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Uncivil War

Croatia rejects The Hague’s shock therapy, and gains a new saint.

by Uffe Andersen 10 January 2018

“For the first time, I was not ashamed of landing in Zagreb,” a journalist from Croatia’s Vecernji list wrote after being one of the first to arrive at the capital’s new airport in March last year.


But apart a number of technical problems that soon surfaced, Croats now have more serious reason to feel awkward about their new, expensive airport – because they chose to name it after Franjo Tudjman.


Tudjman in 1989 founded what is still Croatia’s leading party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and through the 1991-1995 wars led the country to its independence from Yugoslavia as its president until his death in 1999. He’s regarded as the country’s Founding Father, and across Croatia 300 monuments have been raised to him, and countless streets and squares carry his name. Against this background, it was natural to christen the country’s new pride, its main airport, after him.


The problem is that the story about Tudjman told by Croatia’s institutions, as well as by the large majority of politicians and media, glosses over the story known by the rest of the world.


‘Detrimental to the Croatian People’


When Franjo Tudjman Airport opened in Zagreb, in The Hague the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was working on an appeal launched by six Bosnian Croats. In 2013 they had been sentenced to a total of 111 years in prison for having ethnically cleansed Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) from western Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. They did this, the court found, through such means as murder, torture, robbery, rape, and expulsion. At the head of the enterprise allegedly stood none other than Croatia’s then president, Tudjman.


The six appealed, and the final ruling was read out on 29 November 2017. The hearing was the last ever held by the ICTY, and turned into the most dramatic in its 24-year history. Upon learning that his 20-year sentence for war crimes had been upheld, Slobodan Praljak shouted that he was no war criminal, and drank poison from a bottle that he’d smuggled into the court. He died shortly afterward – a turn of events that created a huge stir across the region, and even worldwide.


But though a personal tragedy, the suicide wasn’t why Croat media filled dozens of pages, and hours of broadcast, with discussions about the verdict. Instead, the reason is that the ICTY keeps pointing to the wartime Croat trio of Tudjman, his defense minister, and his chief of staff, as having taken a leading role in directing ethnic cleansing.


The six Bosnian Croats were found guilty of working to create a region cleansed of Muslims in the west of Bosnia-Herzegovina, naming it "Herceg-Bosna." The plan was for this statelet to be highly autonomous or even join Croatia. As Tudjman said at a 1991 meeting with Croatian leaders from Bosnia:


“One should not count on Bosnia-Herzegovina as something God-given that should go on existing [...], and in any case its continued existence would be detrimental to the Croatian people.”


At the time, Croatia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia, but the war had not as yet broken out in Bosnia, which was still a Yugoslav republic. In addition to the presence of Croatia’s regular army in Bosnia during the war, it’s this kind of statement that made the ICTY see Tudjman as coordinating the Herceg-Bosna project. Given the combined 111 years in prison handed out to the six defendants, a Sarajevo paper seemed justified in concluding that “The Hague has buried Herceg-Bosna.”


But it would be going too far to assume that Zagreb’s Franjo Tudjman Airport would be in for a renaming. 


“The Republic of Croatia led a just and legitimate, defensive and liberating war,” the Croatian parliament stated in 2000 in a declaration that formally expressed the state-approved Truth about the 1991-1995 secession war, officially named the Homeland War. Croatia exclusively “defended its territory against Greater Serbian aggression inside its internationally recognized borders,” the parliament stressed.


The Homeland War Declaration has ever since been the official version of the war. It’s ingrained in education, media, and politics, and has dictated the rules of behavior in Croatia’s public sphere. That’s why the 29 November verdict came as such a profound shock.


On the preceding day, a political scientist at Zagreb University presented his new book, War and Myth: The Politics of Identity in Contemporary Croatia. The author, Dejan Jovic, shows how the Croatian state “through a political directive about how to interpret the recent past [the declaration] engages in a process of preventing pluralism, and thereby freedom.”


According to Jovic, through such dictates about True History, “there’s an effort to form a myth about the Homeland War which is then protected against criticism, and forced upon everyone” as the very foundation of the Croatian state.


How this functions in daily life was demonstrated just days earlier, when the host of the popular Sunday at 2 talk show on the public TV channel HRT suggested to his guest that the rebellion by Croatia’s ethnic Serbs against the incipient independent Croatian state in 1991, apart from having elements of “aggression” from Serbia, was also a “civil war.”


His guest was an ethnic Serb who had fought on the Croatian side – while his own brother fought on the Serbian side. This seems close to the very definition of a civil war, but in Croatia this “c-word” is taboo – given that the 2000 Declaration proclaims the war exclusively the result of ”Serbian aggression.”


HRT reacted by distancing itself from its own journalist, stressing that its employees must “respect Croatia’s laws, including those concerning the Homeland War and the establishment of today’s free, sovereign, and democratic Republic of Croatia.”


Liberally minded media, intellectuals, and politicians warned that HRT in this way was bringing into question that very notion of freedom and democracy. And reactions to the 29 November verdict made such question marks loom large.


In numerous public statements, individuals were called out for their supposed role in generating the denial of the appeal. To give one example, the country’s arguably most influential politician, Vladimir Seks, condemned a former president, Stipe Mesic, “as having contributed to Croatia being publicly shamed and crucified`. “In a sense, he’s also responsible for General Praljak’s death,” Seks added.


Accusations of treason and death threats were flung at politicians, journalists, and others who allegedly talked more about the Bosniak victims than about the sentenced Croats, or even hinted that Croatia had indeed been involved in crimes in Bosnia.


In this way, the “myth” that Jovic has described has been “forced upon everyone” since the war. The ICTY verdict is an existential threat to this myth. In response, public discourse has assumed even stronger mythical features.


“In the prison in Athens, 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates drank poison to show his contempt for the unjust accusations,” said the host of HRT’s discussion program Otvoreno as he opened the show on 29 November. “In the same way, Slobodan Praljak today showed his contempt for the Hague Tribunal by drinking poison in court.”


During the discussion, Praljak was called “a personality from the classical period, from Antiquity’s heroic age.” Another analyst simply predicted, “Croatia will have a new saint.”


The Tudjman Doctrine


Across the country, and in Croat-inhabited areas of Bosnia, masses were held for Praljak, while the Croatian parliament held a minute of silence in honor of “all victims” of the Bosnian war, mentioning Praljak in particular. The Hague’s verdict “doesn’t respect the historical truth, the facts, and proof, and as such is unjust and unacceptable,” the legislators stated.


According to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, Praljak’s suicide “best expresses the deep moral injustice done to the six Croats from Bosnia-Herzegovina and to the Croatian people.”


So, while Bosniaks hope that “The Hague has buried Herceg-Bosna,” many Croats see themselves as victims and are unlikely to abstain from demands – which are growing louder – to give the Croats in Bosnia more autonomy. Many Bosniaks feel this to be an effort to reach Herceg-Bosna’s goals in peacetime.


When Croatia’s initial reactions to the Hague verdicts aroused sharp criticism abroad, Plenkovic stated that Croatia “respects the sentence,” though it will still work to revise “parts of it.”


In this context it was seen as significant that neither Plenkovic nor President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic attended the large commemoration for Praljak in Zagreb on 11 December.


But, as noted above, according to the ICTY, Praljak was a pawn in a larger “criminal enterprise” involving Tudjman, the head of the Croatian state. So more important than official Croatia’s attitude to Praljak is its attitude to Tudjman – which was clearly seen the preceding day.


The 10th of December was the 18th anniversary of Tudjman’s death. Wreaths and flowers were laid at his grave, and speeches were given without a single word of criticism, or even a hint at the Hague verdict.


“Franjo Tudjman recognized the signs of the times,” Prime Minister Plenkovic said, apparently not thinking of the ethnic cleansing so widespread in the then Yugoslavia. He meant, rather, Tudjman’s decision to grasp the chance to secede from Yugoslavia, and as Plenkovic put it, to “create democratic processes, a free and democratic Croatia.” Today, Croats must – while striving for social justice and the rule of law – “stick to his doctrine,” Plenkovic said.


During his lifetime, many Croats saw Tudjman as outright undermining social justice and the rule of law through his cronyism, not to mention military adventures, but it’s clear that the Croatian elites have no intention of giving up Tudjman’s “doctrine.”


What this means for Croatian ambitions in Bosnia, time will tell. But it seems certain that few Croats in the foreseeable future will blush when touching down at Zagreb Airport – at least, none who will publicly admit to it.

Uffe Andersen is a journalist based in Smederevo, Serbia.

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