The Croatian government’s reaction to the recent sentencing and suicide of Bosnian Croat war criminal Slobodan Praljak reveals Croatia’s ongoing problems with nationalism and inability to address its past crimes.
On November 28, 2017, Praljak and five other Bosnian Croats were sentenced for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague (Netherlands). According to the ICTY, the men were “key participants in a joint criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims” during the Yugoslav wars (1991-1995).
After his twenty-year prison sentence was announced, Praljak committed suicide by drinking poison in the court room and exclaiming: “I, Slobodan Praljak, reject the verdict. I’m not a war criminal.” The verdict was broadcast live on TV. Praljak was brought to a hospital, where he died within hours.
The case against Praljak and his entourage highlights Croatia’s often forgotten role as an imperial aggressor that violated the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and committed ethnically and religiously motivated violence during the Yugoslav wars.
For most of the war, Croatians, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Muslims were allies. Having been targeted by Serbs in their efforts to create a “Greater Serbia” by occupying and ethnically cleansing Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Croatia, Bosnian Croats and Muslims shared a common victim and refugee experience. But, as Croatian forces were establishing the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia in southwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, they also began waging war against the local Bosnian Muslim population in 1992.
Violence against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina was supported by the country’s then-President Franjo Tuđman (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ), who governed the country as an authoritarian from 1990 until 1999. Of course, not all Croats supported the violence and, indeed, many Bosnian Croats opposed Croatia’s nationalist policies toward Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Still, since the war’s end, there has been little discussion in Croatia about the country’s war crimes. To the contrary, Croatia has depicted itself as a heroic actor during the war. In fact, immediately after the ICTY verdict, the Republic of Croatia (headed by the nationalist HDZ) issued an official statement, reiterating the country’s so-called “positive” war credentials. According to the text, Bosnia and Herzegovina would not have become independent had Bosnian Croats not supported its independence from Yugoslavia in a 1992 referendum. The statement also claims that, with U.S. support, Croatian forces worked with the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina to liberate the latter’s territory from Bosnian Serb military occupation in 1995, and to prevent the Bosnian Serb military from conducting another Srebrenica-like genocide.
While the statement expresses the Croatian government’s condolences to all the war’s victims, at its core, it perpetuates a distorted view of Croatia’s role in the conflict. In memorializing the government’s opposition to the ICTY verdict, the statement claims that it “did not take into account the historical truth and facts,” describing the allegations against the accused as “unfounded and politically unacceptable” and saying the government “would consider all legal and political mechanisms available to contest [the verdict].”
On November 29, 2017, Croatia’s prime minister, Andrej Plenković (HDZ), called the verdicts an injustice and gave his condolences to the family of Praljak, who he referred to using the honorific “general.” Similarly, in a speech on November 30, 2017, Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović (HDZ), expressed her condolences to the family of “general” Praljak. While she admitted that some Croatians committed crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Grabar Kitarović stressed Croatia’s positive role in the war. She also rejected the ICTY verdict as an attack against the Croatian people, claiming that “no one, not even the Hague tribunal, will write our history. We will fight with all legal and political means for truth and justice.”
Since his death, Praljak has been widely celebrated as a hero and martyr in Croatia and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatian-speaking media has also used his suicide as an occasion to promote patriotism. These reactions are not, however, simply about the death of one man. They reveal Croatia’s fear of dealing with its past.
The country sees itself as a victim of the Yugoslav wars. When legislators, state representatives, and the media speak of “truth,” they imagine an alternative past, in which Croatian politicians and military personnel acted legally and with moral responsibility. But this is not an accurate rendering of the past. While Croatia was attacked by Serb forces and fighting for its independence, the country committed war crimes through its individual officials. This reality remains obscured, however, by the current surge in nationalism, which effectively glorifies war crimes and criminals in Croatia.