October 4, 2002
Nothing to Gain By Sanctioning Croatia
By VITOMIR MILES RAGUZ
The usually compliant Croatia, seemingly eager to become a member of the EU and NATO at all cost, surprised everyone last week by refusing to act on the international arrest warrant for its early 1990s chief military commander Janko Bobetko. It told the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague that the indictment drafted by chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte falls outside her mandate, lacks legal basis and goes against common sense, in that the incident cited was in effect an isolated police action, having nothing to do with a grand scheme of ethnic cleansing that the suit alleges. Therefore, the popular WWII anti-fascist commander and later general, with a physique closer to Santa Claus' than to Slobodan Milosevic's, is to remain at home.
The international and local media were quick to raise the specter of sanctions of one sort or another. This week, both the EU and NATO suggested that failure to comply with the ICTY's demand for Gen. Bobetko could jeopardize Croatia's ambitions to join both organizations. The Western capitals, however, even though calling for full cooperation, have been tepid regarding possible consequences of non-compliance, and understandably so. On one hand, Zagreb does have a legal case for resisting extradition under commonly accepted international law that is thought and practiced outside the Hague circles. On the other hand, even if it did not, punishment for Zagreb at this point -- by diplomatic or economic isolation, for instance -- would be a losing proposition for many actors in the region and elsewhere. In many ways, Washington's and Brussels' hands are tied.
Croatia's Prime Minister Ivica Racan, often labeled in the West as a poster boy for democracy in southeast Europe, could do nothing else but support Gen. Bobetko. Ever since his coalition government decided to cooperate with Ms. Del Ponte on the extradition of generals Ante Gotovina and Rahim Ademi last summer, the popularity of Mr. Racan's Social Democrats has been in steady decline.
Moreover, the country that was initially slightly in favor of the Tribunal has turned strongly against it. Opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Croats are now willing to face sanctions or other consequences rather than see Gen. Bobetko extradited. By now many say they feel humiliated by the Tribunal's repeated attempts to rewrite their history.
While Mr. Racan has decided to read the writing on the wall regarding his re-election chances, the Western governments have much more to worry about than Croatia if he is pressed and loses.
Unlike Zagreb, which has fulfilled its obligations to the Tribunal in large degree, Belgrade has been hardly cooperative other than on the Milosevic handover. In addition, the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has not cooperated at all--although this week a plea agreement was entered on behalf of former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic by her lawyer. If the West were to take measures against Croatia, it would then have to do the same or more against the other two in cases of non-cooperation. But if it did so, it would generate local public backlashes that would place at risk governments considered pro-Western. Simply put, it would open doors for parties that the West worked so hard to sideline over the past four years.
But the question of Croatia also comes with issues beyond the ballot box that make it quite different from Yugoslavia and BiH. Relative to its neighbors, Croatia is economically quite independent. It receives hardly any grant assistance. In fact, Croatia may be the only European state in modern history that received no substantial reconstruction aid from the West after suffering from war. All in all, over the past decade, given its spending for Bosnian refugees and costs to establish the balance of power in BiH, Croatia may have been a net provider of aid. The threat of ending financial assistance has been the stick the West has used before against Belgrade and Banja Luka. In the case of Zagreb, it would not be meaningful. Mr. Racan, like Franjo Tudjman in the past, gets little if anything in any event. Similarly, Zagreb's investment-grade credit rating allows it to tap the international capital markets whenever necessary. It is not dependent on the IMF for liquidity or on the other IFIs for development funds as are the other two countries.
To add, Croatia by now has welcomed a substantial amount of foreign investment, especially in the banking, telecommunications and tourism sectors. So if Mr. Racan is to look for solidarity he will find it first in Italian, German and Austrian banks that manage 94% of the country's financial assets -- in value almost equal to the country's gross domestic product. The same may be true for the European development bank, the EBRD, which has invested more in Croatia per capita than in any other Central and East European country. If Croatia were to sneeze, these foreign investors might not get a cold, but they would certainly get cold feet in respect to the region in general.
Therefore, Brussels and Washington may be left with only one stick -- the threat of delayed EU and NATO membership, as suggested by the European Council statement on Monday and the NATO Secretary General on Wednesday.
But in effect Croatia is already under such sanctions. Economically, it is ahead of some 2003 EU candidates. Yet, it is not even slated for membership in the next group of less developed states. As for military preparedness, NATO military experts will tell you that Croatia and Slovenia are the only two states that ought to get a Prague nod on strictly technical terms of military preparedness. They are on par with Spain when it joined in 1982.
In short, Zagreb's membership in both organizations will continue to be on ice no matter what it does. Some EU members believe that early integration would strengthen Croatia too much at a time when it still has many outstanding issues to settle with its neighbors BiH and Yugoslavia. Both of these countries are of greater importance to the West, the former for ideological reasons and the latter for strategic ones, than is Croatia. Many in Zagreb are now becoming cognizant of its position and, on the issue of Gen. Bobetko, feel they have nothing to lose, but perhaps something to gain -- if, for instance Mr. Racan's stance helps him stay in political power. Or because they believe that compliance in Gen. Bobetko's case would only feed a Tribunal appetite for endless indictments, including some of popular people.
Washington and Brussels can also benefit if they are finally ready to hear out reasonable people like Mr. Racan on the issue of the Tribunal and some of its actions. No doubt the Tribunal has done many things well. But for years it has been left accountable to no one. Thus, it has also taken on a life of its own, at times far removed from legal and regional realities. In this vacuum some of its decisions have come to the detriment of the developing field of international criminal law, and even more so, to the detriment of its credibility and the well-being of the region it was envisioned to serve and heal.
The West has been hesitant to intervene, arguing the point of judicial independence, overlooking the point of checks and balances. No court in the West, however, is so independent to the point of being infallible. A court whose decisions cannot be challenged through an independent appeals process is not really a court, and a court whose rules of procedure and laws are said to be permanent and immune to periodic legislative review is not really a court.
All Mr. Racan and others want is to be heard, and for the first time in nine years, to know which international institution is responsible to resolve complaints about the work of the Tribunal. Can such a plea be a cause for sanctions or other punishment? Clearly, it is but a call for reason.
Mr. Raguz was ambassador of BiH to the EU and NATO in 1998-2000, and now is a banker in Vienna.
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Updated October 4, 2002