Twilight of Heroes - Croatia, Europe and the International Tribunal
"Croatia – Twilight of Heroes" deals with the surprising and dramatic developments in Croatia following the death of its first president, Franjo Tudjman, in December 1999. It is a film about a country coming to terms with its recent past after a squalid war; about the power and influence of international war crimes courts; and about a society looking for its place in a new Europe.
This is a documentary where all the key protagonists in Croatia's transformation get their say. We speak to both of Tudjman's successors as presidents of Croatia, Stipe Mesic and Ivo Josipovic, two men who drove reconciliation between Zagreb and Croatia's neighbours and pushed for the investigation of war crimes committed by Croats. We meet the former chief prosecutor of the international tribunal in The Hague, Carla Del Ponte, who sought – but failed – to get a conviction of Croatia's most popular general. We hear from the supporters of the late president Tudjman, those bitter about the direction Croatia has taken since 1999. We talk to Ivo Sanader, former prime minister, who remade Tudjman's party, the HDZ, in pushing through EU-inspired reforms and has recently been sentenced for corruption; and to representatives of war veteran organisations. We hear the voices of writers, film makers, civil society activists who capture the scars, and shifts, of the new Croatia.
The film takes us to Vukovar where we meet victims of Serb paramilitaries and a Serb who works for inter-ethnic reconciliation; and to the Adriatic island Brijuni where Croatian Serb actor Rade Serbedzija, who returned after 12 years abroad, now stages theatre productions with a new generation of Croatian actors.
The film opens with the state funeral of Franjo Tudjman in December 1999. The man who had led his country to independence and claimed victory in its wars, culminating in the reconquest of almost a third of Croatian territory in a few days in summer 1995, had succumbed to his illness. His supporters, such as the author Nenad Ivankovic, believed Tudjman had done enough to secure his place in the eternal pantheon of Croatian national heroes: "Today, in post-modern times, it is not a nice thing to say, but the whole of world history shows: a statesman who wins a war and establishes a state – there is no greater deed than that." For Jakov Sedlar, a film director who made a film portraying Tudjman, the general and founding president, as Croatia's George Washington, it was none other than God himself who had chosen Franjo Tudjman from among millions of Croats to lead his nation through the desert of war to the holy land of independence. Read more …
In fact, however, Tudjman had also led Croatia into international isolation. He had continued to undermine neighboring Bosnia, steadfast in his determination to support a Croatian statelet in Herzegovina. He had been adamantly opposed to any return of Croatian Serb refugees. For Carla Del Ponte, the Swiss chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Tudjman was also the suspected leader of criminal conspiracies in Bosnia and Croatia, including the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Croatian Serbs from Croatia in 1995. As she told ESI, in her view Tudjman and his associates:
"Thought that if waging a legitimate war, you do not need to consider if crimes are committed, war crimes or crimes against humanity. It is 'collateral damage.' But that is why the international tribunal was created; a war is not a permission to commit crimes."
Tudjman had died before he could be indicted. Yet soon the ICTY began seeking the extradition of his senior generals. The most prominent among them was Ante Gotovina, a former member of the French foreign legion and the main architect of Croatia's 1995 reconquest of territories occupied by Serb forces. Del Ponte, backed by the EU, put enormous pressure on the Croatian leadership to have him arrested and extradited. Gotovina, a popular general among the wider Croatian public, was able to escape.
Croatia's failure to deliver all its war crime suspects to The Hague ground its European integration effort to a halt. It was only Gotovina's arrest on the Canary Islands in 2005 that opened the way for Croatia to join NATO and to conduct EU accession negotiations. It also led to a dramatic trial in The Hague. At first, having already spent 6 years in jail, Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment. One year later, in November 2012, the appeals chamber overturned the verdict with 3 to 2 votes, leading to his acquittal.
The ghost of the war crimes from the 1990s haunted Croatian society. This could be felt through the enduring trauma of a war in which hundreds of thousands of Croats had been expelled from Serb-held parts of the country as well as from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was also the enduring grief of the many had lost relatives in the violence, like the author Ivana Bodrozic. Bodrozic left Vukovar in 1991 as a small girl before it fell to Serb forces. Her father had remained behind and she never saw him again, a story she describes in her novel Hotel Zagorje. There is also the story of the radio journalist Zvezdana Polovina, who returning to Vukovar on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its fall, mourns her husband, a radio technician who was captured and executed by Serb forces in 1991 – together with 260 others – at a pig farm outside the town. Polovina later testified at the international tribunal in the Hague, but confides that she feels that justice has not yet been done:
"I think that absolute justice does not exist. We cannot bring our dead back. I know that what I am going to say now is utopian: Justice would be served only if the people who committed atrocities would go through exactly what we went through."
Politically, there was the challenge of coming to terms with the crimes committed, with direct support from Zagreb, during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Stipe Mesic, elected as Croatia's second president in 2000, had broken with Tudjman over his Bosnia policy in 1994. Ivo Josipovic, his successor, went even further, visiting the Central Bosnian village of Ahmici to commemorate the 115 Bosniak victims killed by Croat forces in the early morning hours of 16 April 1993. Speaking in the Bosnian Parliament Josipovic explained:
"The politicians of the 90s, out of ignorance, malice or insanity, believed that the solution for Bosnia was its division. So they planted a seed of evil and the feuding nations reaped death, war and destruction ... I deeply regret that Croatia, with its politics in the 90s, contributed to that. I deeply regret that these politics contributed to the deaths of people and to divisions that still haunt us."
Confronting its past had a profound impact on Croatian society. In a reversal of the "common sense" of a few years earlier, soon only a few die-hards could be found justifying ethnic cleansing of Serb civilians in 1995. This went as far as those defending Gotovina choosing to argue neither he nor the other indicted generals had actually wanted to expel Croatian Serbs.
The consequence of this was Croatia stood ready to welcome back Croatian Serbs as full citizens. After 2000 a significant number of refugees did indeed return. In 2003 in what would once have been the unthinkable, Tudjman's former party, the HDZ, entered into an alliance with the most important party of Croatian Serbs. Today 35 percent of Vukovar's inhabitants are Croatian Serbs. The nationalist narrative of Tudjman's Croatia has dissolved. According to a recent poll, less than a third of young Croats think the constitution should define their country as a Croat nation state, while four in ten oppose this view.
Yet as the spirit of the 1990s fades away, not everyone is of course delighted. For some, like Tudjman-supporter Jakov Sedlar, Croatia's post-2000 developments are troubling: "The message that Croatian politicians sent to young generations about a possible [future] war … is: Don't defend your homes, don't defend your country."
On the other hand for president Ivo Josipovic the transformation of Croatian society is one of the country's greatest achievements since independence:
"Croatia has gone through multiple transitions: It went from war to peace, from socialism to capitalism, and it also went through the sufferings of war to a society focused on development, culture, success, and on the European Union. I think that all of these transitions … resulted in the fact that Croatian society thinks differently today than it did 20 or 10 years ago."
This is making Croatia a less haunted place. For the writer Ivana Bodrozic this shift in thinking has allowed her to reconcile her own pain, that of having lost her father in a horrible and senseless war crime, with the recognition that Croatian society had to accept all that had happened during the 1990s:
"Personally, I was not ready for a long time to listen to some things that were happening to people of Serb nationality in Croatia. It's not because I am a bad person, but because your own trauma fills you so much that you feel a righteous fury and you actually do not care. However, in order to live in a healthy and normal society, you have to accept that, too."
Even those long involved in opposition politics, like Vesna Pusic, today the foreign minister of Croatia, also notes that Croatia has changed a lot during the past decade:
"I think if you want a clean start you have to face things that were good, but also the things that were bad. I strongly believe that there is no national interest and no national position that you defend with concentration camps."