagher, the tribunal's then-Deputy Prosecutor Graham Blewitt sent out a “Letter of Endorsement” to help this ex-RSK official to raise funds for Veritas. Dated March 2, 2000, the letter says that the organization “led by Mr. Savo Strbac” assists the prosecutor in a “professional, serious and responsible manner by collecting information about certain events which occurred during the period 1990-1995 in Croatia.” The letter goes on to stress that Veritas provides “access” to victims and witnesses, and that several Veritas projects “if properly funded” could “advance considerably some important investigations of the prosecutor.”

It is scandalous that the tribunal would be relying on a Serbian fascist and high-ranking official of the RSK criminal enterprise for assistance in its indictments of Croatian generals. The ICTY is actively cooperating with murderous gangsters to further its agenda. This is akin to an international tribunal relying on Saddam's henchmen to prosecute U.S. soldiers or senior Nazis to indict prominent Allied military commanders like Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. This is an egregious abuse of power and warrants an independent investigation of Del Ponte's office. If there is an official U.S. Congressional probe of Del Ponte's activities on Capitol Hill (which seems more likely by the day), the Strbac affair will be a major component of the investigation.

More importantly, in an interview with Nedeljni Telegraf, a Belgrade newspaper, published on August 15, 2001, Strbac openly admitted that he has been pushing the indictment against Gen. Gotovina because it is an “outstanding opportunity” to re-establish the “Republika Srpska Krajina” by “legal means.” Strbac went on to state that the references to Tudjman in the Gotovina indictment are “especially important for the sake of history because all judgments of the ICTY will also at the same time be judgments against Tudjman. That is especially important for our history, but perhaps more importantly for our immediate future.”

 “The indictment against Gotovina redefines history, or as Racan likes to say, 'criminalizes the Homeland War' . . . If the Hague proves the criminal responsibility of the commander of the most important Croatian military operation, then that commander will be a war criminal, and the action that he led will be a criminal operation,” Strbac said. “Finally, an operation that was criminal in its essence is not a ‘homeland war’ or a defensive war, but a criminal war and an aggressive war. Because of this, a state that was established on war crimes cannot continue to exist, but its makeup must be redefined. That offers an opportunity for us Serbs to establish through legal and legitimate means our right to renew the Republika Srpska Krajina.”

Belgrade's Anti-Croatian Strategy

It is no accident that Serbia's largest and most popular political party, the Radical Party, recently sponsored a motion in Parliament demanding an end to Croatia's“ten-year occupation of the Serb Republic of Krajina.” The motion puts forward the revanchist claims that can also be found on the Radical Party's official Web site ( in its “memorandum on the legal and political impossibility of maintaining the occupation of the Republic of Serb Krajina.”

The Radicals maintain in their memorandum that Croatia is a state “founded on crime and occupation of the sovereign territory of the free Serbian people,” and that this “occupation is not legal but a temporary condition.” The memo insists “that the Serbian national question and preservation of the Serbs on their territories can be realized only by termination of that occupation and by assuring the security of and free decision-making to all who lived on that territory prior to the occupation of Serb Krajina.”

The memorandum reflects not only the ideological fanaticism and nationalist extremism of the Serbian Radical Party, but also the viewpoint of many within Belgrade's political class. Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the Radicals and follower of the notorious Serbian fascist Vojislav Seselj, came within several percentage points of defeating Boris Tadic in Serbia's last presidential elections. If the country's economy continues to spiral downward, it is very likely that the Radicals may gain power. This will trigger another crisis with neighboring Croatia.

Moreover, the Radicals are not alone in their anti-Croatian racism. It is well to remember that the domestic anti-Milosevic opposition during his wars of aggression was fueled by many prominent leaders—Vojislav Kostunica, Vuk Draskovic, the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindic—who supported Belgrade's revanchist aims. They were not opposed to Milosevic's goal of creating a Great Serb empire that would stretch from the Danube to the Adriatic; rather, they were simply opposed to the means he employed in achieving that goal. Hence, it is very likely, if not inevitable, that in the future Belgrade will demand that Croatia'sborders be altered and that its territories be annexed to Serbia.

In fact, this anti-Croatian strategy has been the linchpin of Belgrade's diplomacy since the creation of Yugoslavia in 1919. Serbia's political elite, whether on the Right or the Left, has consistently understood that the largest obstacle to Belgrade's dominance of the region is Croatia—especially, a strong and united Croatia. Therefore, throughout the 20th century Serbia's policy has been to prevent the emergence of an independent and viable Croatia. This can be seen in Belgrade's brutal repression of Croatian national aspirations during the 1920s and 1930s; the mass murder and expulsion of ethnic Croats by Draza Mihailovic's racist Chetniks; the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Croatian dissidents by Tito's Partisans and the savage persecution of the Croatian Catholic Church; and Milosevic's genocidal campaign to smash and dismember Croatia's fledgling democracy.

It is naive and wishful thinking, bordering on historical ignorance, for Zagreb's current political elite to imagine that Belgrade has abandoned its centuries-old expansionist ambitions. For the moment, the Serbs are focusing on internal problems (such as the final status of Kosovo and reviving Serbia's anemic economy). But this will not last indefinitely. “Nothing has been settled between us and the Croats,” blurted a political advisor to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica during a heated discussion with me. “There will never be lasting peace in the Balkans until Croatia relinquishes its Serbian territories.”                  

This is why the Gotovina indictment is the most important issue facing Croatia today. It is the issue that will define what kind of nation Croatia will be, and what its future will hold. By sending Gen. Gotovina to The Hague, Zagreb will in effect be squandering all the gains and sacrifices made during the Homeland War. Gen. Gotovina's defeat will represent Croatia'sunilateral surrender to Brussels, The Hague and ultimately, to Belgrade. Croatia's war for independence will be criminalized and Croatians will have abrogated their national sovereignty.

The country will be rendered impotent on the world stage; it will thereafter lack the constitutional and territorial legitimacy needed to be an effective, functioning nation-state. The country will be cast into a Balkan abyss: it will be part of a peripheral European perimeter characterized by constant ethnic conflict, shifting territorial boundaries, mass poverty, rampant corruption, the presence of international peacekeepers and dependence on foreign aid. Rather than securing Croatia's destiny within Europe, handing Gen. Gotovina into the fatal embrace of Del Ponte will ensure Zagreb's exclusion from the mainstream of European civilization.  

Britain's Opposition to Croatia

Moreover, the claim by Messrs. Sanader and Mesic that surrendering Gen. Gotovina will pave the way for Croatia to enter the EU is predicated on a false premise: the vain hope that Britain will drop its fierce opposition to Zagreb's membership bid. If the general is handed over to The Hague, the British Foreign Office will find another reason to block Croatia'sentry. Already, London-based human rights groups and non-governmental organizations are demanding that Zagreb be denied membership until other issues—such as refugee resettlement, property compensation, minority rights and local courts convicting greater numbers of Croatian soldiers for alleged war crimes—are resolved.

The British Foreign Office is intractably opposed to Croatia joining the EU. Zagreb's entry ahead of Belgrade would undermine Britain'slong-standing foreign policy goals in the Balkans. Since the late 19th century, London's primary objective has been to provide a strategic bulwark against Germany and Austria.

For Britain, this has meant strongly supporting Serbia at the expense of Croatia. The creation of an autocratic Yugoslavia dominated by Belgrade was primarily a British initiative. During World War II, Winston Churchill's government threw its full weight first behind the rapacious Chetniks, and later behind the genocidal Partisans. Immediately following the end of the Second World War, the British government played a pivotal role in sending over 250,000 Croats to be slaughtered by Tito's communists at Bleiburg and in ghastly death marches. The British Foreign Office led the opposition in Europe to Croatia'sindependence in 1991. London emerged as the Bosnian Serbs' staunchest ally in the West, consistently blocking any attempts to lift the U.N. arms embargo on the besieged Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Finally, it is the British who are most vociferously demanding that Gen. Gotovina be handed over to The Hague—to the point of having sent MI-6 agents into Croatia hoping to locate and capture him.

The British Foreign Office does not have Zagreb's best interests at heart when it insists that Gen. Gotovina be sent to The Hague. London's goal is to bolster Serbia's hegemonic ambitions, while weakening and undermining Croatia. Once Gen. Gotovina is found guilty and the Homeland War has been discredited, Britain will almost certainly reinforce Belgrade's demands for a new constitutional arrangement and, eventually, border changes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Just as in 1919, the British have set a trap: Croatia'spolitical elites are rushing headlong into it.              

Risks of EU Membership

What is most disturbing about Croatia's current efforts to enter the EU is that Messrs. Sanader and Mesic are willing to make a pact with the devil. They are not only willing to blindly betray Croatia'sconstitutional sovereignty and its moral and legal basis as a nation, but they are also willing to sellout the country's vital economic interests. They are like drunken geese walking in the fog: they have no idea what they are doing or where they are going.  Again, just as in 1919, much of Zagreb's political class is under the illusion that the country's long-term interest rests in joining a centralized, multinational superstate—only this time it is to be run from Brussels instead of Belgrade.

But even if Croatia can somehow be allowed to join the EU in the near future (a very doubtful prospect), the country’s bid is currently being negotiated on terms that will decimate Croatia's struggling middle class, workers, peasants and small businesses. Slavonia's agricultural sector will be wiped out by the massive and heavily subsidized agri-farms based in Germany, the Netherlands and France. Dalmatia's fishermen will face cut-throat competition from much more efficient and robust Italian and Spanish fishing boats. The country's pristine and beautiful coastline will be further exposed to being gobbled up by wealthy British, German, Austrian and Italian investors. Croatia'sdomestic market will be flooded with cheaper EU products, especially from Eastern Europe, causing even more businesses to go bankrupt and workers to lose jobs. The country's already very high debt level will only increase in the face of rising unemployment, a dwindling tax base and a growing strain on social services.

Croatia will be transformed into the Puerto Rico of Southeastern Europe: an impoverished economic and political colony of Brussels, whose main purpose is to serve as a tourist destination for vacationing Europeans. Yet as the bulk of the Croatian people suffer, the former communist, as well as HDZ elites will prosper. They will continue the Titoist-style cronyism and rampant corruption that is stunting the country's development.  They will make sure to siphon off large chunks of targeted EU subsidies and foreign aid which will enable them to preserve their fancy cars, apartments and privileged status.

Ultimately, Croatia is not ready right now to enter the EU. In fact, this single-minded obsession by Messrs. Sanader and Mesic to have Zagreb join as quickly as possible and at any cost is a reflection of their utter bankruptcy as leaders. Their EU fast-track policy is a cheap substitute for the kind of real reforms Croatia needs to undertake if it is to become a healthy, prosperous and vibrant democracy. The current leaders are slick Balkan conmen masquerading as statesmen.

 “Civilizations perish from suicide, not war,” wrote historian Arnold Toynbee. Croatia is on the verge of committing suicide. There is only one man who stands in the way of this path to destruction: General Ante Gotovina. The general is offering the last line of resistance to the disastrous policies of appeasement by both Messrs. Sanader and Mesic. By preventing Zagreb's bankrupt ruling class from turning the country into a vassal of The Hague and the EU, Gen. Gotovina is saving Croatia one more time.

He is in the great tradition of modern Croatian martyrs and statesmen—from Stjepan Radic to Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac to Franjo Tudjman—who suffered and were persecuted for the defense of their country, people and homeland. Through his perseverance, courage and sacrifice, Gen. Gotovina has become the rightful successor to Tudjman: a moral and political titan who towers above the rest. Every day that Gen. Gotovina eludes capture, he delivers another nail into the coffin of Del Ponte and her quislings in Zagreb. He must never surrender. He is carrying the destiny of his nation on his shoulders. He is Croatia's hero.

- Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a historian and contributor to the Commentary Pages of The Washington Times. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Fatal Embrace: The Croat-Serb Conflict in the 20th Century.” Mr. Kuhner would like to give special thanks to Ivana Arapovic for her invaluable research assistance in the writing of this article. Mr. Kuhner can be reached at

Photos on flickr

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Address in The Hague:

Ante Gotovina, P.O. Box 13888, 2501 EW The Hague, The Netherlands