Former Croatian parliamentary deputy says Serbs lived in fear after nationalists swept to power in Zagreb in 1990.
By Michael Farquhar in London (TU No 440, 17-Feb-06)
A former member of Croatia’s parliament has told judges in the trial of ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic that the success of nationalists in the country’s first multi-party elections in 1990 ushered in an era of fear for local Serbs.
Marko Atlagic, a Serb who entered parliament on behalf of the multi-ethnic Croatian Socialists’ Alliance during that year’s groundbreaking election, said Franjo Tudjman’s victorious Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, soon embarked on a campaign of “Croatisation”.
The new authorities, he said, were determined to break from Yugoslavia and displayed nostalgia for the period during the Second World War when Nazi Germany installed a puppet regime to rule a fascist “Greater Croatia”, which included parts of Bosnia and Serbia.
In the wake of the HDZ victory, he told tribunal judges, fascist iconography became prevalent and Serbs and their property were subject to violent attacks.
Milosevic is charged with playing a key role in a plan to cleanse a third of Croatia of its non-Serb population in order to make way for a new Serb-dominated state. In the process, hundreds of civilians are said to have been murdered, thousands imprisoned and over 170,000 driven from their homes.
In an effort to explain how Atlagic’s testimony related to the legal charges against him, Milosevic told the court that many of the actions by Serbs in this period were carried out in self-defence.
Atlagic said that portents of what was to come were already in evidence in the late Eighties. In 1989, he said, Tudjman announced during a speech in Germany that when he became president of Croatia, the ground in the Krajina region – long claimed by Serbs as a part of their heritage – would be “red with blood”.
According to the witness, such rhetoric was not limited to the president-to-be. At one rain-soaked rally in the run-up to the 1990 election, he recalled, Stjepan Mesic, who was shortly to become prime minister, declared that once an independent Croatian state had been formed, the entire remaining Serb population would be able to stand under a one umbrella.
Once in power, Atlagic said, Tudjman presided over efforts to create an independent Croatia devoid of Serbs. The witness labelled this alleged plan a “joint criminal enterprise”, in reference to the legal wording widely employed by prosecutors at the tribunal, including in the case against Milosevic.
He said the plan included an immediate “purge” of Serbs from sectors such as the police and the territorial defence service.
Atlagic said slogans like “We Shall Expel the Serbs” and “Hang the Serbs from Willow Trees” also became “ubiquitous” around this time, appearing on kiosks and on the facades of buildings. Far from reacting to such provocative behaviour, the authorities apparently “considered it quite normal”, he said.
The witness testified that by March 1992, more than 4,000 houses had been set on fire in Western Slavonia and some 160 Orthodox holy sites had been damaged or destroyed in attacks.
Some Serbs, he said, even went so far as to change their names in order to try to mask their identity and stay out of harm’s way. None, he claimed, did anything that might be construed as provoking the Croatian authorities.
Throughout Atlagic’s testimony, the judges overseeing Milosevic’s case repeatedly urged him to lead the witness onto evidence specifically related to the war crimes charges.
They also complained that Atlagic – who as a former member of the Croatian parliament should be a strong witness – appeared to be presenting a great deal of second-hand information, rather than testimony derived from his own experience.
Earlier in the week, prosecutors and Milosevic finished their respective examinations of Branko Kostic, a former member of the collective presidency of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, SFRY, who had been testifying since late January.
During his several weeks in the witness stand, Kostic had continually attacked the account given by prosecutors of the break-up of the SFRY in the early Nineties, which led to the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Prosecutors say that acting behind the scenes, Milosevic exerted a great deal of influence over events during this period.
In cross-examination by prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff this week, Kostic continued to argue that it was perfectly legitimate for the SFRY presidency to carry on functioning in the absence of representatives from the republics of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia. The quorum normally required to pass decisions became irrelevant when there was an “imminent threat of war”, he said.
Prosecutors have used “the Serbian bloc” as a label for the four presidency members who remained – representing Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, and Kosovo and Metohija –and argue that they were all under Milosevic’s influence.
Adding to this debate, Uertz-Retzlaff played an interview from a television documentary entitled Death of Yugoslavia, in which Kostic boasted of “a small political trick” he had been involved in at the time. The important formal declaration of an “imminent threat of war”, he explained in that interview, had in fact been buried deep down in a complex document and “went unnoticed” when it was handed to other members of the presidency to sign.
Having watched the relevant portion of the documentary in court, Kostic acknowledged that it captured “moments of honesty”.
Atlagic will return to the witness stand when the trial resumes on February 22.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London. Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting