Dealing with the legacy of the past

On July 1 Croatia will join the European Union. How has the country dealt with its recent wartime past? Interview with Balkans specialist Dr Janine Clark (University of Sheffield).

An important condition for EU membership was Croatia’s cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), that investigates the war crimes of the early nineties in the Western Balkans. This condition has been met by Croatia. But how is Croatian society dealing with its wartime past? Dr Clark did field research in several Croatian cities and published the results in the Journal of International Criminal Justice.

What does your case study of Vukovar reveal about reconciliation in Croatia?
Janine Clark:
It must be emphasized that not all of Croatia suffered like Vukovar did. The intensity of the war in Vukovar, the fact that the town was under siege for three months and the massacre of 164 people at nearby Ovčara mean that the challenges to reconciliation are particularly great in Vukovar. Yet while Vukovar is not representative of the whole of Croatia, it is a microcosm of the complexities of reconciliation in a post-conflict society such as Croatia. Reconciliation is a slow and difficult process, it requires commitment from all sides (including political and religious institutions) and a fundamental part of the process is the re-building of inter-ethnic trust.

Is there still much hatred in Croatia, or have people come to terms with the past?

Janine Clark: During my fieldwork in Croatia (specifically in Vukovar, Knin and
more broadly the former Krajina), I have encountered little inter-ethnic hatred. The vast majority of people are tired of war. They feel that they have already lost too much and now they just want to live normal lives. Whenever I asked people about the current situation, they never emphasized inter-ethnic problems and tensions.
On the contrary, they almost always existed that such problems do not exist. Instead, time and time again, interviewees wanted to speak about the economic situation and the lack of jobs. This does not mean that people have dealt with the past. Serbs and Croats continue to adhere to fundamentally opposing and apparently irreconcilable war narratives, each side maintains that it was simply defending itself and there is a strong absence of inter-ethnic trust. Even though Serbs and Croats do socialize together (they drink coffee together, play cards together, etc.), interviewees repeatedly insisted that relationships have changed. They explained that Serbs and Croats no longer visit each other’s houses like they once did, they no longer celebrate holidays together and there are ‘walls’ and ‘barriers’ between people now.

After general Ante Gotovina was found “not guilty” of war crimes by the ICTY, he was welcomed in Croatia as a hero. What does this reaction tell about Croatian society?
Janine Clark:
The fact that Croats widely regard Ante Gotovina as a hero attests to the rigidity of the Croat war narrative, according to which Croats were fighting a purely defensive war, a domovinski rat (Homeland War).
This meta narrative allows little space for acknowledgement of Croat war crimes; the preservation of the sanctity of the Homeland War requires that Croat war crimes are overlooked rather than confronted.
For Croats, Gotovina epitomizes and symbolizes the justness of the Croatian war effort, and this is why they could never accept the verdict of the ICTY Trial Chamber (which the Appeals Chamber has since overturned) that ‘their general’ was guilty of war crimes.

How is the Serb minority in Croatia threated today?

Janine Clark: I would not say that the Serb minority is actually threatened in
Croatia today. Serbs in Croatia are in a much better position than Serbs in Kosovo. Nevertheless, Serbs in Croatia today face certain challenges. For example, some are still trying to resolve complex property issues arising from the war, some feel that they are not welcome in their communities and some feel uncomfortable speaking Serbian in public places. There is also a strong belief among Serbs in Croatia that they are discriminated against in the job market, as a punishment for the war. Although there is high unemployment across Croatia, particularly in places such as Vukovar and Knin, Serbs frequently believe that it is especially difficult for them to find work.

How is the ICTY viewed by Croatian society?
Janine Clark:
The ICTY is not a popular institution in Croatia. There is a
widespread belief among Croats that the ICTY is an anti-Croat tribunal. In their eyes, how else can we explain the fact that the Tribunal has prosecuted Croatian ‘heroes’ such as Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač and convicted Bosnian Croat ‘defenders’ such as Tihomir Blaškić, while failing to prosecute anyone for the siege of Vukovar?
The Tribunal is similarly unpopular among Serbs in Croatia. They feel that the Tribunal has overlooked crimes against Serbs, not least the killing of (mainly elderly) Serb civilians during and in the aftermath of Operation Storm. Now that both Gotovina and Markač have been acquitted at the ICTY, the victims of Operation Storm and their families believe that they will never receive justice.

Do Croatian politicians speak the language of hatred or reconciliation?
Janine Clark:
Croatian politicians continue to propagate the notion that Croatia
was fighting a purely defensive war and repeatedly praise the ‘branitelji’, the ‘defenders’ who fought to make Croatia’s 1,000-year-old dream of independent statehood a reality. They are not encouraging Croats to confront their past, and in this way they are not aiding reconciliation.

To summarize: what kind of country is entering the EU?

Janine Clark: Croatia is acountry that has yet to confront and deal with the legacy of its past, a country that continues to face many challenges (in term of reconciliation, minorities, the economy) and a country with a population that is heavily divided on whether and to what extent the citizens of Croatia will benefit from EU membership.

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