Can the government tough it out?
The battle of wills between the government and the opposition over the indictment of General Mirko Norac on war crimes charges related to the war from 1991 to 1995 continued during the week, bringing expressions of concern from the international community and messages of support from the country's new Western friends.
Globus gave its opinion on Wednesday that the mass protests in support of the runaway general, who has promised to give himself up on several occasions but had not done so by the time of going to press, would go on for many days yet. But 57 percent of Croats do not want early elections, as called for by the opposition, and while a smaller proportion want to see Norac tried, the newspaper believes General Norac would do his duty by his country if he gave himself up to a Croatian court.
War veterans and supporters of the opposition continued to block the streets, although in smaller numbers than before. 4000 turned up to a rally in the St Marco square in Zagreb on Thursday, far fewer than the 100,000 who demonstrated in the coastal town of Split on Sunday. The Split region of Croatia has a reputation for a harder line on nationalist issues. But it may also be the case that the support for Norac is divided. Some now believe he should give himself up and protest his innocence in court. He would then be able to expose the weakness of the current government.
Others take a more radical view—that he would never get a fair trial, and should continue to act as a catalyst for mass protest until the government is brought down.
"A crime is a crime"
Amongst the protesters on Thursday were about a hundred from extreme nationalist organisations carrying the symbols of the NDH, the pro-Nazi puppet regime that ran Croatia during the Second World War. Most of those on the square, though, simply don't believe that anyone should be tried for their part in the struggle for independence that followed a rebellion by Serbs in parts of Croatia in 1990 and 1991.
"A crime is a crime, but Norac is a symbol of our independence struggle" said a 64-year-old pensioner at the rally, quoted by Associated Press. The Catholic Church, which had appeared to back General Norac at the start of the protests, has now begun to soften its support. Priests failed to show up to hold a mass for the protesters.
Fighting in parliament
President Stipe Mesić announced that General Norac had asked to meet him, but didn't turn up for a meeting. Talks between intermediaries for General Norac and government officials were continuing, said the President, but the government could not agree to the General's demand that he be given assurances he would not be extradited to The Hague. Nacional reported that the General also wants to remain at liberty while the charges against him are investigated, but the government says that is a decision for the judiciary.
But the government is under a lot of pressure to back down in order to take some of the heat out of the situation. At the moment, almost all political life in Croatia is dominated by the Norac case. In parliament, passions got out of control and the session had to be suspended. One deputy for the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Ljubo Česić Rojs stuck a member of the ruling coalition, and was removed from the chamber.
Logs and tourists
For the moment, the government seems determined to tough things out. The President has said he will not apologise for a remark he made earlier comparing the current wave of protests to the log blockades erected across main roads by Serbian rebels in 1990. Then Serbs armed with hunting rifles stopped tourist buses full of bemused and somewhat frightened Italians and Germans to make sure they were not Croatian policemen in disguise. Naturally the tourist trade took a terrible blow from such treatment.
On Croatian television on Tuesday, Mr Mesić said the effect of the current protests would be the same. "What would happen if the road blockades were to continue? USD four to five million would flow out of Croatia, or would not come here. It is obvious that some want to score political points by wreaking havoc. If we lose the tourist season, if we isolate Croatia, then we don't stand a chance."
The Council of Europe urged the Croatian government to "maintain its firm stand" in a statement on Wednesday. The latest protests are "a dangerous display of nationalism and the exploitation of patriotic feelings by certain political forces," said the Council's secretary general, Walter Schwimmer.
"As a member state of the Council of Europe and of the United Nations, Croatia should abide by the rule of lwa and co-operate closely with The Hague tribunal, complying in particular with its orders of surrender and transfer of indicted war criminals," added Mr Schwimmer. The Hague tribunal has not yet issued a public indictment of General Norac.
One other story from the week: Croatia is under pressure from Hungary not to go ahead with the construction of a dam in the border area between the two countries. Croatia plans to build a power plant and hydro-electric dam on the Drava river, near the point where three borders between Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary meet.
Hungary already has experience of problems with its neighbours over dams. The dispute over Gabčikovo-Nagymaros dam on Hungary's northern border with Slovakia ended up in the International Court of Justice. The project was agreed by the former Communist leaders of the two countries and threatened ecological disaster to one of Central Europe's few remaining wild areas.
Now the Croatian plan for the Drava is causing similar anger in Hungary. The river would be diverted for a 3.5 kilometre stretch, reducing the water flow and threatening to dry up wetlands that are home to some unique wildlife. The Hungarian enviroment minister, Béla Turi-Kovács, warned "if not handled properly, this could develop into a very nasty situation."
Dan Damon, 18 February 2001
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