- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Croatia is headed toward another war. The Balkans - again - will explode with violence. It is only a matter of time. And the so-called “international community” has been pivotal in stoking the flames of ethnic conflict.

Recently, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) based in The Hague, Netherlands, sentenced Croatian Gen. Ante Gotovina to 24 years in prison. The ICTY’s ruling rightly has sparked angry protests across Croatia.

Gen. Gotovina has been convicted for having “command responsibility” over an August 1995 military campaign, known as Operation Storm, that effectively ended the Croat-Serbian war. The ICTY alleges that the Croatian general oversaw the expulsion of 100,000 ethnic Serbs and the murder of hundreds of civilians. According to the United Nations war crimes court, the campaign constituted a “joint criminal enterprise.”

The ICTY’s verdict is preposterous and outrageous. Gen. Gotovina is not a war criminal; rather, he is a Croatian patriot and hero whose campaign restored Croatia’s territorial integrity. Moreover, it delivered a decisive blow to the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s dream of a “Greater Serbia.”

From 1991 until 1995, Milosevic’s marauders rampaged across the region. He used the disintegration of Yugoslavia - a synthetic multinational state - to advance his goal of establishing a Great Serbian empire stretching from the Danube to the Adriatic. In Croatia, Serbian paramilitaries - aided and abetted by the Yugoslav army - waged a brutal war of aggression. The result: A third of Croatia’s territory was annexed, more than 180,000 Croatians were ethnically cleansed, and nearly 20,000 civilians were murdered. Milosevic’s aim was to unite the truncated parts of Croatia with the nearly 70 percent of territory his forces had carved out in neighboring Bosnia. Call it state-building through genocidal partition.

Operation Storm put a stop to all of this. Gen. Gotovina’s army launched a U.S.-backed offensive that was a stunning success: Civilian casualties were minimized, the campaign lasted just three days, and the crushing defeat of the rebel Serbs eventually paved the way for the signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.

Moreover, numerous media outlets - The Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the Jerusalem Post - have investigated Operation Storm and have concluded that Gen. Gotovina is innocent of any wrongdoing. He never personally ordered or tolerated the commission of any crimes. In fact, the ICTY’s prosecution was dismal on this point. It failed to show any kind of proof that Gen. Gotovina was responsible for orchestrating a criminal conspiracy. The reason is a simple one: He couldn’t have.

The orders to evacuate the Serbian population from the so-called “Krajina” zone of occupation came from Belgrade several days before the commencement of Operation Storm. Milosevic, realizing he was facing a military humiliation, ordered Croatia’s Serbs transferred to Bosnia and Kosovo to consolidate his revanchist gains there. This was done before Croatian forces even launched their campaign. Hence, the entire Gotovina conviction and prosecution rests on a giant fraud: The removal of the Serbian population occurred under the explicit command of local Serb authorities acting under the authority of Belgrade. Therefore, Croatian forces could not have committed “ethnic cleansing.” The ICTY verdict is a sham.

The U.N. court is a politicized vehicle that aspires to render history’s final judgment on the Balkan wars of the 1990s. And its verdict is clear: All sides were guilty of atrocities; no party - or nation - was more responsible than the other. This is what Serbia has been demanding for years. It has sought to cover its genocidal culpability and national shame with moral equivalence.

Hence, the Gotovina conviction is a major triumph for Belgrade. Already, Serbian revanchists are claiming that the ICTY’s ruling enables Croatia’s international borders to be altered. Led by the odious Tomislav Nikolic, Belgrade’s nationalists are surging in the polls. They are demanding the restoration of a Greater Serbia. The ICTY has shown them the way forward: If Croatia’s war for independence was a “joint criminal enterprise,” then the entire Croatian state - by that twisted logic - is founded upon war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

This is why Croatia’s ruling party, the HDZ, should never have sent Gen. Gotovina to The Hague. That it was a precondition for Zagreb’s entry into the European Union only underscores how reckless and contrary to Croatia’s national interests fast-track European Union membership is. The HDZ claims it will help Gen. Gotovina’s legal team with the verdict’s appeal. This is a dollar short and a day late. The ICTY is a kangaroo court determined to make an example out of the Croatian general. His fate is sealed no matter what the Croatian government does - and HDZ leaders know this.

The HDZ regime is fundamentally treasonous. After having won the war, Zagreb is losing the peace. The HDZ has betrayed Gen. Gotovina, the country’s veterans and Croatia’s hard-won independence. It has sold Croatia down the river in a mad dash to appease Brussels. The HDZ must be defeated, swept into the dustbin of history and replaced with a new conservative party - one that will provide voters with a real patriotic-populist option.

Croatians must demand that Zagreb end its unconditional cooperation with the ICTY, withdraw its bid to join the EU, free Gen. Gotovina, have all cases at The Hague transferred to domestic courts and insist that the ICTY stop its assault on Croatia’s territorial legitimacy. In short, it is time to put Croatia first.

The ICTY’s ruling has given ultranationalist Serbs what they want: another shot at splintering Croatia. The winds of war are blowing. Handing over Gen. Gotovina to The Hague was a colossal mistake. Zagreb will rue the day.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.

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