used without permission, for "fair use" only

Interview: Stjepan Mesic

Division of Bosnia was Tudman's Only Option

Tjednik, Zagreb, Croatia, May 16, 1997

These days the Croatian TV has announced, and three Croatian dailies spread the news a day later, that Stipe Mesic had allegedly several weeks before "voluntarily" testified in the Hague and that he had betrayed to the hated investigators state secrets and allegedly acted like a traitor. Mesic was accused of being prepared to throw the honor of the nation to the mud only for the sake of vengeance against president Tudman the favorite of the recent local and upcoming presidential elections.

However, the pyre for Mesic has been started in spite of arguments. A former mayor of a small municipality in Slavonija, then a Communist dissident and one of the most agreeable personalities on the domestic political scene in the last seven years held almost at all the available offices: the Prime Minister, the last president of the last presidency of the former Yugoslavia, the president of the executive council of the HDZ and the president of the Croatian parliament. Mesic abandoned that list high office in the spring of 1994 slamming the door of his former party as well. He left the HDZ, he says, above all because he could not stay under the same roof with the advocates of the dismemberment of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The merry man from Orahovica who did not become arrogant even when he ended up at important functions, has been provoking since then general grinding of the teeth both in the HDZ and state leaderships. True, Mesic is not a powerful politician. He could run for president but it is unlikely that he would gather enough votes to pass any sort of prohibitive requirement. His analytical power frequently boils down to humorous retorts. While in important offices, as can be seen from this interview, he functioned as a good-natured na´ve man, rather than a "player". But pretentious party members, immoral sycophants and corrupt spies in politics know well why they so passionately hate harmless Mesic - with his reputation of an honest and principled man he continuously reminds them how small, cheap and temporary they are. If now they have attacked him with a Bolshevik indictment because they think that persecution of Mesic will draw attention from their sins, that can only buy them some time.

Nevertheless, Mesic is not at peace. He seems afraid, twists sentences, he is more evasive than caution would demand, and leaves the impression that he is hiding a lot of what he knows.

TJEDNIK: Did the Hague Tribunal investigators say precisely on what they were working, and what their task was?

MESIC: Not precisely. They said that they were investigating crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

You claim that you were invited to testify as the last president of the Presidency of the former Yugoslavia. Did you find out who else was going to be summoned as a witness in, relatively speaking, your group?

I do not know with whom they are going to talk, nor whom they've already talked to.

Before you left the HDZ in the spring of 1994, you were continuously on high positions and very responsible state functions. Consequently many would place you on the list of possibly useful witnesses, especially regarding the unclear events and hard-to-understand decisions in Croatia, about which, due to your position, you should have known. Consequently, it would be interesting to hear how, for example, you found out about the crimes in Pakracka Poljana, in the early autumn of 1991?

I was in Belgrade at the time.

And when did you find out?

After the murder of the Zec family. I came to Zagreb and heard that Mihajlo Zec had been shot in front of his house and that Mrs. Zec and their daughter, a twelve-year-old girl, had been brutally murdered in Sljeme. I was outraged. I asked who had done that, and they told me that it was the group that was responsible for the crimes in Pakracka Poljana.

Who told you that?

Some people from the Police circles who do not work there anymore, so that I would rather not mention their names.

When and from whom did you hear about so far still unresolved executions of Serbs in Gospic in the autumn of 1991?

First from the wife of one of Gospic district prosecutors, a Serb. That family was during the occupation in Zagreb. As soon as Gospic was liberated, displaced persons were ordered to return to work in the town. The prosecutor took his car and drove to Gospic, but he disappeared there. The wife searched for him without success. She came to me several times asking for my help, but I failed to do anything. She told me that many distinguished Serbs had simply disappeared in Gospic. Later, she only found her car, which was at the time driven by someone else, and she did not even dare to approach them.

Were you later bothered by what happened to Serbs from Gospic?

I tried to find out what had happened, but I failed to find out anything through the institutions. Those persons whom I contacted personally advised me to stay out of that, because it was a secret.

Who gave you that advice?

Especially Ante Karic, at the time the president of the Gospic Crisis Headquarters. He told me that he had informed the competent authorities, but he did not want to get into details.

Did you, as a high and respected official talk to anyone officially about Pakracka Poljana, Gospic and the murder of the Zec family?

I did. At meetings of the Croatian leadership I insisted several times that the perpetrators of those crimes be found and punished. I said that it would be best for Croatia if the rule of law functioned. Everyone listened and the conclusion was always that the competent institutions must do their job. We can see now how they did their job in that and in later cases.

When did you realize that your appeals were ineffective? Did you request from any particular official to use his authority?

No, because my authority was not sufficient.

Where were you before and at the time of the fall of Vukovar?

I was in the USA, on a visit. There I received news about the fall of Vukovar.

Did you as the president of the executive council of the HDZ in any manner participate in the decision that Croatian formations in the summer of 1992 pull out of the Bosnian Sava Valley region and that it be surrendered to Karadzic's Serbs? General Zivko Budimir and many others claim that at the time there was no military justification to order the withdrawal.

I found out in a closed meeting that the Bosnian Sava Valley region had fallen.

Who ordered Croatian formations to pull out?

It turned out that no one knew about that. President Tudman gave the order to form a commission that was supposed to find the answer, and he appointed General Ivan Cermak to lead that commission.

Based on the hierarchy, who could have given the order to pull out?

Any direct commander could have done that, but in that case he would have had to be held responsible for that. Besides, all that was very suspicious because Croatian units pulled out with 34 tanks, and the Serb formations occupied the region, a day or two later, with 17 tanks.

Did the commission ever publish the results of its investigation?

Allegedly they simply could not figure out who gave the order to pull out, so they kept quiet.

You were satisfied with that explanation?

Ah, what else could I do then?

Once previously you let the public know that you were not always prepared to align your opinion with that of the party leadership. That happened when in late 1991 the Zagreb HDZ leadership in Siroki Brijeg replaced Stjepan Kljuic from the position of the president of the HDZ of Bosnia-Hercegovina. You at first opposed that dismissal, but you accepted it later. Why did you then lose patience and oppose your own party?

The HDZ from Zagreb demanded that Kljuic be dismissed although he had almost unanimous support in the HDZ BH. If a vote were held, Kljuic would have certainly stayed as the president of the party. However, when I told him that Zagreb was demanding that he be dismissed, he immediately decided to resign, got in a car and drove to Sarajevo.

Did you then know why they wanted to dismiss him?

Not as clearly as later, but I nevertheless sensed what the matter was. Kljuic very progressively advocated independent BH and said that the Croatian people in BH can be a constituent nation only if the united Bosnian state survives. However, some circles in the HDZ spread stories that he was "Alija's Croat" and that, as such, he was allegedly not a reliable interpreter of the Croat policy in BH.

Unltimately, you accepted Kljuic's dismissal?

Well, if he himself was not prepared to fight...

On several occasions you stated that you parted ways with Tudman after the meeting Tudman-Milosevic in Karadjordjevo because there they forged a plan for the division of BH. Would you feel better if that meeting was not exactly your idea?

My idea was honorable. In early 1991 I suggested to Borisav Jovic that the two of us organize a serious meeting of our two presidents and the two of us as representatives of our republics in the presidency of the former Yugoslavia. I warned him that Milosevic was leading with Serbs in Croatia the policy that, true enough, would inflict a lot of evil on Croats, but would also direly backfire against Serbs. Jovic told me that they did not give a damn for the Serbs in Croatia. Belgrade wanted two thirds of Bosnia-Hercegovina. I told him that we should try to avoid the war in Croatia and BH, and internationalize the question of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Jovic finally agreed to hold talks. In half an hour he informed me that Milosevic had also agreed. I flew to Zagreb and got Tudman's approval. Milosevic chose Karadjordjevo, and Tudman did not have anything against the location. However, at the last moment he decided to go to the talks with Sarinic, therefore without me. By the way, the meeting was held in March.

Did you discuss with Tudman the strategy towards Milosevic before he excluded you from the team?

No. The general attitude was that some special preparations were not necessary because Tudman already knew how to behave. He said that he wanted to hear Milosevic's true intentions.

Do you have detailed knowledge of the content of the talks in Krardjordjevo?

I do, but I would rather not discuss the details for a while, because I would again be accused of spilling secrets. However, the vary fact that after Kradjordjevo in BH both the Republic of Srpska and Herceg-Bosna were formed clearly indicates what the topic of those discussions was and that Milosevic and Tudman agreed about the same concept. However, I still cannot go public with everything I know.

When will you be able to do that?

Perhaps very soon, if they do not bother me too much.

Did you ever talk about Karadjordjevo with Tudman?

I did.

Could you at least tell us what impression you had after that conversation?

He was definitely pleased with the results of those talks. He was absolutely satisfied, even ecstatic.

According to the official explanation, the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna was formed soon afterwards in Bosnia-Hercegovina because the central institutions of the state had fallen apart and it was, therefore, necessary to form a replacement of some sort. Did you accept that explanation?

Well, see, it was hard to accept that if some things were suspicious from the start. Namely, when the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna was founded, the HVO quickly replaced legally elected leaderships in the municipalities that were under their control even though the HDZ had already held power in them. I even had a document, a HVO decision, which ordered that the elected authorities be replaced by HVO representatives. I asked Mate Boban why they were doing that when the logic implied exactly the opposite - that those with legitimacy should give certain authority to the HVO. He replied: "You know, I am not a lawyer. Such decrees are prepared by Smiljko Sokol and Vice Vukojevic." I went to see Tudman and objected. He said that he was going "to see what was going on".

Did you know, when did you find out and from whom about the meeting between Karadzic and Boban in Graz? At that time you were already at the position of the president of the Croatian Parliament.

I did not know about the meeting. I was not informed about it officially, nor in time, but I learned about it from the newspapers. Boban later told me that in practice there were no unresolved problems between Croats and Serbs in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

When did Boban tell you that?

At most a month after the meeting in Graz. I objected that those talks were held without the third party, without the Bosnian side. Boban "instructed' me that it was important to achieve peace, and at that time it was certain that, at least between Bosnian Croats and Serbs, the peace was possible. I realized that in Graz a separate agreement was reached on the account of Bosniaks-Muslims.

Josip Manolic, your later political partner, allegedly also followed Boban to Graz to the talks, as well as Sarinic. Did he give you more detailed information?

I asked him, but he never definitely admitted that he was there, and he simply ignored other questions.

You were at the time the president of the Croatian Parliament, had authority, had the right to get explanations from someone. Did you ask president Tudman?

Several times I asked for an explanation here and there form president Tudman, but I was in the end excluded from all discussions. When representatives of the HDZ and the Croatian people in Bosnia-Hercegovina came to Zagreb, I would learn about that from the newspapers, or would by chance meet them in the city. But they stopped inviting me.

When did you actually realize that you'd been moved aside?

When serious tensions between Croats and Bosniaks-Muslims started in Mostar, the Croatian Parliament sent a delegation which included Drago Krpina. He told me that the situation was at the boiling point and that a war was going to start in Mostar very soon. I told him to immediately inform president Tudman about that. I do not know what he did, but the war in Mostar happened, and only a few days after the meeting in Graz. I realized that Mostar was a part of that agreement. Before the conflict all the patriotic media and politicians from Herceg-Bosna spread propaganda about "Croatian Mostar". And before the war Croats were somewhat more than 30% of population in Mostar, a bit more than Bosniaks, and the rest were Serbs and others.

But for almost a year after Graz and after Mostar you remained in the HDZ. What did you expect to happen?

Until the end of 1993 I expected that the international factors would prevent the division of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and bring the forces in the field to the realization that Bosnia-Hercegovina cannot be divided. However, the time of international pressure came much later than I hoped for.

Can you confirm that the HDZ at the start of the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina called on the leadership of the Croatian people to leave Sarajevo?

Yes, I heard that from Croats in Sarajevo, and I was there three times during the war. University professors complained to me that they were invited to leave Sarajevo. If they did not want to, they were to be considered for the traitors of the Croatian people.

Who told them that?

Mate Boban. They asked him where they were supposed to go from Sarajevo. He told them to move to Hercegovina. So that those who remained in Sarajevo were not received well by the Croatian side. However, about 40,000 Croats remained in Sarajevo.

After Karadjordjevo, the formation of Herceg-Bosna, after Graz, after the attack of Croatian forces on Mostar, it was more or less clear that the official Zagreb had territorial claims in Bosnia-Hercegovina, as well as the official Belgrade. Can you reconstruct how the HDZ leadership experienced that fact? How many people opposed the policy towards BH?

I think that a majority in the HDZ agreed with me, but the leadership was convinced that the West would tolerate the dissolution of Bosnia-Hercegovina, so that Croatia should not remain short changed in that. The hypocrisy of that policy was unacceptable for me.

Did you ever hear directly from Tudman that Bosnia-Hercegovina should be divided?

Tudman's biography and W. Zimmerman's book mention Tudman's statements in that sense.

Did Tudman ever tell you that?

He told me several times that Bosnia-Hercegovina should not have been created.

In your opinion, who were the biggest enemies of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Bosniaks-Muslims in the HDZ?

I think that they have made their views public and their names are known. They are Vukojevic, Susak, Aralica, who systematically worked on preparing the public for a war with Bosniaks. Everyone can easily recall how Aralica, and Antun Vrdoljak and Vice Vukojevic and others talked about BH and Muslims in the Croatian Parliament. They sotonized Bosniaks to the unbelievable extent and, you see, at one point they totally stopped mentioning the Serb aggression. And I always started from the premise that the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia did not start because the nations suddenly decided that they could not live together, but because in Belgrade a decision had been made to start a war with the goal of changing borders.

Where would you place Tudman in that puzzle?

I think that Tudman succumbed to his own erroneous assessments. He thought that Milosevic would succeed in his aggressive intentions, and that it would be easy to break up Bosnia-Hercegovina. It would be good if he at least now admitted his mistakes and turned the page. Nations have to calm down at some point. If we recall WWII, until Nurnberg all victims of the German aggression viewed all Germans and Germany as the perpetrators. After Nurnberg, concrete Germans and the Hitler's regime were condemned. That is my demand. Serbia must be presented with the bill for war damages, Milosevic accused of war crimes and the guilt must be made individual. Then, we could talk about solid peace.

Is it also necessary to individualize guilt on the Croat side?

Clearly. Whose who committed crimes should be punished.

Can these authorities advocate something like that, if one has in mind that they led the war?

I do not think so, but there will be new elections and new winners.

Due to your views, you've always had decent relations with the Bosniak leadership. Did you have contacts with them after the start of the conflict between Croats and Bosniaks-Muslims and what did they tell you?

There were contacts. Bosniak leaders demanded from me to intervene in some way. I tried as much as I could, especially when aid was sent to BH. But anything I could do was insignificant.

How were the political and military leaders of Herceg-Bosna appointed?

No one ever discussed that with me, nor requested my opinion. I would only find out that this or that had been appointed to some important office.

What were the criteria? How did, out of nowhere, Petkovic, Boban, Praljak, Rajic, Kordic, end up in responsible positions?

I do not know. I on several occasions listened to Kordic and his nonsense. Once at an official meeting I told him that even a fetus knew more about politics than him. And he, in the end, became the president of the HDZ in BH!

In that case, what could have been the criterion?

Boban said that himself, and he does not need an interpreter: "I only implemented instructions I received from Zagreb". Therefore obedience was paramount.

Did the HDZ leadership in Zagreb ever consider that the idea about the division of BH could fail?

A while ago I had a coffee with Boban and asked him exactly that - what was their back up option? What if it was impossible to annex Hercegovina? At first he for a long time did not understand what I was asking him. It is obvious that the possibility that the plan for the division of Bosnia-Hercegovina could fail never entered their calculations. Many are still following that plan even though it is absolutely clear that Bosnia-Hercegovina must survive.

Since Sarinic was the key negotiator in many situations in connection with Bosnia-Hercegovina, did you ever discuss BH with him?

No. I do not consider Sarinic for a politician. He is a simple technician and his role is to implement projects whose idea does not have to be clear to him.

What about Vukojevic?

He is a man without any vision and what could anyone discuss with him? He is a slave to his crazy doctrine that there can be no coexistence with Bosniaks. It is monstrous to hear from a man and a representative in the Parliament that the HVO near Prijedor killed so many Muslims that they could not even load them on trucks. And he told me that arrogantly and without betraying any emotion in the Croatian Parliament.

Was he at the front there?

He did not say that. I threw him out of my office.

Vukojevic was given the military rank of the HVO brigadier. Do you know how he deserved that rank?

As the president of the Croatian Parliament one evening I saw him on TV in the HVO uniform. Neither did he ask me, as a representative in the Parliament, whether he could go there, nor do I know who sent him.

What about Susak? Did you discuss Bosnia-Hercegovina with him?

Susak always keeps quiet. Hundreds of times we attended meetings at which he did not say a word. He did the job that was outside of my relations, outside of my knowledge. But it was common knowledge that our officers were going to BH. I was contacted by concerned mothers and fathers of young men who had been registered as volunteers fighting in BH who claimed that those boys were actually mobilized. I phoned Susak to ask him whether that was true and he denied it. However, General Blaskic came from the HVO to the Croatian Army. The Defense Ministry was continuously included, but I never heard from Susak what his concept was.

Did you know about Croatian camps in Bosnia-Hercegovina?

I found out about them when they had already been shut down. I was shocked because I thought that, if anyone can establish concentration camps, we Croats must not have done it. I found that appalling.

Is it possible to now reconstruct form the hierarchy and chain of command, who could have given the order to establish the camps in BH?

Those who are in power had to know about that. After all, someone has to feed the camp inmates, someone has to organize the camp guards, someone has to organize the life and rules according to which camps were supposed to function, and that can be done only by those who are in power.

Who was that?

Probably someone among the leaders of Herceg-Bosna.

Did Herceg-Bosna ever act as an autonomous state and political structure?

No, it did not.

What do you know about the military and political cooperation with Serbs during the war between the HVO and the Army of BH? Did you have information that this took place?

I knew that there was cooperation with Abdic, that many goods were sent to his autonomous region, that that was done in an organized manner, that he was even receiving fuel. And what he did with those goods, one could only guess. However, one day we shall found out, as everything is found out sooner of later, whether the INA [Croatian state-owned oil company] exported fuel to Karadzic's Serbs.

Sarinic made some admissions to that effect?

He said that there was "some trade" with Serbs. When I visited Sarajevo, they told me that it would have been much easier to break through the blockade of Sarajevo if the HVO cooperated with the Bosniak side. If they did not want to cooperate with Bosniaks, that for me implies cooperation with Serbs. And Fr. Tomislav Duka, who with one convoy carried assistance to Croats in central Bosnia, told me when he returned that cisterns with fuel arrive from Croatia and are then taken over by Chetniks. Fr. Duka found that out from some nuns near Dretelj.

You were still in the HDZ and the president of the Croatian Parliament when in the April of 1993 the massacre of Bosniaks-Muslims took place in Ahmici, as well as in November when something similar took place in Stupni Dol. Did you demand an explanation and what were you told?

That was presented to me as a scam of some British officer Stewart who was supposedly initially on the Croat side, and later sided with Serbs. He was supposedly involved in the incident. I asked Boban who had done that and what had been done to find out the culprits. He said that the institutions of Herceg-Bosna had carried out an investigation and established that the attackers on Ahmici had worn black uniforms. They could have been Serbs, he said.

And you accepted that?

I said the following: "If you figured out the color of uniforms, it would have been even better if you figured out who had worn them."

Could you sleep peacefully as a high Croatian official?

No, I could not.

How come that at that point you were still in the HDZ?

Some sort of a critical mass of information is always needed to make a decision. I disagreed with the policy towards BH, I talked to colleagues in the Parliament and a good part of them were aware that something had to be done. The initial idea was to form a fraction within the HDZ and distance ourselves from the policy that we simply found unacceptable. However, that failed. At that point, several of us decided to leave and found a new party.

Did you personally tell Tudman about your decision?

I did. He suggested me to take a few months and study the French language and get out of the way, because I started to get in the way of his plans. I did not accept that.

Did you talk after that?

We did. He told me that I did not understand historical forces. I replied that I perhaps did not understand historical forces, but that I had common sense. He offered me the position of the ambassador in one of French speaking countries. I did not accept.

In your opinion, who initiated the scandal regarding your testimony in the Hague, and what is the purpose of the scandal?

I think that the Croatian official policy is under pressure because of earlier mistakes. After all, it has to deliver Blaskic, then Aleksovski and will have to extradite others as well. That makes certain circles nervous because they see themselves as endangered. That is why I am supposed to end up as a scapegoat for the public.

Some claim that lawyer Nobilo can defend General Blaskic only if he reveals true Kordic's, Boban's and Susak's role. What do you think about that?

I do not know, because I do not know Blaskic. But Nobilo is certainly a capable lawyer and he knows what he should do.

If Nobilo or the Hague Tribunal invited you, would you accept to testify in the Blaskic case or in some other case?

I am subject to Croatian laws and would have to do so.

Translated on February 21, 2001