Although it’s been more than two weeks since the acquittal of the Croat generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač – accused of committing war crimes during the Serb-Croat war in the 1990s – emotions in the region have continued to run high. Each side explains their release differently; for the Serbs, it is a scandal and yet more proof of the anti-Serbian bias and one-sidedness of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). For the Croats, the ruling came as confirmation of the legitimacy of Operation Storm, which took place in the summer of 1995, when Croatian forces retook much of the territory previously seized by the Serbs, and a triumphal victory in an ongoing Balkan dispute: who was the victim in the war and who the aggressor.

In its initial verdict in April 2011, the Hague Tribunal found Gotovina and Markač, commanders of the Croatian army during the Balkan conflict, guilty of war crimes, including plunder, inhumane treatment, murder, wanton destruction and looting. However, by a 3-2 majority, the ICTY has now overruled that decision and fully acquitted both generals of all charges except one: that they knew about crimes committed by their subordinates and should have investigated them.

The acquittal and subsequent release of Gotovina – who is a national hero – and Markač, was received with extraordinary enthusiasm in Croatia. In most cities the reading of the Hague verdict was broadcast live on large screens in public places. Many viewers prayed silently in anticipation of the ruling. After the acquittal, the madness began. Veterans cried openly, and so did the women and the war-wounded.

Diaspora celebrate

A national frenzy broke out not only in Croatia, but around the world as the Croatian diaspora marked their their joy at the ruling. Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandžukić ran to the side of the pitch and gave a salute after scoring a goal, in a gesture widely interpreted by most Croats as supporting the generals’ acquittal.

The Serbs reacted quickly to the acquittal and the subsequent Croat euphoria. A conference on the legacy of the Hague Tribunal was cancelled in Belgrade. The ICTY had “completely lost its credibility”, said Serbian Foreign Minister, Rasim Ljacić, while Deputy PM in charge of European integration, Suzana Grubješić, cancelled her planned visit to Zagreb, where she was to extend a protocol on Serb-Croat cooperation in EU integration. A few days later, Serbian prosecutors started six new inquiries into Croat war crimes allegedly committed during Operation Storm. “In this way we are trying to balance out this gross injustice,” said Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor, Vladimir Vukčević, openly speaking of his government’s intentions. Serbian prosecutors were already running a number of investigations into crimes allegedly committed during the conflict in the other Yugoslav republics. This has often led to bitter controversies, notably with the Bosnia-Herzegovina government.

The purpose of Operation Storm, which began in August 1995 by General Gotovina, was to drive Serbian forces out of Krajina, a region formerly belonging to Croatia. Most Croats see the campaign as a decisive clash in a war that was exclusively defensive. Following a series of defeats, it was only Operation Storm that brought the conflict to a conclusion, in favour of the Croats. Of course, there were civilian casualties, but those are seldom mentioned in Croatia because they don’t tally with the “defensive war” story. There were more than 600 Serbian casualties in Operation Storm, mainly old or sickly people who were unable or unwilling to flee from Krajina. A total of 600 dead and 200,000 forced to flee – these are figures that no one forgets in Serbia. Families of the victims, most of whom are based in Serbia today, were outraged by the Hague ruling. The few Serbs living in Krajina, preferring not to stick their necks out, have remained silent.

Search for justice

Members of Croatian non-governmental organisations, led by activists Vesna Teršelić and Zoran Pusić, stress that Croatia must not forget the crimes committed by its own troops – another dark face of the confict. But people like them are in minority.

Croatia has yet to see any army officers sentenced for crimes committed during Operation Storm. While a number of Croat soldiers have faced trial over killings in the battle, all have been acquitted. Among the crimes that remain unpunished, are those committed in the villages of Mokro Polje and Golubić on August 6, 1995; the attacks on refugees on August 7-8 that year; as well as crimes in the villages of Komic and Grubori on August 25, also in 1995, where Croatian soldiers murdered 80-year-old Miloš Grubor, 65-year-old Jovo Grubar, 90-year-old Marie Grubor, 41-year-old Duro Karanović and 51-year-old Milica Grubor.

Croatian PM Zoran Milanović and President Ivo Josipović refused to succumb to the nationwide euphoria and stressed that Croatia will bring those responsible for war crimes to justice as soon as possible, although as this comes 17 years since the end of the war, the pledge sounded somewhat hollow.

Everyone was surprised, though, by Ante Gotovina’s comment, when he was asked by the Belgrade tabloid daily Kurir if he himself would call upon Serbs to return to Krajina: “How can I call upon anyone to return to their own home? It’s their home! They [Serbs] are citizens of Croatia. They are with us. We are together. We must go on. The future belongs to us. The past is past.”

Although nearly two decades have passed since the war, and despite the good deal of work done by the Hague Tribunal, each of the post-Yugoslav countries has its own vision of the war. Just as in Serbia no one speaks about the victims of the Serbian crimes in Vukovar or Sarajevo, so in Croatia only a handful of “traitors” mention the crimes committed against the Serbs. And it is not only the two countries. A similar policy of self-denial has been evident in relations between Serbia and Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and recently even between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.

The governments in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Pristina, Podgorica and Skopje have become used to ups and downs in diplomatic relations. They easily make accusations, take offence and stir up the masses. The kind of courage that was recently shown by a group of Serbian veterans, who went to Srebrenica, laid flowers at the Genocide Memorial and met the families of the Bosniaks buried there, is still seldom to be found among politicians in the region.