Milosovec at the Hague

In the latest instalment of the cycle of trials at the Hague, where Milosevic is charged with alleged war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, the current president of Croatia Stjepan Mesic and Slobodan Milosevic had a much anticipated confrontation. According to the Serbian and Croatian press, the televised verbal duel between Milosevic and Mesic in the Hague courtroom was closely watched by approximately 90% of the total population in each state.

As a witness against Milosevic, the choice of Stjepan Mesic seems somewhat unusual, if not downright bizarre. Most citizens in both Serbia and Croatia remember all too well his most quoted and notorious utterance. At the beginning of December 1991, Mesic, the author of the book "How we brought about the collapse of Yugoslavia", announced in the Croatian parliament: "I think my mission has been accomplished, Yugoslavia no longer exists ." Six months later, in May 1992, the late president Franjo Tudjman reminded those assembled in the Ban Josip Jelacic Square in Zagreb: "The war could not have happened had Croatia not wanted it. Had we not done it, had we not armed ourselves, we would not have achieved our goal!"

The problem of history

So began the Croatian chapter. In the aftermath, history has become so entangled with the contested questions raised at the Milosevic trial, that is becoming quite clear to the public that British judge Richard May and his team (South Korea’s Kwan and Jamaica’s Robinson) are on "mission impossible" ..

To date, judge May has consistently antagonized the Serbian and Yugoslav public with his utter neglect and scorn for historical context. But his statement that "Jasenovac (a WWII concentration camp in which some 700 000 Serbs were slaughtered by Croatian fascists) is irrelevant to the fear experienced by Serbs in Croatia" at the outset of the war is shocking and incomprehensible. Similarly, the claim made by Mesic in his testimony that during World War II in Yugoslavia "mostly Jews and some Serbs" met their doom, is ripe for debate (the genocide of the Serbs in Croatia during the WWII is acknowledged as one of the most horrendous episodes in the whole war).

May dismissively concluded that fifty years is too distant a history to account for the fear of Serbs in Krajina at the outbreak of hostilities. He did not even falter when his own prosecution witness, identified only as C37 from Pakrac (a village in Croatia), substantiated that during the time of Tito’s rule (the former Yugoslav president for life), he had learned in "Croatian schools that 700 000 Serbs perished in Jasenovac."

Throughout the first few days of the trial regarding the case of Croatia, countless such instances occurred in which the prosecution presented as uncontestable a very partial version of history that is unacceptable, if not insulting, for the Serbian public. The prosecution has tried to corroborate this version through their witnesses, a strategy which has ultimately proved to be very risky. Even their first witness, C37, testified that his father had perished in a concentration camp, and that for Serbs in Krajina at the outset of the latest war, this history had been cause for great fear and insecurity.

Milosevic proficiently exploits these historical inaccuracies that have been handed to him on a platter by the prosecution, relishing the opportunity to point out the obvious discrepancies, because they provide him with the opportunity to portray the entire proceedings as a trial against the Serbian people. This plays into his strategy, because in doing so, he is able to portray himself as their "ad hoc" defender.

The Enigma of Karadjordjevo

It became clear very early in the court conversation between Milosevic and Mesic, two lucid politicians and lawyers, that Stjepan Mesic would not prove to be an effective witness against Milosevic. When speaking of the political aspirations of the former president of the neighbouring state (Serbia), the Croatian president characterized them as a conscious effort to destroy Yugoslavia, as the homogenization of all Serbs who inhabited it, and the gradual creation of a "greater Serbia." Mesic substantiated his claim that Belgrade officials of the nineties were responsible for the war by citing Milosevic’s famous speech in Kosovo, and the "serbianization" campaign of the JNA (Yugoslav national army) during the armed rebellion of Serbs in Croatia.

Milosevic immediately countered that this was a case of thesis substitution. "It turns out that you were for Yugoslavia, while I contrived to break it up. Well this would be the laughing stock of any child in Serbia, mister Mesic!" "That may be, but I am not on trial here, you are!" was the answer. Which was again met by Milosevic’s acerbic: "That is the point, mister Mesic, that is the point!"

However, Stjepan Mesic’s testimony in the Hague did reveal two key points. The first was the Croatian president’s confirmation of the authenticity of key documents that revealed the modus operandi and decision making process of the former Presidency of the SFRJ (Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the former Yugoslav state founded after WWII).

The second revelation is much more significant for the internal politics of Croatia – more so than for Serbia. It has to do with the well-known meeting of Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic in a small place called Karadjordjevo in March 1991. Stjepan Mesic testified in the Hague that Tudjman told him at the time that he was going to meet Slobodan Milosevic alone in Karadjordjevo. According to Mesic’s testimony, the late Croatian president returned to Zagreb a changed man. Mesic claims that Tudjman had always, until that meeting with Milosevic, supported the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Hertzegovina. But he returned from Karadjordjevo convinced that Croatia would be able to return to its territorial boundaries from 1939 (the province of "Banovina" at the time). Though the public remained ignorant of this fact for a long time, the formation of the Serbian Republic and the Croatian Republic of "Herzeg-Bosnia" soon followed, and it became clear that new borders were being drawn in Yugoslavia. Stjepan Mesic also stated that "expert commissions" were appointed for the configuration of those borders, and convened secret meetings in Belgrade and Zagreb during this period.

Unlike Slobodan Milosevic, who almost completely disregarded the matter of Karadjordjevo in his cross-examination, Mesic’s testimony sent a shockwave through Croatia, particularly to politicians in Zagreb. The extreme Croatian right is furious, arguing that that Mesic is betraying his country cheaply, selling it out and not for the first time. Meanwhile, war veterans are angrily demanding that he be relieved of his presidential duties.

The torments of Mesic

The dispute on the nature of the Belgrade regime at the Hague was also the most sensitive and perilous element of Stjepan Mesic’s testimony. Although, on his first day in court, he gave strong arguments on all of the circumstances he faced as the last president of the Yugoslav presidency in the former SFRJ, he failed to respond with precise answers when cross-examined by Milosevic on the second day of the trial. Particularly striking was the fact that he could not, nor did he attempt to, deny the intense climate of fear that the Serbs in Zagreb and the rest of Croatia were subjected to in the nineties. When Slobodan Milosevic quoted with astounding precision the racist slogans that were proclaimed in the Croatian National Parliament in the fall of 1990, Mesic acknowledged that those statements damaged Croatia’s reputation. But he responded by shifting the blame for them, arguing that Milosevic was responsible for them, not the authors of these slogans, nor he himself (since Mesic had been president of the Zagreb parliament at the time). Soon after, many thousands of Serbs from Croatia lost their jobs in state management, the media, public companies and industry. When Milosevic asked whether such a threatening atmosphere in Croatia had the Serbs in Zagreb worried, and whether Mesic himself returned from Belgrade in order to instigate a rebellion against the "national government" (of the SFRY), Mesic acknowledge that incidents such as those had occurred. Then he immediately returned to the war motive of "greater Serbian" borders. He claimed that the border was created by the army and paramilitary formations, along with Serb insurgents in Croatia, controlled and armed by Milosevic himself.

Though it was expected prior to their confrontation in court that Milosevic would seek to undermine the moral and political value of the current Croatian president’s testimony, Stjepan Mesic was perceptibly unnerved by Milosevic’s questions about his time in prison between 1975 and 1976. Mesic testified that he had been the mayor of Orahovica at the time, and that he ended up in jail because of an inflammatory nationalist statement that "Croats cleared the path to the Adriatic sea with our swords, while all the others arrived there simply due to our kindness or our naiveté". He was sentenced to two years in prison, yet his sentence was soon halved. Slobodan Milosevic attempted to prove or at least imply that the reduction of his sentence occurred due to Mesic’s collaboration with the departments of national security in Croatia and Yugoslavia. Mesic denied this, but failed to respond to Milosevic’s direct questions with plausible answers.

The parting with Tudjman

One of the weakest points in Stjepan Mesic’s verbal confrontation with Milosevic was the polemic concerning his rift with Tudjman, the ruling party of the time, the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Community), and official Croatian politics in the spring of 1994. Mesic claimed that he parted with Tudjman based on their disagreement over the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, because Tudjman refused to end the state plunder of Croatia, and because Tudjman was clearly not prone to abide by the law and a lawful state. Milosevic responded by asking the obvious: why hadn’t he demonstrated those concerns sooner, rather than staying on as the second most powerful man in the Croatian government during the most horrible crimes against the Croatian Serbs (many of which still remain unpunished)? His meaningless reply, that the country had by that time been exposed to " Serbian aggression", returned the story back to the beginning.

The initial encounter

After the cross-examination of the strongest Croatian witness against Milosevic, the prosecution must have been very disappointed. The two presidents of states once on a war path, the former and the current one, squabbled endlessly over the country that no longer exists, only to wave their responsibility for the war in which it perished. Not even twelve years later, now that borders, states, ethnicities of the population and the leaders have all changed, none of the protagonists of the Yugoslav drama is willing to claim their share of the blame for its disappearance from the political map of Europe and the world. Milosevic wants to be remembered as its protector, and Mesic refuses to take any blame for the war.

This was starkly illustrated by Stjepan Mesic’s description of his first personal encounter with Slobodan Milosevic. It was in the spring of 1991, in Belgrade. The then president of Serbia invited Mesic and the late president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, to his office to discuss the possible consequences of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Tudjman carefully examined a map that Milosevic claimed had been drawn up by the most renowned world experts. Tudjman put the map in his pocket and carried it with him to Zagreb. There he repeated Milosevic’s words, and some time later, they both met in Karadjordjevo and reached an agreement on Bosnia. The origin and the real meaning of this unusual map, that supposedly depicted terrible consequences for Croats and Serbs in case of Yugoslav disintegration, has never been determined nor confirmed. Prosecutor Nice showed little concern over the issue. He sarcastically remarked that he himself could obtain all the necessary maps on Southeastern Europe. Even if it meant "walking into the nearest Hague supermarket and buying the first available highway map". So much for law and sovereignty, states and borders, along with the seriousness of the Hague "Tribunal."

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