None of the two statements was quite understandable. Actually, the first impression was that those were more like statements on two totally different events. The only thing they had in common was the mentioning of two Russian ambassadors – Anvar Azimov and Alexander Chepurin. Yet, the first statement on the reinvestigation as to where did the Russian missile system end, that was allegedly sold by Russian traders to Croatian Army immediately before the start of the “Storm” offensive in 1995 and the second on the excessive Russian exploitation of oil and gas deposits in Serbia can be understood only if we don’t interpret them quite directly. Firstly, there were too many different explanations regarding the S-300 missile system which rather resembled the plot of a political-spy novel, than an answer to the most general question – was the weapon delivered to Zagreb and how it was paid? And when it comes to the second issue of the excessive exploitation of oil and gas deposits and the related dangerous environmental pollution, no numbers are mentioned in response, but generalized phrases on attack on Serbian-Russian friendship.
On May 30, 1995 we had an opportunity to watch a great parade, which was referred to as the walk of the Croatian Army in Zagreb’s Jarun neighbourhood. The above-mentioned Russian missile system had the central position at the display of the military might. Namely, it was not just one of the available weapons at the time, but rather a weapon that carried the message that the Croatian Army became a dominant force at the time of Yugoslav wars. That’s when the secrets began. First of all, was the missile system operational at all? Was it delivered as a whole and where did it disappear after that? That is the question that the Ambassador Azimov raised immediately before Easter holiday which was marked on the same day this year, both according to the Julian and the Gregorian calendar. That almost coincided with the appearance of the first texts in Belgrade on the maximal increase in the exploitation of energy substances and the threat of oil fields in Vojvodina becoming exhausted.
Azimov allegedly, I am writing in a conditional tense for a reason, because the news was wrapped in uncertainties, demanded the alignment of the registration of the Russian weapons that were delivered to the Croatian Army during the Yugoslav wars in the Period between 1992 and 1997. Of course, he was the most interested in the fate of the S-300 PMU missile system. Nobody could give a clear answer why the question of the acquisition of that missile system resurfaced after so many years, but the very questions caused huge vagueness.
Both in Zagreb and in the region.
In Croatia, because it revived various stories that the current government led by PM Andrej Plenković did not want to open. And in the region, Belgrade in particular, it was because of the question whether Russia did really arm the army that was on the opposite side of the front in such a significant manner. Burt also because of the ongoing negotiations in 2017, on Serbia buying a similar system.
Serbia’s President-elect and current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, assessed it was an interesting fact that that a new media campaign was launched in the neighbouring country, adding he had no information that Croatia had such a big system, because it was not a small thing that could be hidden from public easily.
But the system was literally hidden from Croatian public as well.
In late April 1996, the then influential Croatian Defence Minister Gojko Šušak, allegedly confirmed with his signature that Croatia owed him arms dealer Peter Pernicka $200 million for S-300 missile system. Precisely that confirmation served as a ground for the lawsuit filed against Croatia by off-shore company Winsley Finance Limited.
The State Attorney Mladen Bajić then claimed all of the provided evidence was false. Yet, Pernicka testified that the Defence Minister signed the document on the debt, primarily as an additional collateral, allegedly demanded by the Russian partners. Anyway, there is only one, more or less, reliable fact that the missile system was, at least partially, delivered to Croatia with a number of transport aircrafts that landed either on Krk Airport or Pula Airport. The equipment was then transported to Zagreb. Yet, already in late 1996, one of the intermediaries in the acquisition expressed doubt over whether the missile system was still in Croatia. The investigations followed during the term of PM Ivica Račan, as well as an arbitration on debt and, then in June 2008, a secret meeting took place between Croatia’s military logistic specialist Vlado Zagorac and the special envoy of President Mesić in Radisson Hotel in Vienna. Already then Zagorac sought political asylum in Austria because the investigation was under way in Croatia on the ways in which the funds intended for armament were spent. Mesić’s representative (the meeting in the hotel room was recorded by Austria’s secret services) asked Zagorac about the missiles and indirectly offered the assistance with the Croatian judiciary regarding the sentencing or even giving the status of the cooperating witness. Yet, he obtained no important information. Maybe one only – that the missiles were ordered but not paid. And that, at least according to the Austrian audio record, the “Old Man” (President Tuđman), changed his mind soon after and demanded the withdrawal of the missile system. That’s how it allegedly happened. The whole system, as Ivo Sanader confirmed to Mesić in 2004, was taken away from Croatia.
That is precisely why it is interesting that this issue is resurfacing now, in the spring of 2017. The answer is very simple: Because of memories. Or, more precisely, because of the revival of memories.
Less than one month ago, on March 29, 2017, in the Novi list daily I read an interesting interview with Croatia’s former Ambassador to Moscow Božo Kovačić. He assessed that the Republic of Croatia must not forget about the time of embargo on the import of weapons during the Yugoslav wars and that it primarily must not forget that a considerable acquisition of Russian weapons, disregarding the moratorium, was possible only with an approval of the authorities in Kremlin. The Ambassador claims that it was precisely thanks to those weapons that Croatia was successful in the battlefield. Yet, it seems like the representatives of the authorities forgot about that.
Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Chepurin reacted immediately denying it and reiterated that Russia had never delivered weapons to the states of former Yugoslavia, including Croatia, and that it had never violated the international norms and embargo. The Ambassador did not comment much on the influential Serbian daily Blic suggesting that Russia’s state-controlled company Gazprom Neft, that had privatised the Petroleum Industry of Serbia a few years before, was literally destroying Serbian oil industry with radical methods, that they doubled the exploitation and that, due to the manner of exploitation, they were destroying Serbia and Vojvodina.
None of the unusual statements, neither that on Croatia’s acquisition of the Russian missile system, nor the one on the extreme methods of the exploitation of oil and gas sites were new.
The questions on the missile system had been raised at least since 1995. Also, after 2013, we could follow the news on an unusual replacement of pipelines which could allegedly be intended only for big and dangerous increase in exploitation of energy substances and that the royalty paid by new owners to the State of Serbia was minimal.
Why these stories are revived again today?
First of all, to remind that Russia was the country that helped Croatia the most during the war. And, of course, because of an adequate response of Croatia’s current government, primarily as regards the payment of debts, generated as a part of the expansion of Agrokor Concern, that is now under state control, toward Russia’s two, major, state-controlled banks, but also because of the new plans of the Russian capital in Croatia.