Many Croats frown when the international community refers to them as being “in the Balkans.” I should know: I am one. The Balkans are far too savage, far too uncivilized for our savvy, faux-Western-European tastes! After all, darlings, we were ruled by the Habsburgs once! Ah, Austria, the land of Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss – how could we go wrong? The good old days of foreign domination…
So it perhaps comes with no surprise that Croatia has had a rough time owning up to the savage, uncivilized, and bloody parts of its past, namely: war crimes committed during the Balkan conflict in the early-mid ‘90s.
Ante Gotovina, a former Croatian army general and key war crimes suspect, was finally arrested after four years on the run from the international authorities. I make a point to say international
, because the Croatian government had taken very few steps to actually bring the man to justice, which was in itself a major point of contention in the consideration of Croatia for entry into the European Union.
Gotovina led Croatian forces in the 1995 Operation Storm, a military action aimed at taking over (or “ethnically cleansing”) Croatia’s Krajina region from Serbs. The UN war crimes tribunal charges followed in 2001, alleging that the General failed to prevent the slaughter of 150 Serbs, and coordinated the rather-typical-for-the-Balkans “pillage-and-plunder” activities in the Serb-held areas.
Still, in the four years this war criminal pranced around the world, hopping through Argentina, Chile, Russia, China, the Czech Republic, Tahiti and Mauritius, many in his native land considered him nothing other than a national hero.
Even after his capture in a Canary Island restaurant by the Spanish authorities, he remains a hero in the eyes of many. According to a telephone poll
conducted by a major Croatian newspaper, Vecernji List
, immediately after Gotovina’s capture, 47% of the Croatian public stated that they do not support the arrest. In other words, almost half of the country is still so blinded by nationalism that they consider a mass-murderer to be a saint.
I have no doubts that this arrest will once again fast-track Croatia’s entry into the EU. But has this one event truly demonstrated Croatia’s readiness to join? What was really disturbing to me was not so much the fact that Gotovina had not been caught yet, but that such a large percentage of Croatia’s public still supported the man
. The “we can do no wrong” nationalistic mindset that came to the forefront during Franjo Tudjman’s
reign is still there. Is it only a matter of time before that same nationalism sparks more ethnic problems?
And will entry into the European Union really change many Croats’ view that their country is outside the reach of international human rights laws? I want to hope so, but I am not holding my breath.
If I were a well-known journalist, I would probably get hate mail and scary phone calls in the middle of the night for what I am about to say, but I am an anonymous blogger, so here it goes: the Balkans will be the Balkans
. No matter how hard some former Yugoslav states are trying to deny this integral part of their political and cultural identity, they are not succeeding. Not yet, anyways.
Croats and Serbs are still too much alike, too wrapped up in their nationalistic, “small bite, big bark” mentality to break away from the cycle of violence that resurfaces in that area every fifty years or so. As many of us who grew up in an era of self-help books, Oprah and Dr. Phil know, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. Croatia and Serbia are not there yet.
Think about this. Following Gotovina’s arrest, hundreds of his supporters clashed with the police in Zagreb, and unrest
followed all over Croatia. In November, Serbia’s Institute for Literature and Art attempted to promote Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic
– war criminals and murderers of thousands of innocent Bosniaks and Croats – as “heroes of Serbian epic poetry
I rest my case.
Now that Gotovina is in custody, I am keeping my fingers crossed that Mladic and Karadzic are next. And then, after the international limelight fades from the crimes of three men, maybe we can focus on some 19 million people in Croatia, Serbia & Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina who could use a little help with their 12 Step Program.