Interview with American Ambassador Okun
Interview by Jadranka Juresko-Kero in the Vecernji List, Zagreb April 15, 2006
translated from Vecernji List by Hilda M. Foley
American Ambassador Herbert S. Okun speaks about Milosevic, Tudjman, the war, the negotiations ...
Ambassador Herbert S. Okun has spent a full thirty six years in the service of the State Department and
American diplomacy. Born in New York 76 years ago to a immigrant Russian Jewish family, he did not continue his father's successful tradition in the food supply branch, the manufacture and distribution of food, but instead received his education at the prestigious American universities Stanford and Harvard and from his 25th year on devoted his life completely to diplomacy. He spent his first time in Croatia in 1957 as a tourist. He was immediately impressed by the beauty of Hvar and Dubrovnik. He returned to Croatia in 1990, first as the executive director of a nonprofit financial group that offered help in the establishment of a free market in the post-communist countries of the eastern block. Soon after, he exchanged his voluntary role with one of official duty as the deputy of Cyrus Vance, the special emissary of the United Nations' Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali., actively spending time in the areas of former Yugoslavia from 1991-1993. Today he lectures international relations at Yale and John Hopkins.
Interviewer: Once you commented that you already realized during the first meeting with Milosevic that one is dealing with a man of bad character, capable of anything!
- Yes, I met Milosevic in Belgrade on Dec. 12, 1990. I arrived with a group of business people and Cyrus Vance and I had a private meeting with Milosevic. Observing how he talked and acted I could not come to any other conclusion than Milosevic being a common gangster. You know, those types from Mafia movies with cigars in their mouths, who try to express themselves very theatrically but in reality are selling fog. The American ambassador at that time in Belgrade, Warren Zimmerman, spoke of Milosevic as a charming person. I was shocked. I said to him: "Don't you see that he is a gangster?" Unfortunately I was right, because it was soon apparent that the war and all the crimes were initiated by Milosevic, that he was a liar and a politician who did not honor agreements nor his signature.
Interviewer: You were the vice-chairman of the International Conference for former Yugoslavia in the negotiations regarding the arrival of UNPROFOR in Croatia. Could the war had been prevented in Croatia if the West had intervened in time?
- When I was in Belgrade in 1990 I asked everyone - from Milosevic to ordinary people, taxi drivers, waiters - do they think it will come to war, they all answered, can you imagine, that this is not possible.
My experience told me that this was not correct, that war was coming because I did not trust Milosevic.
I asked him for instance on the eve of elections in Serbia if the JNA (Yugoslav National Army) has a considerable role in the country. He answered that it does not. "Mr. Okun", he said, "we are building democracy". The next day a saw his picture with the JNA generals in the Politika (newspaper).
I warned that one cannot trust him. But Milosevic knew how to manipulate the foreign media and politicians. He constantly kept repeating that "Croatians are making necklaces from fingers of Serb children". Just imagine such statements! The West tried to stop the war more than is known or deduced in public, but Milosevic did not want it. Lord Carrington and Cyrus Vance offered a plan for the so-called peaceful separation of all sides in Yugoslavia, but while Croats accepted discourse plans, were signing everything and showing that they want peace, in Belgrade everything was the opposite.
Interviewer: What were your impressions of President Tudjman?
- I can say openly that I liked Tudjman because he was a serious politician who kept his word. True, he had a rigid style of behavior which many falsely interpreted, especially western journalists, but all my experiences with Tudjman are positive. After all, Tudjman, who led his country in war, with an imposed arms embargo, could not act like Gandhi. He was cooperative, wanted peace and actively participated in negotiations in the Haag, Geneva and Zagreb. They resented that he changed street names from the communist times and while he was doing that, Milosevic was killing Croatians in eastern Slavonia.
I was with Tudjman when the exodus of Croatians from Ilok began. He said to me: "Mr. Ambassador,
do something, it is terrible what my people are experiencing". then Vance called Milosevic but he answered that he does not know what he is talking about, that he has nothing to do with Ilok. That man never spoke the truth. Tudjman was intelligent, he knew history, and speaking openly, with his leadership Croatians through Operation Storm and other military actions saved Bosnia Herzegovina. At a meeting in Sarajevo in 1991 Izetbegovic told me that he will demand of the JNA to leave BiH and I asked him: "Where is your army, who will defend you if the JNA does not comply?" I quickly realized that in Bosnia only the Croats offered organized defense and saved it from downfall, something often kept quiet by the media as well as politicians.
Interviewer: You created the Vance plan which stopped the war in Croatia. Did you have difficulties in the realization of the plan?
- After some fifteen armistices pronounced by the EC which no one honored, we turned to a different logic, and that was that the armistice is not declared by us but by the opposing sides. At that time the Serbs were already prepared for the Bosnia campaign and had therefore relatively quickly accepted the armistice. When I presented the contents of the plan to Tudjman, he immediately asked several questions, such as the status of the police which had warned about the vulnerability in the plan. Later on, these questions were shown to be correct, as the Serb side used it to evade their obligations.
Interviewer: How much do Americans know about Croatia and why don't they invest more into the economy?
- Let us be realistic. Croatia is for Americans far away, but it is more and more attractive for tourism. It is important for Croatia to have an economy office in Washington, a strong diplomacy which will keep good ties with Condoleezza Rice. Holding international conferences in Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, to which are invited American and world leaders is the right way, because once someone is acquainted with Croatia it is not easily forgotten. Croatia needs to develop its economy, needs to keep its people in the country, that they don't emigrate worldwide. Be patient, because with the blossoming of the economy come jobs and a better life. Croatia is a very beautiful country, don't forget that its geographical position is strategically important and you have the Adriatic coast, outlet to the sea - and what a sea, one of the most beautiful in the world.