Capital Zagreb
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 385
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .hr
Currency Kuna (1EUR = 7.26HRK)
Land Area 56,594 sq km
Population 4.5 million
Language Croatian
Major Religion Roman Catholicism

Croatian Defense Reforms and Issues of National Security: Interview with Military Analyst Igor Tabak

Igor Tabak is a Croatian independent military analyst in Zagreb. Since the early 1990’s, he has written for the official magazines of the Croatian Ministry of Defense. In addition, since 2003 he has often commented on military and security issues for various national and regional media.

Ante Raic, a journalist with Croatian National Television and correspondent in Zagreb, recently surveyed Mr Tabak to gain his insights on issues related to Croatia’s programme of defense reforms before joining NATO, public and media perceptions regarding the defense sector, politically-sensitive cases involving military procurement issues, and the overall main security threats facing the country today.

Croatia’s Defense Reforms: A Work in Progress?

Ante Raic: In the year 2000, Croatia started a big cycle of defense reforms. How far did we get?

Igor Tabak, Croatian military analyst

Igor Tabak: Those reforms are of a cyclical nature. They started after the elections of 2000, and were done by 2006 or 2007- when we should have started the next cycle. It is important to note that this [second] round did not happen, and that this remains a big problem.

While the first round of reforms dealt with global problems and rough structural changes, a lot of more detailed questions remained unanswered (or at least were not answered thoroughly enough), as can easily be seen- we have a lot of retired generals acting strangely, and problems in enforcing the law there. While in our [country’s] legal regulations we speak of two intelligence agencies, in practice we also have a third one, which we forgot to integrate fully- that is, a specialized department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that managed to keep some of its former independence, and is not mentioned in the law. Further, we formed the National Protection and Rescue Directorate as a somewhat independent body, with a voice of its own, but still left it connected budget-wise to the Ministry of the Interior. So, although they look or act as two separate entities, in reality they are not as separate as they should have been.

The defense sector saw a huge planning effort fall apart during the last two years, particularly concerning finances. The crisis was hard to avoid, but instead of attempting a revision, our planning effort stumbled into wholesale stagnation. This was especially visible with structural reform and downsizing efforts- concentrated on the armed forces, and somehow sidestepping the Ministry of Defense. The MoD broke all deadlines for its reorganization well before the economic crisis. The Croatian MoD, oversized before, remains even more so today.

Still, some small bits of second-round reform actually did happen. We enacted some measure of civilian oversight over the defense system; a parliamentary committee on defense was established, one that also involves outside expert members, appointed by public call, who are not members of the parliament but representatives of the general and specialized public. This system of defense committee organization is unique in this region. Even with those small changes happening, the reforms in general have stalled and it will probably take a new parliamentary election to get them back on track.


AR: When did the approach towards the defense sector start to change?

IT: Over the past 20 years, the approach towards defense has been changing and developing in Croatia. From its humble beginnings, the forming of the defense sector at the beginning of the war, and through to the end of the war, had a force of around 270,000 soldiers. During the second part of the 1990’s, the reduction of that huge structure began. In the year 2000, the government changed, with a left-wing coalition winning the election. The process of de-politization and defense reform accelerated, in the end bringing Croatia into NATO in 2009.

Depolitization was really painful. The actions of Stjepan Mesić, who was president during that time, were very important. He was presented with a letter (published in media), signed by a group of active-duty generals in the Croatian army who had obvious political aspirations. And he reacted to their road-trip into politics. His reaction was justified and solved the problem for a longer time to come. But at the time it was really a hard decision to take. Mesić was at the beginning of his first term, just months after the first Croatian president Tuđman died, and the old authoritarian system was still strong in the society and the military alike.

At the same time, his decision to retire those generals was rather mild, since those generals who signed that letter (actually, a political proclamation) weren’t dishonorably discharged, as they’d have been in some other countries, but only forced to retire. So, they kept their ranks and benefits that go with it. In retirement they could have become politically active, but only a few of them actually did. Those people lost a lot of their importance and almost disappeared from public. So that presidential mildness did solve the problem, but it set an unpleasant precedent. It showed that rules exist and if you do not behave well, you’ll be sanctioned- but not very harshly.

The same attitude could be observed later, near the end of Mesić’s second term in office. He did not remove the ranks of the above-mentioned group of convicted retired officers, though he could have, but he did take some of their medals instead. He left them with their officer ranks and uniforms, in which they could walk proudly and say: “I’m a general!” On the other hand, he could say: “I did something!”- President Josipović decided to be more categorical there.

Public Perceptions of the Defense Sector

AR: What do you think about the treatment the sector of defense gets in the eyes of Croatian politicians and the media?

IT: In the last few years, Croatian politicians have developed a pretty theatrical and parade-oriented way of looking at their national armed forces. You can hear or read about the Croatian military when a state official visits some distant place and accidentally runs into Croats taking part in an international mission, or when it is time for a parade, for showing off in uniform, purely as a ceremonial background for the politicians. And I think that’s symptomatic.

Since Croatia’s downsizing of its armed forces, its political influence- in the last instance the population living off the military in general, unlike the veteran’s population, is rather small and does not carry much political weight. It is hard to get re-elected through work in this field. So, consequently, the politicians are not interested in defense-sector issues, where the benefits are small, and where the expenses needed for the upkeep are huge.

This is not in correlation with the importance of the themes that the defense sector, and the security sector in general, are covering- after all, human lives can still be in danger there. And we treat all this on a ceremonial level only. In Croatia, we don’t seriously discuss issues of national security or defense. The lack of critical and expert discourse on those subjects poses a serious problem here.

AR: The opinion of most people in Croatia is that Croatia became a member state of NATO, so we don’t have to be afraid anymore. What do you have to say on that?

IT: In a way, that opinion is true, but on the other hand, it is a big mistake, one that shows a deep misunderstanding of the subject (though very popular in Croatia). While NATO does affect our security in a positive manner, it is in no way enough by itself. NATO is not a charity organization; NATO doesn’t protect one nation just by itself. One cannot chronically neglect one’s own defense sector because of the fact of NATO membership.

NATO insists that its members be self-sufficient in these matters, and then contribute to the organization. In a moment of need, Croatia will certainly respond first by itself, and only if the problem is bigger – and can’t be solved by ourselves alone or fast enough – then we can and should expect NATO to help us. It’s a huge organization, with a complicated system of decision-making, where consensus must be accomplished for almost anything. It thus takes actions slowly and very carefully. So, it would be a bad idea to count on NATO as the only national solution in cases of real emergency.

Croatia’s Main Security Concerns Today

AR: Which are the main security concerns that Croatia faces today?

IT: There are three sets of problems, nicely illustrated through the lens provided by the three general tasks of the Croatian armed forces. The first of these is the defense of the state, second is participation in international [peacekeeping] missions, and the third is helping the civil sector to overcome disaster situations.

The first of these tasks is slowly losing some of its urgency in Croatia. Not so long ago, during the time of war, our defense system was created, and that was most of what it did. Now we are at peace, and so we are gradually stressing other aspects of the same task, Therefore we defend our country through enforcement of law and order, through a stricter border control done by the police, and by the establishment of a more complete system of democratic control over the security sector of the Croatian state. The police, as part of the security sector, controls the national borders- a system that has to be further strengthened significantly as Croatia gets closer to the EU and the implementation of the Schengen system.

In recent years, the other two tasks gave also gained in prominence. Croatia is very active as a [contributor to] NATO, UN and EU mission. For a country of its size, Croatia is exceptionally active, with Croatian soldiers in most of the world’s trouble spots. While this is certainly important, we still have to find the right balance of defense activities at home and abroad, and not let one harm the other.

The third task, to help in disaster response and crisis management, will be more and more in the scope of duties of the Croatian armed forces. Since the National Protection and Rescue Directorate was established recently, the armed forces remain an option of last resort, in the case of any serious disaster. During the recent floods and wildfires, it was noticeable that much more attention was needed in that field.

The Long Border with Bosnia: Enabling Extremist Infiltration?

AR: One of Croatia’s main problems before becoming an EU member state involves its 1,000 km-long border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everybody’s talking about the possibility of al Qaeda, about Islamic terrorists there, and some of them perhaps near the Croatian border. What is your opinion here?

IT: Croatia is lucky because a large part of its national borders run along rivers, making them somewhat easier to control. The problem is the part of the borderline along the top of mountain ranges in the Dalmatian hinterland. There aren’t a lot of people living in that area, the landscape is rough and it’s hard to know in anything close to real-time what exactly is going on there. Trafficking and smuggling of all sorts are the main problems.

Islamic terrorism as a subject is very popular in these parts, both in public and among experts. There the situation is not as it seems at the first glance. If we take a look at it historically, that problem is fading out. Bosnia was a center of radical Islamism in the early 1990s, during the war. At that time, people were talking of Bin Laden walking around, of groups that are at war with the Egyptian government having their branches in Bosnia- camps, a series of training centers for people who were taking part in the war, as well as separate Islamist military units at the front lines.

And, let’s not forget that Croatia is one of the few countries in the wider region that had its own Islamic car bombing before 9/11, in Rijeka- a form of revenge by the Egyptian organization Al Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, after Abu Talat was arrested in Croatia (a man wanted for his involvement in the WTC attack of 1993). Even at that time, the Croatian state was at war with those groups and their views of the world.

Today, the situation is somewhat different. There are some relics of wartime Islamism in Bosnia, mostly villages inhabited by foreign people who arrived to fight for Islam on the side of the Sarajevo government. For that, they got Bosnian citizenship and passports, decided to stay and started families with local women. Maybe they’re just there, living their ordinary lives, or maybe they’re waiting for their chance and a call to action.

That is a problem somewhat different from the one facing Serbia. There we often hear about Islamism, al Qaeda, camps, armed groups… but if we consider all that from outside the “Belgrade viewpoint,” it’s not clear what’s actually happening. Is there real, armed Islamist activity? Or are they [just] Albanians thinking of starting a fight for, let’s say, the Preševo area? Are are those maybe armed Muslim movements focused on a kind of autonomy in Sandžak? Today, as you can clearly see in the Caucasus region, the simplest way for a state to react in that kind of situation is to say: “It’s al Qaeda!” And you have an easy and popular public explanation.

Political Rumblings in the Defense Sector

AR: The ex-minister of defense, Berislav Rončević, is being prosecuted because of the so-called “Trucks” affair, that occurred while he was minister. In that case, the ministry in 2004 bought 39 military trucks, which were both more expensive and lower in quality, from the IVECO company instead of from MAN. The latter’s trucks would have been two million euros cheaper. Now there is talk that the current minister Branko Vukelić could also loose his job… do you have any insights on how things will develop here?

IT: Minister Vukelić is politically weak. For a while now, in Croatia we have had a situation where relatively weak politicians get to the head of the Ministry of Defense, and that corresponds with the lesser weight that sector has in the eyes of the political elite. Vukelić arrived into defense from the sector of economy- while already under suspicion of involvement in a number of corruption scandals there. So, he arrived politically shaken and he hasn’t gotten any stronger since. Then he had some health problem, and this too impaired his work.

All those facts reflect on how the Croatian defense sector was functioning recently. On top of that, the economical crisis struck Croatia in 2009. The defense budget was severely cut, while the planning process staggered. Even before the recent loss of two MIG fighter planes, Vukelić was a likely candidate for replacement in even a minor reconstruction of government.

AR: Croatian president Ivo Josipović recently took away the ranks and decorations of some military officers, even generals, who were convicted of serious crime. How do you comment on these actions?

IT: When you say “a general” in Croatia, people rarely think of someone who is in active military service. In popular terms, the title usually refers to someone in the ranks of the retired, wartime generals- most of whom don’t always feel the need to stress that they are actually in retirement. A number of them keep on, from time to time forgetting to mention that fact in public. And at times they end up showing off in public in their uniforms, with all the medals they won, while at the same time bringing themselves into situations that bear no connection with the armed forces, and that even tend to be expressively forbidden for active military personnel.

So, on one hand, we have a situation in which there is a group of people that is clearly separated from the general society by their military rank and wartime record. On the other hand, some of them at times feel strong enough to dare to jump outside the usual societal or legal norms. While not being restrained by the norms appropriate for active duty officers, they use their military and wartime background to somehow bypass the civilian authority that would bind them as ordinary retired citizens. As thiswhole practice depends on them keeping their rank and service-time decorations, that is why the move by President Josipović provoked so fierce a reaction.

Our president, who is a professor of law – criminal-procedural law to be precise – thinks that his decision made on September 9th to remove the military ranks of retired generals Branimir Glavaš, Vladimir Zagorec and Mirko Norac, as well as of retired lieutenant colonel Tihomir Orešković and retired major Siniša Rimac, is both legal and moral. Combined with a legal argument, he states a moral reasoning also, saying that an officer must be honorable (in the Croatian language, “officer” is časnik and “honor” is čast). Consequently, a man whose judicial sentence for war crimes, murder or similar offenses is beyond appeal has forfeited the honor he needs to bear the rank of an officer.

The procedure with the five persons in question would be simple and straightforward if they were still on active duty, as they have been sentenced without possibility for appeal for serious criminal deeds, committed while in active military duty. By the power of law, because they’re convicted to serve three or more years in prison, their ranks would be taken from them, and they’d be dishonourably discharged from the military.

However, they are not in active duty now, as they retired while the judicial process was still going on, or [for some] even before it started. They got to enjoy the full rights and benefits of their corresponding ranks, and they keep enjoying those even after the sentencing. They base a large part of their relation with the rest of the society, as well as a large part of their public image, on the fact of their having military rank (retired) and various decorations. Now, those have been taken from them, and some sort of showdown between them and the President of Croatia seems unavoidable. Legal charges have been brought to dispute the presidential decision.

AR: Of the generals accused, why do you think that only Generals Norac and Glavaš appealed his decision?

IT: Out of this whole group of retired and sentenced military officers, [these two] are most present in media and they have the firmest base in the regions from which they come; there they are still considered to be heroes solely, and not criminals also. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the others from this group would also appeal. And I think that’s good, because this whole question is actually a legal “gray area.” We have a tradition of improvisation, of solving things as they happen, even in a not really complete manner. Consequently, a binding legal decision would be good here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the judgement would come a lot sooner than the new law on defense or the law on service in the armed forces, which actually should regulate that question in a more comprehensive manner.

AR: President Josipović’s term is still at its beginning. Can we otherwise compare Mesić and Josipović? Did Josipović continue where Mesić stopped, in terms of defense-related matters?

IT: Definitively not. So far, during these 10 months of his first term, it seems that Josipović is not using much of his executive authority in sectors in which the constitution gives him his biggest competences – defense and foreign affairs. He is still looking for direction, and may be still sorting through his priorities. You can hear him talking a lot about social, economical, historical and cultural issues; he visits cemetaries and [buildings under] scaffolding, and takes much less visible action in sectors where his competences are actually more concrete and more broad.

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