by Snjezana DUKIC and Marijana CVRTILA
Chanting "Mirko, Mirko", carrying placards with images of General Mirko Norac and late president Tudman, Croatian flags, signs with messages against the current government and singing patriotic songs, groups of protesters were from the early morning moving towards Marko's square from different parts of the city. First buses started arriving to the Zagreb Fairgrounds early in the morning, around 7 o'clock. All together about 50 buses arrived from Dubrovnik, Split, Sibenik, as well as Osijek, Nasice, Cakovec, Bjelovar, Slavonski Brod, Sisak and other regions, and many protesters came to Zagreb by train and in their own cars.
At noon, representatives of the Coordination of 16 Associations appeared on the stage, led by Tomislav Mercep and Djuro Decak. They were greeted by enthusiastic applause and chanting "Mirko, Mirko". The rally started with the Croatian anthem and a minute of silence for the fallen Croatian defenders. Then Slavica Hruskar, the president of the Association of Independent Croatian Volunteers, addressed the crowd. Her speech, as well as speeches of other speakers were frequently interrupted by the chants "Mesic is a Gypsy", "Red bandits", "Treason", "Pusic is a Serb" [Vesna Pusic, the leader of the Croatian People's Party, the HNS, a Croat], whistles directed at the leading politicians (besides Mesic and Racan, the Minister for Defenders, Ivica Pancic, was also unpopular), while the crowd sang the songs "Call, just call", "Oh, Jovan and Stevan ["Serb" versions of names Ivan (Racan) and Stjepan (Mesic)], you'll be eaten by vultures", and chanted the names of the late president Tudman and General Norac.
Reminding that they were at the rally to defend the dignity of the Croatian people and the defenders, Slavica Hruskar fiercely attacked the current authorities and claimed that they had fulfilled since the January 3 elections only those promises they hadn't made in the election campaign.
"We shall not allow that our generals be arrested, nor will we permit that those things created in the Homeland War be endangered, or to be proclaimed for the enemies of the state," stated Slavica Hruskar, asserting that some persistently try to humiliate the defenders. Vesna Pusic clearly demonstrated that by staring with hatred at the president of the Split Headquarters, Mirko Condic, during a Croatian TV show. She added that the defenders, in spite of that, will not demand that her ethical disability be reassessed. We are not a mob manipulated by political parties, because our only party is Croatia and the Croatian people, she continued, and condemned the government for failing to show even a minimal will for dialog. "If you do not want dialog, the Croat people will never forgive you that," Slavica Hruskar concluded her speech.
"It is sad that today, ten years since the aggression on Croatia and five years since the glorious operations 'Flash' and 'Storm', Croatian defenders have to prove their innocence," said Apari and wondered why the current authorities do not invest in the resolution of problems in the economy. He told to the authorities that the defense of Croatia should be a lesson to them that the people should not be disunited, but united.
"President Mesic drinks coffee with Djukanovic and at the same time compares Croatian defenders with Chetniks and the 'log revolution'. Racan refers to peaceful protests as an attempt to overthrow the government and says that the participants in these protests are not Croatian citizens. If we were doing well, we would not protest," he said and added that today Croatia is more endangered then when it was attacked by the Chetniks [derogatory term for Serbs].
Ilija Majic, the president of the Association of Croatian Defenders Volunteers of the Homeland War, called for the unification of all the associations from the Homeland War.
Vladimir Kvesic, the president of the HOS Association of Organizations, sharply condemned criminalization of the Homeland War and persecution of its heroes.
"We, the Croatian defenders, do not deny that this government was democratically elected, but we question their right to destroy the values of the Homeland War and compare us with Chetniks and those who organize state coups," Kvesic said, and added that that was not surprising if one had in mind that many from the current government did not want Croatia in 1990, did not defend her in the Homeland War and are now trying to show that they haven't accepted Croatia. Talking about the functioning of the rule of law and independent judiciary, Kvesic concluded that the rule of law functions only as far as the persecution of Croatian defenders is concerned, but not in the sanctioning of the crimes committed against Croats, starting in Bleiburg and ending with the Serb-Chetnik aggression. "When they condemn such individuals we shall trust the rule of law." He finished his speech by calling on all patriots and defenders to defend the values of the Homeland War using democratic means for which they have fought, so that both the left and right understand.
Tomislav Mercep, the president of the Association of Volunteers from the Homeland War, experienced moments of "stardom" on the stage. At one moment, carried away with the chanting, he joined the protesters in chanting "Red bandits". He said that, true, crimes had been committed in the war by the Croat side as well, but that those crimes had been committed by Communist and Serb spies". "We do not demand love from Mesic and Racan, but dialog, and they do not want to talk to us," said Mercep, advising everyone to support Mirko Norac, as well as "our brothers who had been taken to the Hague" and the brothers in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
At the end of the rally the protesters adopted a declaration, and the signatories demanded that the government respond to it within 30 days. Otherwise, as Mercep said, "new and bigger protest rallies will be organized, until 'victory'".
Most of protesters then peacefully dispersed, but about one hundred of them started towards the Parliament building shouting "Budisa, shame on you!", and singing "appropriate" songs.
"These days we are conducting the discussion about the negotiations led by Croatia in the process of stabilization and association with the European Union in the circumstances of increased noise," said Prime Minister Ivica Racan at a government meeting in Banski Dvori. During the meeting protesters in support of General Mirko Norac were gathered in front of Banski Dvori. "I am convinced that this Government and democratic institutions will not be prevented from working in the long-term interest of the citizens of this state," emphasized Racan.
The government used the debate regarding the association agreement with the EU to send the message to the citizens that it is aware that a large majority of citizens wants to live better and with more security. "That is why most citizens support this strategic goal," said Prime Minister Racan. He added:
"That is why I am convinced that those who are these days trying to push Croatia and her citizens away from Europe will not succeed. Our speech will without doubt be louder, long lasting and more important for this country than the noise in front of the building".
Among the loudest participants at the Zagreb rally were representatives of volunteers from Orahovica, president Mesic's birthplace. About one hundred of them wore T-shirts with signs "I am a war criminal" and placards with signs "President, hawks are flying to the Hague". They drew attention with chants "Red bandits" and song "Call, just call".