President Milanović’s Speech on the Occasion of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day, Day of Croatian Defenders and the 26th Anniversary of the Military-Police Operation Storm

05. August 2021.

The President of the Republic and Commander in Chief of the Croatian Armed Forces Zoran Milanović attended the ceremony of Victory and Homeland Gratitude Day and Croatian Defenders Day, and the 26th anniversary of the joint military and police Operation Storm in Knin. The President addressed the gathering at the main celebration: 

“Dear friends, mothers, fathers, relatives of fallen Croatian heroes, missing defenders, Croatian soldiers, Croatian police officers, brothers in arms whose joint actions resulted in defending and liberating Croatia, all of them Croatian citizens, Croatian women and men, and all those who feel so, those who are loyal to this country and who love it – happy Victory Day, Homeland Gratitude Day and Croatian Defenders Day!

Operation Storm was one of the boldest and best planned feats in Croatian history. This was no ordinary business transaction. The people who advanced at dawn on the 4th to the 5th (of August) via the Miljevci Plateau – where I arrived from this morning and last year in Knin – who knows what all went through the minds of those young men at the time. It certainly wasn’t peace of mind, most probably fear, as well as hope and faith in a victory. Fear, man’s damn companion, but sometimes wise adviser was not stronger than they were. There was nothing else but courage and love, not foolishness, it was courage and good organization. I often wish that the Croatian state were as organized and disciplined in its aspirations, ambitions, activities, successes and confusion, although in a democratic society, as the Croatian army was at that time.

Here on Vještić Gora, located on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the Dinara mountain range, the Croatian army was for months making plans for an encirclement to defeat the enemy in these areas as well as towards the south and all over. In 1991 the Croatian army was not by far the army it was in 1995. It developed through work, successes and rare defeats, by procuring arms, which was by no means an ordinary business decision, but a job on the fringe and on the dark side of international law. Someone had to lead all of this, but even in 1995 the Croatian army was not a superior military power in terms of technology, it had no modern air force. It had more capabilities than in 1991, but the human factor was crucial. Today when we are developing and procuring state-of-the-art technology, which I wholeheartedly welcome, there’s still nothing without people.

Let us recall some of those people, here in this region, since we are here today. This is not the only battlefield, but perhaps the most important one: sons of Dalmatia, of the Cetina River region, of the Zagora region, of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Several thousands of them, but no more, as always a small number of right people who put their lives on the line. Their mothers, girlfriends, fathers and friends dreading the worst, yet they accomplished something that in its approach to the tasks and organization seldom happens in Croatian history. The pressure and the fear were immense. Those are our commanders, professional soldiers, but also individuals who had no connection to the army until the war and would very unlikely have had any had the war not caught them on their doorstep. They are: Ante Gotovina, Rahim Ademi, Damir Krstičević, Ante Kotromanović and the late commander of the Pumas Ivan Korade. Those are individuals without whom this wouldn’t be possible today. And of course there is the political leadership that can do nothing without top notch soldiers, without faith and enthusiasm, but when the two are combined giving what is called synergy, I call this enthusiasm, passion and love. Those were the President of the Republic Franjo Tuđman and two key wartime ministers – Gojko Šušak and Ivan Jarnjak, for whom I regret that he is not here today. But I suppose he will be next year. Without a few good people, key people at key moments no major undertaking can succeed.

Last year we had a celebration of gestures. Aware that we have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, that around a war, in a war and after a war there were actions and crimes that were prohibited. However, crimes were committed by all sides. We talk and should talk about all crimes. I’m not an advocate of the principle that every victim is equal, every victim cannot be equal because in the end every victim will be less significant. Every victim killed is already a victim killed. People of both Croatian and Serbian ethnicity were killed. I have no problem with gestures since my entire political career was very often a gesture towards the weaker one, in this case in Croatia the members of the minority ethnic communities. I belong to the Croatian community and the Croatian state.

Events in Oklaj village across Promina mountain should not be forgotten not because we want to rub it making someone feel responsible, or put an equal sign between two things, because here there is no equal sign. The pain is so severe on both sides that the lever at the centre of the weighing scale is threatening to break. These people were killed not in 1991, but in 1992, 1993 and in 1994 on their doorstep, elderly people, grandmothers and grandfathers, people who were naive enough to think that they could remain in their homes, yet were nevertheless killed. There was a betrayal of fundamental human trust. Practically no one has been called to account for these killings. It should be stressed that these were dozens of people who deserved dutiful respect. Those people were all citizens of our state.

Another matter I would like to bring up here since those who have spoken before me, namely the Prime Minister, have talked about important development issues. I will talk about a security issue. Twenty-six years since the war have passed, a difficult series, not episodes, of relations with the Hague tribunal in which we were held accountable for some things, and also accused for things that have nothing to do with common sense. Even today in neighbouring countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, which I want to believe is our friend, we are still witnessing accusations piling up against Croatian wartime commanders for unproven or fabricated crimes of collective or command responsibility of twenty-six years ago. This is not good for our joint relations. In this case, the Croatian state, the totality of the Croatian state, not only the government, but other institutions, should simply say no to such accusations. These individuals will not be put on trial in Croatia and we will protect them at any cost. Just like that! Those are our wartime commanders. We can expect to be taken seriously. Indeed we don’t want anything that isn’t ours, this area has always been settled by the strongest, the toughest, it was hard to survive here. All those battles, all those wars here were in fact wars to take control of the territory, but not to take control of a territory where life was easy and carefree. And now we are where we are. Croatian men and women, a small nation, a small community, a community of spirit, not of soil and blood, a community of upbringing, awareness of a common origin, certain mutual features and a joint journey from the present through to the future.

If we begin to feel sorry for ourselves and consider ourselves victims, complain, I understand the motives, that there aren’t enough of us, that we’ll face extinction, we won’t make much progress. There’s no threat of extinction or disappearance! It’s a fact that this area, as unfortunate and difficult as it is, came to be at all, and that in general several million have survived for one hundred and fifty years to this day. That we are less populous now than 20 years ago is no cause for alarm. There is reason for the creative energy of this nation to be encouraged first of all by the political authorities. We shall not become extinct. Our circumstances are not more difficult, and they were never more favourable than they are today. We are in the European Union, there are enough of us. We have to define our national interests in terms of population policy. How many people will we import to do the jobs that Croatian people don’t want to or can’t do anymore? How will we conduct ourselves towards them and do all of this with a cool head. I will repeat something that I say quite often and I think I won’t be wrongly understood – selfishly, as a nation. Not evil, not maliciously, but selfishly and in our own interest.

As we and I have presented decorations this year, I believe to the last group of wartime commanders and units, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, not to be malicious towards anyone on the other side, but because these individuals deserve it. That is our debt of honour. And here I have no authority, but my conscience and an expectation that Croatian people will understand. And that is why I once again thank from the bottom of my heart all those who were unselfish and that small number of right people who put themselves out for Croatia with limited resources in circumstances of semi-isolation, in circumstances when even our major allies didn’t say “go ahead”, but “go, if you stumble we’ll see, if you succeed we’ll see”. That was far from what was assigned. Therefore, we are our only ally. We’re not autistic, we’re not isolated, we recognize our friends and allies. I hope we have enough experience in this these days, but this victory is exclusively and purely a Croatian victory. The victory of Croatian weapons, Croatian planning, Croatian faith and enthusiasm that we are capable of achieving our state, and that it is better than the states of those we had conflicts with.

I wish them all the best! I hope, probably in vain, that this year we will avoid petty incriminations and recriminations. We are for cooperation. We cannot give up on our missing persons. We cannot give up looking for several thousand people or at least two thousand people whose fate we don’t know, and we cannot agree for them to be put on an equal footing with those who are supposedly also missing in Croatia, but are of another ethnicity. They are all our citizens. We’re not doing this out of malice, we’re doing this not just because we feel we should, there’s no authority in Croatia that would turn a deaf ear and act as if this problem didn’t exist. This is also a message to our friends or neighbours in Belgrade. Everything else can be agreed upon, we can even negotiate. Negotiating has created rich nations out of the most cunning and most ambitious ones, and money buys security, builds walls like in Dubrovnik, weapons, culture, intelligence and everything else that distinguishes between civilization and barbarism.

Dear friends, in memory of all those who have fallen, all the glorious living and deceased Croatian commanders, those who have given everything when many didn’t know what or how, thank you very much! Long live! Long live our homeland the Republic of Croatia!

Thank you!”