Despite rejecting demands from Jews, Roma and Serbs that it return property stolen by its WWII-era fascist puppet government, Croatia was quick to reclaim the borders drawn by that regime during the 1990s Yugoslav conflict, Serbian lawyer Branislav Tapuskovic
On February 27, the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs received a note from the US embassy on behalf of Jews, Roma and Serbs who filed a case in a Chicago court last May seeking $3.5 billion in compensation from the Croatian government.
Croatian far-right media published videos shot in 1992 of former President Stjepan Mesic downplaying the crimes committed at the World War II fascist concentration camp at Jasenovac.
Far-right news site Maxportal and local TV show Bujica on Monday evening made public two videos from 1992 in which former Croatian President Stjepan Mesic controversially questions the death toll at the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II.
In the first video, Mesic claimed that Jasenovac, which was run by the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement, was just “a labour camp” – a theory advocated by Croatia’s far right and revisionist historians.
He said that people died from diseases like typhus and dysentery at the camp but were not executed “because who would work [in the camp’s labour facilities] the following day?”
“People were killed, but [only] before coming to Jasenovac. When someone came to Jasenovac, he was already practically saved, as a worker,” added Mesic, who was Croatia’s president between 2000 and 2010.
Mesic’s secretary told BIRN on Tuesday that the former Croatian president “won’t comment on the issue at the moment”.
According to research by the Jasenovac Memorial Site, 83,145 people – 47,627 Serbs, 16,173 Roma, 13,116 Jews and the others anti-fascists – have been identified on a name-by-name basis as having died at the concentration camp during the war, a figure which is not yet final. 20,101 of them were children.
In the video, Mesic said that 25,000 people died at Jasenovac. “Sometimes 15 days or a month passed without anyone being killed or dying,” he said.
|The video in which Mesic talks about Ustasa minister Andrija Artukovic.|
The issue of Jasenovac remains highly controversial in Croatia, where hardline right-wingers have made continued attempts to downplay its brutality in attempts to rehabilitate the Ustasa.
Mesic also said that Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito knew that the death toll at Jasenovac was inflated and insisted that the camp – which closed in 1945 – actually continued to work under the Yugoslav Communist regime “until 1947” to detain captured Croats who were enemies of the new regime.
“On the camp site, there are Croats buried deep [underground],” he said.
A highly controversial Croatian far-right NGO called Threefold Jasenovac, made up of historians, journalists and writers, has similarly claimed that the Ustasa ran a labour camp at Jasenovac for enemies of the regime, but the real death camp for Croats, run by the Communists, imprisoned Ustasa members and regular Home Guard army troops until 1948, then alleged Stalinists until 1951.
No documents exist that prove the NGO’s claims.
|Mesic’s controversial speech in Australia in 1992.|
In the second video published on Monday, Mesic spoke in a positive tone about Ustasa interior minister Andrija Artukovic, who signed the regime’s racial laws in 1941.
Artukovic was extradited from the US in 1986 and sentenced to death, but died in 1988 before the sentence was carried out.
Although Mesic is the honorary president of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters and Anti-Fascists, a similar video emerged in 2006, when Croatian news website Index discovered footage filmed in Australia in 1992 in which he praised the Ustasa regime.
“We don’t have any reason to apologise to anyone … This what is asked of the Croats: ‘Go and kneel at Jasenovac, go and kneel there…’ We don’t have a reason to kneel in front of anyone,” he said.
After the video was published, Mesic said he could not confirm or deny it was genuine – but also said the comments could have been a “tactical” attempt to mobilise Croats against the Serbs during the early 1990s war.
The latest videos to be made public were filmed in 1992 in the central Croatian town of Novska during a small meeting of the local branch of the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, of which Mesic was a member at the time.
Under the leadership of Croatian Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic, the NDH murdered and persecuted Jews, Roma, Serbs and Croats opposed to the new government.The plaintiffs hold the Croatian state legally responsible for atrocities committed during the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a fascist puppet state which was established by Germany and Italy in 1941 following the invasion and occupation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The most notorious concentration camp was Jasenovac in central Croatia, where according to varying estimates, between 83,000 and 700,000 Serbs, Roma and Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1945.
The NDH was defeated in 1945 by the anti-fascist Yugoslav National Liberation Army, led by Josip Broz Tito, who went on to serve as Prime Minister and later President of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980.
Croatia, which has 60 days to respond to the note, maintains that it is not a successor state to the NDH.
According to the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are no legal grounds for the lawsuit because the Republic of Croatia is founded on the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia (ZAVNOH), the highest organ of the anti-fascist movement in Croatia during the Second World War.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stresses that Croatia is not a successor of the NDH, as explicitly stated in the preamble of the constitution of the Republic of Croatia,” the ministry stated.
Serbian lawyer Branislav Tapuskovic told that Croatia’s position has an element of double standards. He said that while Croatia is happy to now rely on the anti-fascist ZAVNOH, not the NDH, as its legal basis, this adherence was not demonstrated during its campaign for independence from Yugoslavia.
During the Croatian army’s Oluja (Storm) military campaign in 1995, 220,000 Croatian Serbs were forced to flee to neighboring Bosnia and Serbia from the Republic of Srpska Krajina, which was consequently subsumed into the Republic of Croatia.
Operation Storm is celebrated in Croatia as Victory Day. At last August’s celebrations in the town of Knin, the former capital of Srpska Krajina, Croatian revelers played fascist songs and chanted fascist slogans dating back to the NDH.
“Croatia asserted that everything that happened from 1991-1995 was based on what existed under Ante Pavelic. Therefore, if any charges are to be brought they should be for genocide – there is no statute of limitations on such a clause.”
“Now they are citing anti-fascism, but there were very few Croats in the partisan (anti-fascist) units. Now they are twisting things to seem as though they were almost the world’s most important anti-fascists. This comes despite the NDH units fighting alongside fascist Germany on the eastern front,” Tapuskovic said.
Zoran Zivanovic told Sputnik that states which recognized the NDH have also failed to take responsibility for doing so.
“The recognition of the NDH was a difficult question. But in any case, it should be mentioned that the NDH was recognized by at least 15 states which existed then in Europe and the world. It is difficult to imagine that a state has disappeared and nobody is responsible for its rights and obligations as a subject of international law. It would be logical if today’s Croatia were responsible for all this, since if it isn’t, then who is?” Zivanovic asked.
A year ago, Nicholas Dean of the US State Department’s Office of Holocaust Issues visited Zagreb, where he met with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and members of the government to discuss the return of property stolen from Jews by the NDH regime.
Successive Croatian governments have promised to speed up the process of returning property to Jews, but are wary of the precedent that sets for other groups persecuted under the IDS. Government sources told Croatia’s Novi List newspaper that the country has received around 200 requests from the descendants of Croatian Jews living in Israel, worth about 40 million kuna ($5.8 million). A similar number of claims have been made by Jews living in the US.
According to Croatian law, restitution of property seized during World War II and the communist era is limited to individuals who were citizens of the country in 1996 when parliament passed the restitution law. Consequently, people who emigrated and obtained citizenship elsewhere prior to the law’s passing are not entitled to restitution.
Earlier this month, the US State Department published a human rights report on Croatia which criticized Zagreb’s reluctance to return assets to Jews as well as issues of human rights and press freedom.
“There have been no restitutions of Jewish communal property since 2014, although several such requests were pending,” the State Department wrote.