‘Final straw’: Croatia’s president accused of playing down war crimes

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Only one child was murdered in Zagreb during the Croatian war of the 1990s.

She was 12 years old and her only known crime was being an ethnic Serb at a time when the Croat and Serb forces were fighting each other in her country.

Thirty years later, the murder is still one of the most controversial topics in the country.

On Tuesday, Croatian president Zoran Milanović claimed in a statement that too much was being made of the event, causing wide uproar in the country.

“I know of worse cases than that one,” he said after a commemoration was held in Zagreb, the capital, to mark the anniversary of the murders of Aleksandra Zec and her parents Mihajlo and Marija.

“The family was invited to see the government, they were given reparations — so what else do you need?”

Following criticism, Milanović backtracked and said that he “might have sounded harsh”, yet went on to claim that the murders were not ethnically motivated because Mihajlo Zec — a well-known butcher in Zagreb — “had a lot of money”.

“It was a robbery, [where those] driven by human greed and evil, without the participation of the state, went on to rob and murder Mihajlo Zec in the midst of a war,” he stated on Thursday.

He went on to say, “I think it’s fascinating that there was only one such murder. It’s a miracle there weren’t more of those.”

“So let me ask you a question: should we self-flagellate 30 years later? Do the Croatian officials have to re-confess some sort of a grand crime each year?” Milanović asked.

Not a regular robbery

On December 7, 1991, members of a unit formed by Tomislav Merčep, a Croatian politician and paramilitary commander, broke into the Zec family home in the middle of the night. They first arrested Mihajlo Zec and executed him as he tried to escape.

Aleksandra and her mother were pulled out of their apartment in their pyjamas, driven to a nearby ski resort, and killed there.

Aleksandra’s two siblings, Gordana and Dušan, managed to survive by hiding inside the house during the break-in.

The bodies of the killed Zec family members were missing for days and were only found when Marija Zec’s brother, policeman Zlatko Mesić, tried to uncover what happened to his sister and brother-in-law.

Despite convincing forensic evidence and all five perpetrators confessing to the executions in great detail, the court ordered their release in 1992, claiming that procedural errors made during their apprehension were enough to let them go.

The main perpetrator, Siniša Rimac, became one of the bodyguards of Gojko Šušak, a Croatian nationalist politician and wartime minister of defence. After the war, Rimac rose to the rank of a colonel in the Croatian army.

“By talking about it as common robbery, you are completely neglecting everything: the court cases, the appointment of Rimac as Gojko Šušak’s bodyguard. It’s convenient, because it allows us to continue with this self-victimising narrative,” Croatian scholar Sven Milekić told Euronews.

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In 1995, Croatian president Franjo Tuđman awarded Rimac with the Nikola Šubić Zrinjski Medal for “heroic acts in war”.

Rimac did end up in jail, but only in 2005, and for another murder — that of Aleksandar Saša Antić in Pakrac, also in 1991. Another Croatian president, Stipe Mesić, reduced his sentence at the very end of his mandate in 2010.

“Croatian society, like all societies that came out of the Yugoslav wars, has a fixation on its own victimhood,” Milekić said.

“You cannot build a successful or widely supported national mythology with you being the perpetrator. It’s much easier to build it on you being either the victim or the hero.”

“That’s what happened in Croatia — you have this combination of victimhood and heroism,” he explained.

Apologies behind closed doors

Croatian mainstream politics has tried to frame the country as a massive success story. The Croat side was a clear victor in the war, it was the last Western Balkan country to enter the European Union and boasts of having the most beautiful coastline in Europe.

Talking about the ethnically-motivated murder of a child, and the politics that inspired it, does not fit into that narrative, Milekić believes.

The sentiment was last on display when renowned Croatian playwright Oliver Frljić wrote an eponymous play about Aleksandra’s death.

The showings were accompanied by protests in cities across Croatia, some of which turned violent.

“Aleksandra is one of these victims where you’re expected to either not mention her, or completely misconstrue her death,” he stated.

The surviving Zec children, now in their late thirties and living in Banjaluka, Bosnia with their grandmother ever since the murders, were given what the Croatian government at the time dubbed as “one-time financial aid” in 2004.

But Milekić, an occasional contributor to Balkan Insight who has studied the case for years, argues that this was a de facto out-of-court settlement motivated by the backlash caused by a local magazine, Nacional, publishing gruesome images of the Zec family’s demise.

“They were not paid for damages. They were paid to drop the case, which the kids and their attorney Ante Nobilo agreed to do because they were afraid,” he explains.

“They simply couldn’t trust [the Croatian judiciary]. So they said, okay, we’ll take the money, and that was it.”

The apology, demanded by Nobilo as a part of the deal, was never made official.

“Prime minister Ivo Sanader didn’t even want to be officially mentioned in the protocol. He pretended to be in his office by mistake, and then he used the opportunity to say his apologies,” Milekić said.

“So it’s true that they received money, like Milanović said, but the way it was done was so that they would shut up, drop their case and go back to Bosnia and not bother us anymore,” he concluded.

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Milanović’s sinking reputation

This is not Milanović’s first tirade that ended up drawing public condemnation.

In early 2021, the region experienced an unprecedented level of cross-border solidarity after a number of actresses began publicly discussing the sexual assault they experienced from male colleagues and superiors.

Milanović said the claims by “spoiled female stars who do not get out of bed for less than 5 million dollars” of abuse “aren’t interesting,” while speaking at a press conference in February.

In late November, Milanović lamented on Austria’s pandemic measures including a nationwide lockdown and mandatory vaccination, claiming it was “fascism,” while previously having claimed Covid-19 was a “chronic non-transferrable disease.”

“I mean, what’s next?… Sturmabteilung on the streets? Why are the Brussels bureaucrats silent now?” Milanović asked.

This caused a minor scandal in Austria, with the government inviting the Croatian ambassador Daniel Glunčić for talks to express their concern over Milanović’s remarks.

“The ambassador was clearly told that the statements were surprising and that we wholly reject them. Comparing the measures against the COVID-19 pandemic to fascism is unacceptable. It is our government’s responsibility to protect the people in Austria,” the Austrian government said in a statement to the Croatian TV channel RTL.

In neighbouring Bosnia, Milanović first caused a stir after he called the current crisis in the country “nonsense,” claiming that “[Bosnians] could only wage war if they threw chestnuts at each other.”

He then tried to claim that the Srebrenica genocide was not comparable to other genocides, saying “there’s genocide and then there’s genocide” in reference to the mass execution of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys over the course of three days in July 1995, solely for their nominal Muslim faith.

This drew sharp criticism from the Bosniak member of the threeway presidency of Bosnia, Šefik Džaferović, who issued a public statement last Friday, saying that Milanović’s words were “shameful and unacceptable”.

Progressive forces rally against Milanović

But for many, the comments about the Zec family murder were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Independent MP Bojan Glavašević told Euronews that Milanović’s recent statements on war crimes made him feel “surprised and saddened.”

“As someone who is also a victim of war crimes, all I can say is that I represent completely different opinions than those that Milanović is communicating.”

“But it doesn’t discourage me from own desire and need to show by example that Croatia is different than that,” he continued.

“There are those who relativise war crimes, but there are also people who want to deal with the past in an honest, sincere way, and build good-neighbourly relations on the basis of truth and facts.”

Glavašević was seven years old when he lost his father and two grandparents during the Croatian war.

His father Siniša, editor-in-chief of Radio Vukovar, was kidnapped, beaten, and murdered by Serbian paramilitaries in the besieged Croatian city in late November 1991 — only a few weeks before the Zec murders.

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Glavašević, a two-time MP who became known for his vocal denunciation of war crimes denial in Croatia, often repeats that “if someone thinks it’s very positive to be the son of a Vukovar hero, I’d gladly trade places.”

“I’d rather have a father who is alive than have a memory of a war hero.”

Once a part of Milanović’s SDP, Glavašević is now aligned with the left-wing green political initiative Možemo (“We Can”), which won an unprecedented victory in the Zagreb local elections earlier this year.

Zagreb mayor Tomislav Tomašević, also from Možemo, became the first official representative of the Croatian capital who attended the commemoration of the Zec family murders, laying flowers at Aleksandra and Marija’s execution site on Tuesday.

According to Glavašević, Tomašević’s symbolic gesture and the reactions to it show that there is a Croatia that is different from the one that Milanović and others are catering to with ever-increasing populism.

“One of the things that Tomašević said to the two surviving children from the Zec family at the commemoration is that no matter what, Zagreb is their city and Croatia is their country.”

“That is the exact message I want to send to everyone who was a victim of war crimes in the 1990s, regardless of the side that committed them.”

From the main left-wing politician to populist agitator

According to Milekić, Milanović’s tendency to make populist statements that are often unfounded in fact is something his supporters tend to neglect due to his appearance of a polished, well-versed politician.

He was Prime Minister of Croatia from 2011 until 2016, a period marked by an increase in far-right rhetoric in the country. In that context, Milanović was seen as a reasonable left-leaning voice. Many believe this legacy helped him win the presidential elections in January 2020.

Milanović uses his reputation from that period as a cover for his questionable views, while displaying a clear inability to empathise with the common person, Milekić argues.

“Zoran Milanović has always been privileged, as a person who comes from what we call ‘red bourgeoisie’ here — his father Stipe was a highly ranked official in socialist Yugoslavia.”

“During the war, while people his age were on the front, Zoran Milanović was working at the ministry of foreign affairs and going on diplomatic missions, places such as Nagorno-Karabagh, the like,” he said.

“And now he simply can’t get past his privilege and can’t understand why ‘all these’ women, or Muslims, or the LGBTI population, or war crimes victims — why they are complaining,” Milekić concluded.

Euronews has asked Milanović to respond to criticism in this article.

Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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