Using and Abusing the Hague Tribunal

The International Tribunal in The Hague was intended as a Sword of Damocles for human rights violators in the Balkans. Within the Balkans, however, it has become a political tool that both nationalists and their opponents exploit in a never-ending game of divide and (hope to) rule. Croatia provides a textbook case of this.

Snags and fissures now bedevil Croatia's infant democratic reforms. The reasons are connected to Premier Ivica Racan's unwillingness to tackle the centers of power left behind by the regime of the late President Franjo Tudjman, whose nationalist-minded party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), was voted out of office in January 2001 following Tudjman's death in December 1999. Tudjman forged an authoritarian regime that blurred the distinctions between HDZ and state agencies, in particular the army and police. This muddied legacy remains at the heart of Croatia's current problems and its relations with the Hague Tribunal.

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In January 2001 the then new Premier Ivica Racan faced a sharp choice: swiftly purge state bureaucracies of Tudjman's partisans or yield to the obstructive ploys of HDZ loyalists. True to Racan's instinctive indecisiveness, the Prime Minister dallied. He preferred to concentrate on constitutional reforms that were largely interpreted as a bid to strip the new president, Stjepan Mesic (himself a longtime opponent of Tudjman) of the robust executive powers Tudjman wrote into the constitution for himself.

Meanwhile, the new government failed to investigate numerous war crimes, miscarriages of justice, and the corruption of the Tudjman era. This failure emboldened HDZ loyalists to test the Racan government's resolve.

One favorite trick was to create enormous obstacles to even minimal attempts at cracking down on war criminals. In September 2000, following the assassination of a Hague Tribunal witness and the arrest of a Croatian commander accused of massacring Serbs in 1991, twelve army generals published a letter calling for the defense of Croat veterans and a halt to ``the negative and historically unfounded representation'' of Croatia's record in the Balkan wars. In a rare show of state determination, President Mesic suspended and forced into retirement all twelve officers. Several went on to join and lead a new party - Croatian Integrity and Prosperity (HIP), organized by Tudjman's eldest son Miroslav, the former chief of the Croatian intelligence service.

Parrying with Tudjman loyalists continued into the spring of this year, with the arrest of Mirko Norac, one of the twelve generals, who was accused of massacring Serb civilians in 1991. Various veterans' organizations staged mass rallies against the ``treacherous'' government of Mesic and Racan. These pressures would not have been as damaging had they not met with approval in parts of Racan's ruling coalition, especially from Drazen Budisa's Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), and also among influential Catholic bishops. Weakened, the government became psychologically prepared for still greater concessions.

In July, the Hague Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia charged two Croatian generals - Rahim Ademi and Ante Gotovina - with war crimes. Instead of turning them over to the tribunal, Racan used the opportunity for a power play, requesting a parliamentary vote of confidence for what was intended to be a soft-pedaling of the Hague Tribunal's warrants.

This provoked the resignation of Budisa from the presidency of the Social Liberal Party, inciting a virtual split in this key coalition partner, the only party in the government coalition that wanted to resist the Hague Tribunal. Despite this, Racan won his vote of confidence and secured a modicum of stability within his cabinet. Still, the various factions that comprise the Tudjmanite opposition gained a chance to pull Budisa toward them, creating a new center of political gravity for the next crisis.

The Hague Tribunal is often blamed for burdening fragile reform governments in Croatia and Serbia with unreasonable requests that play into the hands of nationalist politicians. This is true to the extent that the Tribunal is insensitive to the intricate balancing expected of officials in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. For example, the pre-trial release of Biljana Plavsic, one of the most culpable of Bosnian Serb leaders, in exchange for her evidently ample testimony would make more sense had the Tribunal been equally accommodating on less culpable non-Serb defendants.

A reluctance to prosecute war criminals is an asset that Balkan governments use in order to pacify their nationalist audience and, indeed, to avoid the thorny problems of a thoroughgoing reform. Racan would not have had to deal with the Hague Tribunal had he the courage to begin his own housekeeping and investigations of Tudjman's cronies and the war criminals the deceased president protected.

Now, Premier Racan is cashing in on his procrastination over Tudjman acolytes, hoping that they will be as generous with him should they return to government. For in Croatia, every new regime issues a plenary absolution for its predecessors. A tiny elite is thus insulated from serious challenges and, ultimately, of responsibility for anything, even the most heinous of crimes.