The General gives up
After two weeks in hiding, the former Croatian army general suspected of war crimes during the Serb rebellion of 1991 to 1995, Mirko Norac, gave himself up to the court in Rijeka on Wednesday. His surrender followed a deal with the authorities—a deal that still has several of its elements shrouded in mystery.
The investigating judge told reporters that Gen Norac claimed he only knew about the deaths for which he is alleged to bear responsibility "from the media" and had nothing to do with the killings of 40 Serbs in Gospić in 1991. He insisted that as local army commander he had never violated any international conventions on the conduct of war. The judge said the charges had been raised only after an extensive investigation. At his arraignment, the general refused to answer any further questions after issuing his denial.
Part of the deal which brought him in included a commitment by the Ministry of Justice that he would not be sent for trial in The Hague. Prime Minister Ivica Račan made a formal announcement that the domestic courts had priority over the international war crimes tribunal, and the tribunal itself issued a statement saying it did not intend to call for his extradition. The General then handed himself over.
What will the veterans do now?
Večernji list reported that pursuing the indictment against Gen Norac will prove problematic for the government. He is widely considered to be a war hero, especially by veterans of what is universally described as a national war of independence, who blocked roads for two weeks in protest at the charges. They are unlikely to abandon their protests now that the general has given himself up, although they have scaled them down considerably. The veterans are demanding that all those involved in the "war for the homeland" should be exempt from further investigation of war crimes.
But the need to pursue a human rights agenda, including prosecuting those who breached international law during the recent conflicts, is bound to be important if Croatia is to continue on the road to greater integration with the rest of Europe. Vjesnik reported that the government is now less likely than ever to abandon the prosecution, and if Norac is found guilty he could face up to 20 years in prison.
Other generals demand referendum
Having failed to force the government to resign over the case of Gen Norac, the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has changed its strategy and is now calling for a referendum on the issue of trials against former military commanders and war veterans.
Ten of the twelve generals who have already published an open letter demanding an end to "slander against the Homeland War," signed a petition organised by the HVIDRA, the Croatian Association of Invalids and Defenders of the Homeland War, at a small rally on Friday in the Ban Jelačić Square in the centre of Zagreb, calling for a popular vote before any prosecutions go ahead.
Pulling down the upper house
Another battle between the six-party coalition government and the opposition party founded by the late president Franjo Tuđman, HDZ, is expected over the future of the upper house of parliament, the House of Counties. The government says the chamber is ineffective and powerless, and wants to abolish it. But the HDZ has a majority and wants to retain its voice there.
Elections are due in three months for local authority and regional governments that provide the members of the upper house. The opposition accuses the government of running scared and not wanting a humiliating defeat in those elections. Latest opinion polls still show the coalition has the support of the majority of Croats, but that support is waning.
A new report from Bulgaria highlights the importance of Croatia as a transit route for illegal drugs on their way to western Europe. The narcotics arrive in Turkey from Central Asia and Afghanistan, are carried through Bulgaria, and then go either to Romania or Yugoslavia. From there, Bosnia and Croatia are the next steps along the way. Bulgaria has seized nearly three tonnes of narcotics in recent raids; the worrying part of that good news is that it can only be estimated how much larger an amount of illegal drugs get through, since Bulgarian customs officers are not world-renowned for their efficiency or incorruptibility.
The smuggling methods have changed over the past few years. In the early 1990s traffickers used cars with drugs hidden in door panels or welded into false floors. Now they have upgraded their preferred vehicles to buses and heavy trucks. Smuggling by air is less profitable because only small quantities can be carried, and the chance of detection is higher.
The increase in illegal trade is an unfortunate side-effect of the growing regional trade between Balkan countries. At a regional summit on Friday, which Croatia attended as an observer, Southeast Europe Stability Pact Coordinator Bodo Hombach sought to encourage regional governments to do much more to ease trade and bring down tariff barriers.
The most important requirement, all the leaders agreed, is the rapid improvement of the region's infrastructure and legal framework. Once people can trade easily and safely, said the final statement, the Balkans represents a market of 55 million consumers whose wealth is increasing.
China can help
Croatia can expect further help with its own economic development following the week's visit by Chinese State Councillor Wu Yi. She met President Stipe Mesić and promise improved relations in economy and trade. She also thanked Croatia "for its consistent stand on Taiwan"—translation: thanks for not making the same mistake as Macedonia and taking all the money being offered to Balkan countries for recognition of Taiwan's independence.
Dan Damon, 25 February 2001
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