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Dealing with the Past in Post-war Croatia: Perceptions, Problems, and Perspectives

Part of the Springer Series in Transitional Justice book series (SSTJ)


This chapter analyzes results of research on attitudes of the Croatian public about dealing with the past and the perception of victims of the 1991–1995 war, conducted by a civil society organization Documenta—Centre for Dealing with the Past from Zagreb, the aim of which is to develop social and individual processes of dealing with the past. The chapter opens up a discussion on the meaning of these results for the process of dealing with the past in Croatia. Moreover, it gives an overview of developments and improvements that have occurred since the time when the research was conducted. Furthermore, it discusses transitional justice mechanisms which foster reconciliation in post-war Croatia, such as war crimes trials, regional commission for truth-telling, public apologies, and memorialization practices, and also gives a brief overview of the latest events in these fields, as well as an assessment of their role in post-conflict reconciliation and dealing with the past.

The chapter concludes with recommendations for future actions that need to take place in Croatia in the upcoming period in order to foster reconciliation and speed up the process of dealing with the past.


  • International Criminal
  • Civil Society Organization
  • Transitional Justice
  • Joint Criminal Enterprise
  • County Court

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  1. 1.

    Documenta—Centre for Dealing with the Past is a civil society organization from Zagreb which aims to develop social and individual processes of dealing with the past in order to build sustainable peace in Croatia and the wider region, through deepening of public dialogue and initiating debate on public policies which stimulate dealing with the past, gathering and publishing documentation and research of war incidents, war crimes, and violations of human rights; as well as monitoring judicial processes at local and regional level as a contribution to the advancement of judicial standards and practices in the processing of war crimes. Results of the survey mentioned in this chapter have been analyzed, and the chapter written, during my employment with Documenta.

  2. 2.

    Although conducted back in 2006, this research is still relevant for understanding dealing with the past processes in Croatia, since it usually takes longer time for changes in this field to take place and for people to change their attitudes and opinions as a result of certain public activities and processes. Moreover, no similar scientific research has been done in the meantime. The research was published as late as 2010 due to difficulties in securing financial funds for its publishing.

  3. 3.

    According to Louis Bickford, the term itself is misleading, as it more commonly refers to “justice during transition” than to any form of modified or altered justice. See (Bickford 2004, p. 1045).

  4. 4.

    The “Homeland War” is the official name of the war fought for state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Croatia, which took place between 1991 and 1995.

  5. 5.

    The research included a sample of the general Croatian public and two sub-samples. In the sample of general population, 700 people were interviewed. In each sub-sample (people of Serbian nationality from war-affected areas and people of Croatian nationality from war-affected areas) 150 people were interviewed. All respondents were older than 18.

  6. 6.

    Ovčara is an agricultural property near the town of Vukovar where a war crime was committed by members of the Yugoslav National Army and Serbian paramilitary forces in the night between November 20, 1991 and November 21, 1991. More than 200 civilians and soldiers were killed, who were mostly patients at the Vukovar hospital from which they were taken and brought first to a camp and then killed at Ovčara. It is considered to be the largest slaughter of individuals committed during the war in Croatia. Thirteen people were found guilty in March 2009 before the War Crimes Council of the District Court in Belgrade for the war crime committed at Ovčara. They were sentenced to between five and twenty years in prison. Moreover, the ICTY sentenced, in the third non-appealable verdict made in December 2010, Yugoslav National Army major Veselin Šljivančanin to 10 years in prison for helping and supporting the crime at Ovčara. He was granted an early release on July 5, 2011. Mile Mrkšić was sentenced in 2009 to 20 years in prison for “having aided and abetted the murder and torture of prisoners” (ICTY 2007).

  7. 7.

    During the military operation “Storm,” which happened on August 5, 1995, all of the occupied Croatian territory was brought back under the Croatian legal order, except for Eastern Slavonija which was peacefully re-integrated later. “Strom,” next to the “Flash,” was the crucial military operation, which led to the end of the war. During the operation, some 18.4% of Croatia’s territory was liberated. In April 2011, the ICTY brought a first degree verdict against two Croatian army generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, who were sentenced to 24 and 18 years in prison respectively for war crimes committed against Serbian civilians during the operation “Storm.” The verdict also directly identified President Franjo Tuđman as part of a joint criminal enterprise dedicated to expelling Serb residents of the country’s Krajina region. The ICTY, however, did not rule that Operation “Storm” as a whole was a “joint criminal enterprise.” Rather the judges ruled that some aspects of the military offensive violated international law (ICTY 2011).

  8. 8.

    Ante Gotovina was arrested on the Canary Islands and extradited to the ICTY in The Hague in December 2005.

  9. 9.

    For an extensive analysis of the “hero” and “martyr” symbolism of Ante Gotovina in the perception of the Croatian public see (Pavlaković 2010).

  10. 10.

    For a more detailed discussion on the role of the media during the war in former Yugoslavia see (Đerić 2008), (Skopljanac Brunner et al. 2000), and (Thompson 1999).

  11. 11.

    The so-called “coalition of six” won the parliamentary elections in 2000 against the ruling HDZ party (Croatian Democratic Union), which had been in power for 10 years. The coalition consisted of six left-oriented parties: Social-Democratic Party (SDP), Liberal Party (LS), Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS), Istrian Democratic Party (IDS), Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS), and Croatian People’s Party (HNS).

  12. 12.

    See Narodne novine [the Official Gazette], 41/2000, April 18, 2000.

  13. 13.

    See Narodne novine [the Official Gazette], 175/2003, November 4, 2003.

  14. 14.

    However, war-crimes cases were not transferred exclusively to war-crimes chambers at these four courts, and such cases continued to be prosecuted at other county courts. Human rights organizations, however, continued insisting that exclusively these four courts needed to be authorized for prosecuting and trying war crimes, in order to make trials more professional, unbiased, and more effective. See (Stojanović and Kruhonja 2011) This was made legally possible due to the amendment to the Law on the Implementation of the Statute of the International Criminal Court and on the Prosecution of Crimes against the International Law of War and Humanitarian Law, which was adopted in October 2011 (Stojanović and Sjekavica 2012).

  15. 15.

    According to the State Attorney’s Office, quoted in their annual report on monitoring war-crimes trials by three human rights organizations, Documenta—Centre for Dealing with the Past, Civic Committee for Human Rights and Centre for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights Osijek, by the end of 2011, 104 members of Croatian army forces have been tried, while 29 have been convicted based on non-appealable verdicts. See (Stojanović and Sjekavica 2012).

  16. 16.

    In March 2006, after the Croatian Supreme Court annulled the acquittals from August 2004, all eight accused were convicted and sentenced to 6–8 years in prison.

  17. 17.

    Chapter 23 was a chapter in Croatia’s negotiations on the accession to the European Union, which related to the state’s judiciary and fundamental rights.

  18. 18.

    A discussion on the role of the EU accession process and EU conditionality on transitional justice processes in Croatia falls outside the scope of this chapter. For an extensive analysis see (Subotić 2009), (Batt and Obradovic-Wochnik 2009) and (Rangelov 2006).

  19. 19.

    These are: Documenta—Centre for Dealing with the Past from Zagreb, Humanitarian Law Centre from Belgrade, and Research and Documentation Centre from Sarajevo.

  20. 20.

    For an extensive discussion about RECOM initiative see Jill Irvine and Patrice McMahon. A Movement in the Making? The “REKOM” Coalition and Transitional Justice in the Balkans in this volume.

  21. 21.

    However, many other factors which influenced low support to RECOM need to be taken into consideration, such as a hard economic crisis in the country and high level of unemployment of the population, which left people more concerned with problems of everyday survival, rather than with regional cooperation on fact-finding and reconciliation.

  22. 22.

    For an extensive analysis of Croatian National Television’s (HRT) reporting on the indictments to generals Ante Gotovina, Ivan Čermak, and Mladen Markač see (Preliminary Results 2011).

  23. 23.

    Due to the number of official apologizes that can be heard, Nenad Dimitrijević remarks that “we seem to be living in an age of political apology” (Dimitrijević 2011).

  24. 24.

    President of Serbia, Boris Tadić, is the first high-ranking Serbian official who apologized in June 2007 to citizens of Croatia and members of the Croatian nation for crimes committed in the past war by some of his co-citizens, in the name of the Serbian people. He apologized while appearing on the TV show “Nedjeljom u 2” (Sundays at 2) on the Croatian National Television. Moreover, some more informal apologies should also be mentioned, such as the one given by a non-governmental organization Women in Black from Belgrade. Members of the organization went to Vukovar in November 2006 to ask families of victims of crimes committed in Vukovar for forgiveness (Tadić ponovio ispriku Hrvatima zbog rata 2007).


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Correspondence to Tamara Banjeglav .

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Banjeglav, T. (2013). Dealing with the Past in Post-war Croatia: Perceptions, Problems, and Perspectives. In: Simić, O., Volčič, Z. (eds) Transitional Justice and Civil Society in the Balkans. Springer Series in Transitional Justice. Springer, New York, NY.

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