The highest-ranking Croatian soldier to be indicted by the Hague Tribunal for his part in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s, when he was the chief of the Croatian army. The Hague's request for his extradition provoked controversy in Croatia, where many of the population lauded him as a hero rather than as a war criminal.

Croatian Spring

Bobetko was born in 1919 in the central Croatian village of Crnac, only a few months after Austria-Hungary had collapsed and Croatia had become part of the new Yugoslavia. After Yugoslavia was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, and Croatia became a fascist puppet state under Ante Pavelić, Bobetko joined the Partisan resistance army organised by the Communist leader Josip Broz Tito, who became Yugoslavia's president in 1945. His father, and three of his brothers, were killed during the four-year conflict, during which he fought in Bosnia and Montenegro and was badly wounded near the Slavonian town of Dravograd.

He remained a soldier after the war, and in 1966 he was appointed the chief of staff of the JNA's 5th Military District, which incorporated Croatia and Slovenia. During the next several years, Croatian demands for further autonomy within the federation - chiefly because many Croatian politicians believed central government in Belgrade taxed the rich regions too highly and appropriated too much hard currency from the Dalmatian tourist trade - were voiced so frequently that they became known as the Croatian Spring.

Bobetko associated himself with these leaders, who began to reach out to a mass movement celebrating Croatian culture, and was forcibly retired in 1971 when Tito considered that the Spring was verging dangerously close to his Yugoslavia's greatest taboo, separatist nationalism. Many who lost their jobs during this purge subsequently spent some time in prison, including Franjo Tuđman, who took advantage of the nationalist revival of the late 1980s to form his own political party, HDZ, in 1989.

However, Bobetko had never shared Tuđman's militancy and was treated more leniently, continuing to live in his villa in the Zagreb suburb of Tuškanac. Tuđman only turned to him in 1991, once he was in the process of organising a regular army for the fledgling Croatian state; HDZ had come to power in 1990, through Croatia's first multi-party elections, and their nationalism had alarmed Serbs in the Krajina, part of the Dalmatian hinterland, after the Serbs' self-appointed protector, one Slobodan Milošević, had inflamed the Krajina Serbs' passions with frequent references to Pavelić's misdeeds.

Back In Action

By August 1990, when a breakaway Republic of the Krajina was announced, the Serb unrest had become open rebellion: even if Croatia intended to follow Slovenia in seceding from the Yugoslavian federation, they declared, the Krajina would remain in a Yugoslavia now dominated by Milošević. At first, Tuđman attempted to suppress the Krajina using a freshly recruited paramilitary police force, but when the JNA - in an unholy alliance with Milošević joined in on the Krajina's side, he accelerated efforts to equip a new Croatian army through surreptitious arms deals with the friendly Hungarian government.

Already 73 years old, Bobetko returned to action in 1992, at first commanding the Southern Front where he attempted to relieve the siege of Dubrovnik. Operations ceased on this front in September after a Serb-Croat agreement (in return, Croatia evacuated the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Brod), and Bobetko was soon promoted to chief of staff, a position he held until the end of the war in 1995.

According to the Hague Tribunal, his high office as chief of staff, answering directly to Tuđman, provided sufficient command responsibility for him to be implicated in the alleged war crimes committed in September 1993 when the Croatian army withdrew from the Medak pocket, an operation which he would have planned. If he did not order the crimes himself, chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte claimed, he knew his subordinates' intentions and did nothing to prevent them.

Units from the nearby Gospić zone had entered the Medak pocket, a rural area of not much more than a dozen square miles, on 9 September. The force included one brigade commanded by Mirko Norac, himself a future indictee, by a Croatian court, for events in Gospić in 1991. International representatives persuaded the Croatian army to pull out, but at least 100 Serbs, including 29 civilians, were allegedly killed during the retreat, and villages and farm equipment were burned so that the surviving inhabitants would have to move elsewhere - if proven, a typical instance of ethnic cleansing.

All My Battles

Bobetko retired on health grounds in June 1995, although claimed that he had orchestrated Operations Storm and Flash, in which Croatia regained control of the remaining rebel Serb territory, from his hospital bed. He published an extensive volume of memoirs, All My Battles, in 1996, depicting the Homeland War and the Medak operation in particular as glorious, and was a HDZ representative in the Croatian parliament until 1999.

In September 2002, del Ponte made Bobetko's indictment public, although it was rumoured that he had been the subject of a sealed indictment previously delivered to the Croatian prime minister Ivica Račan. The centre-left Račan had come to power in the elections of early 2000, capitalising on HDZ's disunity in the aftermath of Tuđman's death and popular resentment at the ex-president's mismanagement of the economy.

Tuđman had denied the legitimacy of the Hague Tribunal outright - even refusing to co-operate with some investigations of Serbs attacking Croats - on the grounds that Croatia had been fighting a defensive war against Serbian aggression. Račan recognised that this obstinacy had jeopardised Croatia's international standing: at times, the Tuđman regime had been under threat of economic sanctions.

With this in mind, and perhaps conscious of the goodwill now accruing to Serbia after the fall of Milosevic, Račan resolved to work with The Hague, an attitude that nearly brought down his coalition when he responded to the indictment of General Ante Gotovina.

Nearly 100,000 people, many Homeland War veterans among them, had demonstrated against the arrest of Norac in 2001, one speaker protesting that Račan's attitude was 'putting the legend of the Homeland War on trial'. The treatment of indictees was, and is, perhaps the most acute political controversy in Croatia, and delivering the most senior Croatian soldier of them all to The Hague might well have been a short cut to election defeat at the hands of a resurgent HDZ.

Bobetko, for his part, refused to surrender to any indictment, and was outraged that a soldier like himself should have been charged at all, justifying himself as 'Europe's oldest anti-fascist fighter'. Račan's government, in this instance, decided to keep Bobetko at home, although the president Stipe Mesić, a member of one of Račan's coalition partners, gave a televised interview in which he stated that no Croatian was above the law.

Playing for time, Račan pointed to Bobetko's heart condition which had caused him two cardiac arrests in the last year and asked for him to be allowed to stay in Croatia. The bear-like Bobetko, already a diabetic, duly made heavy weather of his walking stick, although appeared sufficiently sprightly for del Ponte to despatch doctors to Zagreb to double-check the validity of his illness; perhaps she remembered the supposedly wheelchair-bound Augusto Pinochet's less than faltering steps when he returned to Chile. This time, however, the claim seemed genuine, and Bobetko was hospitalised in November 2002.

The Hague officially acknowledged in February 2003 that Bobetko was too ill to stand trial, and the general died on April 29, 2003, mourned by many who eulogised his role in the defence of their homeland. Among the first to give their condolences to Bobetko's family were HDZ's new leader Ivo Sanader, and Dražen Budiša, the 'liberal' who had left Račan's coalition at the height of the Gotovina crisis. For Račan, such a resolution to the impasse must have suggested that, from time to time, if you ignore it it will go away.

Read more:
http://www.un.org/icty/indictment/english/bob-ii020826-e.htm
http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/tri/tri_281_2_eng.txt
http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/tri/tri_283_3_eng.txt
http://www.slobodnadalmacija.hr/20030501/novosti01.asp (in Croatian)

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