Case: Zdravko Hlobik

The only thing that new resonance of war drums needs is the cause. And all obligations that terrible last wars were a sufficient message that between neighbouring countries, Croatia and Serbia, serious political disputes should never happen again, were immediately forgotten. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić were the last ones to commit to this, almost solemnly. Both of them sent, as a continuation of their meeting, their personal emissaries, ministers of foreign affairs of the two countries, Miro Kovač and Ivica Dačić, to a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of party of Croats in Vojvodina, in order to repeat that two decades after the war, the two countries should turn to future and work together to solve issues of the past. This festive and conciliatory event, full of smiles and shaking hands, as well as announcements of new trust was held just over a month ago, in mid-July 2016.

Not far from the place of celebration, attended by both ministers, but from the Croatian side of the border, live two persons, of about the same age, who do not know each other and have the same name. Both are Zdravko Hlobik. And here is where the cause begins. One of the two, the wrong one, as it was later proved, was arrested on Thursday, 18 August this year, at the border crossing between Serbia and Croatia, Bogojevo and Erdut respectively. Soon afterwards, due to the risk of stroke, he was taken to the hospital, and before the judge, to whom he was able to explain that he was not the person they were looking for, and after a day or two, he was handed over to the Croatian Consul General who helped him to return home. Serbian judicial authorities were looking for another Hlodik, from the village Jelisavac near Našice in Baranja, who was reportedly sentenced in absentia during the war and was issued a secret warrant for arrest. The reason for his conviction before one of the then Serbian courts was, allegedly, his allegiance to the so-called Samobor group of Croatian army, which attempted to undermine the Batina Bridge connecting Baranja and Serbia in 1992. The attempt failed for various reasons, and most of the soldiers participating in it were arrested and then exchanged for the Serbian prisoners of war, with the international diplomatic help, more than two years after the arrest.

Hlobik is just a case. One of those who do not know whether they are on a wanted list.

Precisely these cases were the cause of the last major escalation of political relations between the two countries and the announcement of Croatian blockade of Serbian accession negotiations with the EU. This was decided on high state levels, always in a declarative way, and was solved with the Croatian revocation of the blockade and the opening of EU accession chapters on justice, but essentially, not much has changed. Croatia had to give up due to European and American warnings, however, all substantial issues have remained unresolved.

The reasons were at least two. The first reason was a declaratory ambition of Croatian President Grabar Kitarović of withdrawal from the Balkans and the new regional connection with the Baltic and the Black Sea. The current instructions of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kovač, to his diplomatic officers, to no longer use the name region for the neighbouring Balkan countries, were related to this as well. The second reason was much simpler. There is a very precise and relatively long diplomatic negotiating work behind the general political decisions on the regulation of relations between Serbia and Croatia, on the determination of the constitutional succession issue, the issue of return of expelled and displaced persons, the issue of return of the right to permanent residence or place of residence, the issue of killed and missing persons, the issue of the determination of the state border on the Danube and so on. The negotiating work must have full political cover for all existing unpleasant and difficult issues. All of this was essentially non-existent in the last ten years. The negotiators met once, twice, maybe even several times, only to suspend work immediately after that.

In the second half of this-year July, an open letter sent by Dr. Ivo Josipović, former Croatian president, to Grabar Kitarović, the new president of the country, got almost lost. The letter was not written accidentally, of course, and Josipović knows that hot summer vacations months are not the best period to achieve response to messages sent also to the public. He obviously wrote the letter for the assessment of conditions. The messages directed to the president are quite immediate and almost without the necessary adornments in the form of kindness. A parallel in correspondence of former and current head of state could almost hardly be found. Josipović says, to the recipient of the letter, that he is the witness of failed Croatian foreign policy and the intention to block negotiations on Serbia’s accession to the EU. He continues that Croatia has failed simply because it was not right. He is convinced that they cannot demand that Serbia withdraws the Law on Universal Jurisdiction, since Croatia has a similar law with almost identical effects.
I have to give an explanation here. The provisions of Article 3 of the Serbian Law, which is controversial for Croatia, provide that the Republic of Serbia may conduct all criminal proceedings for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator. Croatia has a similar provision in Article 16 of the Criminal Law, and also in the Law on Application of the Statute of the International Criminal Court from 2003. Despite the important consequences, Josipović continues, of the universal jurisdiction of Serbian courts, legal non-protection of Croatian participants in the war is important as well, because they may be “arrested and handed over to Serbia as soon as they cross the border”. This is why Josipović is warning Grabar Kitarović that such a state should be eliminated, but, as he points out, not by raising tensions and unrealistic threats of blocking the European negotiations, but through a well-prepared agreement between the two countries on war crimes which will prevent abuse.
Josipović could write such thing, because he had dialogues with the former Serbian President Boris Tadić on such solution of one of the many sensitive issues, during 2011 and 2012. They spent two days together in the Bosnian protocol facility Koliba on Jahorina, where they were snowed in and delegations were unable to return to their homes. They set out a principle platform for the formulation of an agreement, that the perpetrators of war crimes should be prosecuted according to the place of their place of residence.

It was all suspended later. That is why they arrested Zdravko Hlobik. That was the cause. A day later, furious messages followed. First by the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, on occasion of commemoration of the memory of victims of the Ustasha concentration camp Jasenovac. He warned Croatia that “the ideas of the former NDH are again coming back from the abyss of the history”, and that Serbia will not allow for Jasenovac, Jadovno, Jastrebarsko, or the military operation “Storm”, to happen again. He got a response from Foreign Minister Miro Kovač, that Vučić’s words represent only a “continuation of the policy of the project of Greater Serbia from the 90s, in which Vučić personally participated.” And that the Republic of Croatia will never, “I repeat, never”, allow such Serbia to become an EU member.