Last week the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague overturned one of its most controversial verdicts. Last year’s convictions of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, two of Croatia’s top generals, on war crimes charges were thrown out on appeal and within hours the men – who had been sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively – returned home to jubilant crowds. For many Croats, this was cause for celebration, even euphoria, as the generals had been a stand-in for the country and its independence war two decades ago, which the ICTY had tarred with war crimes at a high level.
The joined cases had always been controversial, not least because they are wrapped up in Operation Storm, Croatia’s victory offensive in August 1995 which retook the nearly one-third of the country that had been under de facto Serb occupation since 1991. Storm, the largest military operation in Europe since 1945, involved 150,000 Croatian troops, who in only four days of fast fighting crushed the pseudostate called the Republic of Serb Krajina, which had been backed by Belgrade. Battle casualties on both sides were low, but there were isolated cases of murder, yet most significantly some 200,000 Serb civilians fled before the victorious Croats, making this the most successful example of “ethnic cleansing” in all the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Slobodan Milosevic’s dream of Greater Serbia, which caused so much unpleasantness in the Balkans twenty years ago, ended abruptly with the Croatian victory.
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