The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has stuffed more gunpowder into the barrel.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) reached the end of its mandate at the close of 2017. On Nov. 29, the Court affirmed its previous judgement on the Prlić et al. case.

All six individuals involved with the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia – Jadranko Prlić, Bruno Stojić, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petković, Valentin Ćorić, and Berislav Pušić – have been found guilty of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and in grave breach of the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, the Court affirmed the existence of a joint criminal enterprise, whose purpose was the creation of a “Croatian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina that would facilitate the reunification of the Croatian people, through ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population.

Instead of a calm and orderly closure following the ICTY’s final judgement, viewers and participants were stupefied when one of the convicted, Slobodan Praljak, drank a vial of poison exclaiming: “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. I reject the court ruling.”

In a conversation with Der Spiegel, Žarko Puhovski, a Croatian political analyst, connects the apparent heroism evoked by Praljak’s act and Croatian nationalism, calling them “eine krasse Form der Vergesellschaftung der kroatischen Kriegsverbrechen.” According to Večernji List, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović have criticized the verdict, albeit with a degree of caution.

Both have stressed what is now seen as Praljak’s personal belief in his innocence. As politicians, they must both juggle the domestic opinion, which is largely in favour of Praljak, and the international community, which only sees a war criminal. This political manoeuvring is necessary because the verdict also extends to the first Croatian president Franjo Tuđman, and the then-incumbent Minister of Defence Gojko Šušak, attributing the orchestration of the aforementioned joint criminal enterprise to them.

As identified by Keno Verseck in Der Spiegel, the holiest of the state’s unwritten laws is being questioned, namely, “dass die kroatische Nation ausschließlich Opfer eines jugoslawisch-serbischen Angriffskrieges war”. If Croatia continues to insist on its immaculate past and its portrayal as a victim, and, as long as these arguments are used for moral exculpation of the state, it will be extremely limited in any future cooperation with the former states of Yugoslavia.

Praljak’s suicide hearkens back to Socrates and Herman Göring. Andrew Macdowall, reporting for The Guardian from Praljak’s hometown of Čapljina, spoke with residents. Some of them likened Praljak to “a Greek hero, […] trying to restore order”. Others, mostly from the besieged city of Mostar, do not share such sentiments. One of the interviewees had opposed Praljak’s glorification: “Fourteen members of my family died, all because of that monster, Praljak. His suicide was cowardice.” These statements reflect the difficulty of interpreting Praljak’s final act. Is he more akin to Socrates or Göring? The sorrow in the wake of his suicide has a peculiar taste – it contains the sadness of those who believe that they are mourning a hero, as well as the rage and dissatisfaction of those who view him as a coward.

With his suicide staged as a grandiose personal annulment of international justice, it is easy to overlook the simple fact that Praljak took his own life. This might seem trivial, but it must not be forgotten that Croatia is a deeply Catholic country. Praljak’s suicide is a direct violation of the Catholic catechism. The leadership of the clergy in Germany seems to have recognised this issue as according to the Večernji List, they forbade “requiems for General Praljak and participation at any devotions and commemorations in Praljak’s honour.” This, however, has not prevented unofficial commemorations and sombre vigils held in Praljak’s honour in Zagreb and Čapljina, proving again that those seen as heroes are not to be held back by common laws, be they secular or ecclesiastical.

The issues listed only scratch the surface of a sea of problems unleashed by this entire case. The greatest danger, however, lies in the future and temporary oblivion. No longer in the headlines, Praljak and the others might be unearthed in the future by a nationalist Janus. The two-faced Roman god simultaneously looked into the past and the future. This potential leader will do the same, but he might invoke the memory “of the tragic general” from the past to put Croatia in a precarious position in the future.

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