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347. Eye of the Storm: The ICTY, Commemorations and Contested Histories of Croatia's Homeland War

Vjeran Pavlakovic is an NCEEER Research Scholar working in Zagreb, Croatia. He spoke and an EES Noon Discussion on November 14, 2007. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 347.

On August 5, 2007, Croatia celebrated the twelfth anniversary of Operation Storm (Oluja), the four-day military action that liberated over 10,000 square kilometers (18.4 percent of Croatia) after peace negations to reintegrate the territory failed to make progress. The entire Croatian political leadership gathered in Knin, the capital of the former Krajina para-state and the actual and symbolic center of the Serb rebellion against rule from Zagreb. Since 1996, Croatia has commemorated the day Knin fell to the Croatian Army as the Day of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving.

While President Stjepan Mesic, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, and Speaker of the Parliament Vladimir Seks (along with numerous other Croatian politicians) gathered in the fortress above Knin to watch the ceremonial raising of the Croatian flag, several thousand veterans marched through the streets below. As in previous years, politicians used the spotlight to declare Operation Storm the "most brilliant page in Croatian history" and once again denounce Belgrade as the aggressor of the 1990s.

Amid the celebrations, the question of war crimes and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) invariably came up. Although not as aggressively as in 2005, on the tenth anniversary of Operation Storm, opposition parties criticized the government for arresting "Croatian heroes" and sending them to The Hague. Many of the generals who had joined the first Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, on the Knin fortress in 1995 had subsequently been indicted by the ICTY for alleged war crimes. Shirts supporting General Ante Gotovina (who had been a fugitive for more than four years before being arrested in 2005) were sold on the streets, and pro-Gotovina billboards, posters and graffiti decorated Knin's buildings. Meanwhile, in Serbia, President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica once again issued declarations calling Operation Storm the greatest act of ethnic cleansing since World War Two and a planned criminal operation.

As the commemoration in Knin concluded with a Mass, Sanader told the gathered reporters that "no one is going to write Croatian history but us," adding that he would "not allow any institutions to falsify history," clearly alluding to the ICTY. This statement, which Sanader repeated on a number of other occasions, highlights how the annual commemorations of the Homeland War are interwoven with Croatia's foreign policy, domestic politics, relations with the ICTY, and an understanding of the recent past. What does it mean when the head of a government argues for exclusive rights on writing history? And to what degree can politics dictate which historians are considered legitimate? Croatia's current political situation, namely efforts at Euro-Atlantic integration and obligations to the ICTY, have helped to reawaken insecurities over the "control of the past," especially when considering the country's experience with communist and fascist regimes in the twentieth century, as well as previous centuries of foreign rule.

Two processes in Croatia have significantly affected the way history is being constructed, for the most part without the participation of historians: first, through commemorations and other political rituals and, second, through war crimes trials and international tribunals. Whereas Croatian politicians used public commemorations to create a purely victorious narrative of the founding of the state, the ICTY has arguably constructed a counter-narrative that casts Croatia not only as a victim, but also as a perpetrator of crimes. The interplay of these two processes provides an insight into how the country deals with the difficult legacy of Yugoslavia's violent destruction.

Commemorating the Homeland War
Commemorations, along with other political rituals such as rallies, parades, anniversaries and other mass gatherings, are symbolic public activities that are often used by the politicians to construct a grand narrative of a nation's history. Symbols and rituals play a particularly important role in states that have recently achieved independence and nationhood, in order to legitimate the new governing institutions, territorial integrity and borders, and a ruling elite that lay claim to the founding myths of the country. In communist Yugoslavia, the legitimating historical narrative centered on World War II. For newly independent Croatia, the Homeland War (1991–1995) provides the dominant narrative. In the 1990s, President Tudjman was obsessed with constructing new political rituals which connected the modern state with certain aspects of Croatia's past, particularly those emphasizing the continuity of Croatian statehood and sovereignty.

War commemorations are important rituals for a society to remember the dead, grieve for the victims of violence, and honor the soldiers who gave their lives for their country. This is no different in Croatia, which suffered thousands of casualties and widespread destruction in its struggle for independence. But these commemorations also often serve as platforms for politicians to ensure that their version of the past is what gets recorded as history. Moreover, the content of commemorations can serve as a gauge of how a society remembers its past.

The two most important commemorations of the Homeland War are the siege (and fall) of Vukovar (November 18) and the aforementioned Day of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving centered in Knin (August 5). The public ceremonies of these two defining moments of the war in Croatia clearly reveal two prominent images, victim and victor, in the dominant narrative of the recent past. Vukovar remains a symbol of Croatian suffering and Serbian aggression, the vicious destruction of cultural monuments, ethnic cleansing and the merciless attack against civilians by the Yugoslav People's Army, which culminated in the massacre of more than 200 Croatian prisoners at the Ovcara farm in 1991. The central event of the Vukovar commemoration is a symbolic "column of memory" that follows the 5.5 km route from the Vukovar hospital (where wounded Croatian defenders and civilians were captured and taken to Ovcara) to the Memorial Cemetery of the Homeland War Victims. A wreath-laying ceremony at the monument at Ovcara, located on a former pig farm on the outskirts of town, is also a prominent component of every commemoration held in Vukovar.

At the 2007 commemoration, a former commander of the town's defense declared that "the most important thing is that Vukovar becomes a place for the collective memory of the Croatian people." That memory is exclusively one of victimization, and exclusively ethnic Croatian victimization at the hands of "Serbian aggressors," which is reinforced by the commemorations. The fact that Serb civilians were killed by Croatian extremists during the conflict, or that many Serbs remained loyal to Croatia and contributed to the defense of Vukovar, is overlooked in the simplified "Serb versus Croat" version of history perpetuated through public rituals. There is no doubt that Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, backed by the Yugoslav People's Army and Croatian Serb paramilitaries, committed numerous crimes in the war against Croatia, but placing collective guilt at the feet of all Serbs obstructs reconciliation and distorts the historical record.

The annual commemoration of Operation Storm in Knin presents a radically different side of the Homeland War narrative. Successfully liberating occupied Croatian territory and ultimately "winning" the war, that is, securing independence and international recognition, are emphasized triumphantly on August 5. Memory of war victims, while present, plays far less of a role than during the Vukovar commemorations. Under Tudjman, the town of Knin was not always at the center of the ceremonies; the now practically forgotten Altar of the Homeland above Zagreb and Miragoj Cemetery were locations where the Croatian political leaders would make appearances on this day. In 1997, Tudjman chose August 5 as the day for his inauguration in front of St. Mark's cathedral in Zagreb, seeking to cement his personal legacy with that of the victorious Homeland War. But Knin remained a powerful site of memory. It had been the seat of medieval Croatian kings, as well as the heart of the Serb rebellion in the 1990s, and after 2000 it once again became the central stage for this key public ritual of the Homeland War.

In 2004, the new HDZ government set the precedent that all of the top Croatian politicians (president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament) should attend the commemoration in Knin, emphasizing the importance of this date and place in the national consciousness. However, the tenth anniversary of Operation Storm in 2005 overtly revealed that several contested versions of the recent past existed, which not only affected internal Croatian politics, but influenced Croatia's relations with its neighbors. Right-wing political parties upset with Croatian cooperation with the ICTY organized counter-commemorations, and a new supplement for history high school textbooks dealing with the 1990s provoked considerable public debate before ultimately being scrapped by the Ministry of Education because of the controversy.

More important was the impact on relations with Serbia, which had been steadily improving. Croatian politicians called Operation Storm "a most brilliant victory, unsullied, in accordance with international and all other laws," and "a glorious military operation." The destruction of thousands of Serbian homes, murder of several hundred civilians, and exodus of at least 150,000 Croatian Serbs were brushed off as "events that took place on the margins of the operation." While there is a consensus in Croatia about the legitimacy of Operation Storm, the failure of the Tudjman government to condemn the crimes that did occur raises questions as to its complicity in tolerating collective punishment against Croatia's Serbs. It is not surprising, therefore, that until 2006 Croatian Serb political parties refused to be part of the commemoration in Knin.

As noted earlier, the response in Belgrade in both 2005 and 2007 revealed a radically different narrative of Operation Storm. President Boris Tadic compared Operation Storm to the genocide in Srebrenica and alleged it "was an organized crime, the planned murder of people and the deprivation the fundamental human right—the right to life." This counter-commemoration in Belgrade provided yet another simplified narrative, stripped of the historical context of the war in Croatia in the 1990s and exculpating the Serbian political leadership for the tragedy of Croatia's Serbs in the Krajina. Efforts at reconciliation between Serbia and Croatia invariably suffer each year as the politicized interpretations of the recent past are combined with raw emotions and traumatic memory of the war in Croatia at these ritualized public recollections.

The ICTY as historian?
A second factor in the construction of recent Croatian history is the role of the ICTY. The war crimes tribunal in The Hague has had a profound impact on Croatian politics, international relations and the perception of the past, as well as how the Homeland War is commemorated. Sanader's repeated declarations that only Croatia can write its own history have been directed at alleged attempts of the ICTY "rewriting" the narrative of the war in the 1990s. Tribunal officials have openly stated that their work will impact the historical record of Yugoslavia's destruction, even though most legal scholars and social scientists have been critical of attempts by criminal courts taking on the mantle of historian (including the selective use of evidence and inability of the courtroom schedule to accommodate the broad social context necessary for historical work). Furthermore, it has become evident that the ICTY is overly politicized in its relations with the Yugoslav successor states. Despite the shortcomings of a "tribunal as historian," there is little doubt about the impact of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials on the historical narrative of the Holocaust and World War Two. It is therefore quite likely that the ICTY will have a similar affect on how the history of the Homeland War is written, regardless of the debates over the legitimacy of that tribunal.

In the case of Operation Storm, for which three Croatian generals were indicted (Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac, and Ivan Cermak), the annual commemorations for this military action vividly reflected Croatia's relations with the tribunal. Under Tudjman, commemorating August 5 was always a purely triumphant affair, with no mention of any possible wrongdoings on the Croatian side. During the 1990s, the belief that no war crimes could be committed by the side defending itself against aggression prevailed, and the Croatian government hesitantly cooperated with the ICTY only when pressured by the international community. Generals who would subsequently find themselves on ICTY indictments, such as Mirko Norac and Gotovina, were prominent guests in Knin and other sites of memory for Homeland War commemorations.

However, alongside the legitimate operations of the Croatian Army there were clear cases of war crimes, such as during the aftermath of Operation Storm. Had the Croatian government taken prompt action to publicly condemn crimes against Serb civilians and the destruction of their property, the ICTY would have been less likely to intervene. But since Tudjman showed little incentive in punishing those responsible for crimes in Gospic, the Medak Pocket and Operation Storm, to name a few examples, it was possible to see that he either tolerated collective retribution against Croatia's Serbs or, as alleged in several indictments, actively planned that collective retribution. After 2000, as the first post-Tudjman government recognized the ICTY's jurisdiction over all military activity in the 1990s, a number of Croatian generals were indicted and disappeared from the commemorations.

Not only were some of the main protagonists of the heroic Homeland War narrative missing from public ceremonies, but Croatian politicians had to address, and actually incorporate, the issue of cooperation with the ICTY at commemorations of Operation Storm. Prime Minister Ivica Racan's center-left government (2000–2003) faced such vitriolic criticism from the right-wing for its cooperation with the ICTY that Racan avoided going to Knin in 2002 and 2003, fearing massive demonstrations at such a symbolic place. Even Sanader's HDZ, with its nationalist credentials, has faced counter-commemorations and protests in Knin. The rhetoric at the anniversary Operation Storm has also changed, with Croatian politicians acknowledging that war crimes did occur and that there were Serbian victims as well, something that would have been unimaginable under Tudjman. The Croatian leadership has insisted, however, that these were individual crimes which must be separated from Operation Storm, and that under no circumstances can it be considered planned ethnic cleansing. This is of the utmost importance for Croatian national interests, as the trial of Gotovina, Cermak, and Markac, accused of being part of a "joint criminal enterprise" allegedly involving the entire political and military leadership, is scheduled to begin in 2008.

Both the ICTY and politicized commemorations will continue to shape the public perceptions and understanding of the Homeland War (and the wars in Yugoslavia more broadly), even as a new generation of Croatian and foreign historians have begun to publish serious studies about Operation Storm and other events in the 1990s. While the Hague tribunal can be discredited as a "historian," the archives collected by the ICTY and transcripts from the trials have become invaluable to researchers working on this time period. The ICTY has also become woven into the fabric of war commemorations in Croatia and across the region. In 2007, the commemoration in Vukovar was overshadowed by the light sentences given to Yugoslav People's Army commanders accused of the Ovcara massacre. In Srebrenica, the presence of former chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte sparked controversies, while in Serbia Ratko Mladic has become a prominent symbol in demonstrations against the West and resistance to the ICTY.

In Croatia, commemorations will continue to memorialize certain aspects of the Homeland War, and different versions of the past will exist for different ethnic and political groups. Serbia and Croatia will construct their own narratives of what happened in the 1990s, even though cooperation between Serbian and Croatian historians is now more common. Leaders in the region will also need to abandon the manipulation of the past for narrow political interests and the perpetuation of nationalist myths if liberal democratic societies are to flourish. However, it will be a long time before history and commemorations will contribute to reconciliation, and not exclusive narratives of victimization, as the memories and wounds of the war are still not healed.


About the Author

Vjeran I. Pavlakovic

Former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar;
Assistant professor and Chair, Department of Cultural Studies, University of Rijeka, Croatia
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