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In honour of Praljak

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In her topic "What is your reason to live?", Altai posted this photo:


For those who aren't aware, this shows a Croatian general named Praljak in the act of suicide (by poison) in the courtroom at The Hague. He'd just been sentenced for committing war crimes during the warfare in the Balkans associated with the secession of Croatia from the Jugoslav federation in the early/mid-1990s.

The case of General Praljak connects in an interesting way with another of Altai's topics, "We all are racists", which can be seen through some observations on the reaction of many people in Croatia to his sentencing and death.

I moved to Croatia in 2000 in full innocence, not knowing what to expect, and without prejudice against the state or its people. What I've discovered since then appals me: this country is politically and culturally backward to a degree that I would never have expected in the Europe of the third millennium.

Even so, the Praljak case has surprised me. The single most shocking event in my 17 years of residence here is this: immediately after his suicide, the Croatian Parliament observed a minute's silence in Praljak's honour.

When I learned this, I wondered whether every Croatian suicide was given this honour. Certainly not. So did you have to be a war criminal to qualify for it? Absurd, of course -- and yet he did qualify. Why?

Clearly, his conviction for war crimes didn't disqualify him. This is an indication of the arrogance of people in this part of the world. To the proud Croat, the judgements of the court in The Hague are only worth respecting if they are not seen as anti-Croat. The court is not seen as an authority fit to bring independent judgements that might surprise Croatian expectations. If those judgements conform to Croatian hopes, they are welcomed with approval; if they are disappointing, they are dismissed as the biased machinations of the anti-Croat wider world. When it comes to Croatian issues, people who aren't themselves Croats are given no credit for having anything to say that's worth hearing.

So, by the conservative majority in this country, Praljak isn't even seen as a war criminal, despite the telling evidence of his conviction. Not only was he a Croat, but a Croat who led an army of Croats in the conflict that established the homeland of the Croat. That's why, until a few days ago, there was a makeshift shrine to him on Zagreb's main square, with candles burning before a photo of the man with the legend "Junak" ("Hero") above it.

And this was enough to persuade the vast majority of Croatian MPs to conveniently forget their religion for a minute. Croatia has a staunchly Catholic culture, so those MPs would normally give overwhelming support for the idea that suicide is a sin against God. But the sinister local notion of 'nationality' puts even God in his place.

When English-speakers talk of nationality, they usually mean the same thing as citizenship: that is, which country issues your passport. But, where Serbo-Croat is spoken, there is a world of difference between "nacionalnost" or "narodnost" (which I'll refer to from now on as "ethnicity") and "državljanstvo" (or "citizenship", in the above sense of which country you 'belong' to).

In the Balkans, Croats belong to one 'narod', Serbs belong to another, and Muslims (believe it or not!) belong to a third. These are the three main ethnicities (narodi) of the Serbo-Croatian area: that is, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosna & Hercegovina. Obviously, religion plays a part in distinguishing one from the others. But what is the difference between a Croat and a Serb?

Croats and Serbs themselves like to mention religion, language and domicile in this respect. The typical Croat is Catholic, speaks the Croatian dialect and lives in Croatia or Hercegovina; the typical Serb is Orthodox, speaks Serbian and lives in Serbia or Bosna. But there are plenty of exceptions to these three criteria. The only criterion that survives closer inspection is parentage. You can only be a Croat if one (or both) of your parents is a Croat; you can only be a Serb if one (or both) of your parents is a Serb. (I've lived here for 17 years, but it makes not a ha'porth of difference: I'll never be accepted as a Croat.)

So this is where the issue of racism comes in. Praljak, despite being a suicide and a war criminal, was officially honoured by the government of this country because he had the right genes, and he fought against people who had the wrong ones.



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