18th May 2021

Croatians burn EU flag following Hague court ruling

  • The EU flag already hangs from several Croatian government buildings (Photo: Damien Smith)

Support for the European Union has plummeted in candidate country Croatia, where thousands of people took to the streets over the weekend to protest against a UN court ruling which handed two popular wartime generals lengthy prison sentences.

Up to 30,000 Croats marched through the rainy streets of Zagreb on Saturday (16 April) to show their support for Ante Gotovina and Mladan Markac, after the two men were sentenced a day earlier to 24 and 18 years in jail respectively.

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The Hague criminal court said the ex-generals had played a key role in Croatia's 1995 state-led campaign to drive out ethnic Serbs.

Brussels has made the prosecution of all war crimes suspects in former Yugoslav republics a key requirement of EU membership, but Friday's court decision has sparked outcry in the country tipped to become the EU's 28th member.

Protest banners read "I love Croatia, not the EU", and "Go away EU", reports Reuters. EU flags were burnt in Zagreb's central Bana Jelacica Square, with smaller demonstrators also taking place in the streets in Osijek and Split.

Marchers chanted calls of "treason" because of what organisers say is the failure of political leaders to protect the dignity of war veterans.

"Croatia between revolt and nausea: were we the aggressors?" read the frontpage of the influential Jutarnji List newspaper, sporting a large photo of Gotovina.

Initiated when Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia, the country's 'Homeland War' between 1991 and 1995 resulted in the murder of several hundred civilians and the use of intimidation to force roughly 100,000 ethnic Serbs to flee the state permanently.

On Friday the UN tribunal said the army commander who led Croatian forces to victory, Gotovina, played a significant role in the war crimes and crimes against humanity, as did special police commander Markac. A third general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted.

Both men are considered popular heroes by the vast majority of Croats, with a fresh poll on Sunday suggesting support for EU membership has fallen sharply in the span of one week.

TV broadcaster Nova reported that support for EU accession had dropped from 60 per cent of respondents a week ago to 35 percent now. In the survey, 93 percent of respondents said the ruling against Gotovina and Markac as unfair.

Croatia was accepted as an official candidate for EU membership in 2004, with the arrest of Gotovina a year later in the Canary Islands - after Zagreb provided critical intelligence - helping to get formal entry negotiations underway.

The Hungarian EU presidency has declared it wants those talks to finish this June, leading to possible Croatian membership in 2012-13.

Any decision to join the EU would first have to be approved by popular referendum in the country however, with Sunday's poll suggesting such a vote would be rejected if held at the current juncture.

In March the European Commission also highlighted a list of outstanding reforms which Zagreb needs to carry out if it is to meet the June deadline, including further justice reforms, war crime prosecution and the fight against graft.

A border dispute with Slovenia had previously threatened to derail the accession process, but a resolution was found.

Watch images from the ‘For the Homeland' demonstration that was held on Saturday as a result of war crime convictions for Croatian generals Gotovina and Markac on Ban Jelacic square in Zagreb. This video was produced by Dragan Matić and Isabella Vujica.

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