Speech by the President of the Republic and Commander in Chief of the Croatian Armed Forces Zoran Milanović at a solemn reception for wartime commanders held on the occasion of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day, Day of Croatian Defenders and the 28th Anniversary of the Military and Police Operation Storm

04. August 2023.

A great European composer once said a sentence that is repeated all the time and is not questioned. He said that tradition is all about the passing down of flame and fire – not in paying homage to the ashes. It sounds good, in the midst of all the thoughts that we categorically hear without analysing them. But at second glance, it is not quite so. We should pay homage to the ashes. We are here to pay homage to the ashes of the best among us, and among you, who gave their lives for Croatia and who lost the life of someone who was close to them. Of course, tradition is also about passing down the flame of the fire, but without ashes the fire is sterile. It is just an ordinary, chemical process.

Human beings and human society are based on tradition. If we all woke up tomorrow without the knowledge and understanding of our ancestors, we wouldn’t know how to bake bread. Everything is passed down, including knowledge and insights on the truth about the Homeland War. I know that after all these years it sounds a bit boring, but considering that we are constantly witnessing attempts to re-create and tailor what really happened, we need to persistently repeat it and be boring to ourselves. Things were very simple but not at all banal; they were splendid as well as humanely sad and ordinary. Croatia made it through in ‘91, ‘93 and ’95, as we all know, thanks to a smaller number of good people. A smaller number of good people who were a striking fist, who broke through enemy positions, who worked on it persistently and cleverly, protecting human lives, because every life is precious, especially in a small nation and community like ours.

There wasn’t much time, there wasn’t much ammunition, there wasn’t much equipment and our allies and friends – whom we tend to uncritically analyse – were not very helpful to us. Croatia and its leadership with the then president Tuđman did not really know what would happen until the last moment. They only knew that they did not have much time to achieve what they set out to achieve, which was their natural right and obligation. The enemy was defeated and many people left Croatia (after Operation Storm), and those were traumatic human stories. I have spoken about that during my political career and my attitudes are well known. However, let someone show me any other country to which members of the (ethnic) community that used to be unfriendly have started returning to such extent as it was in the case of Croatia, even in the case of our Croatian town of Knin. This only happened in Croatia. Why? Because that fundamental human and social trust was not completely destroyed, because they know that they are returning to a country that has the strength, heart, good prospects and that lives for tomorrow – but also remembers its ashes and passes down the tradition, the fire and the flame of freedom and courage.

The Croatian Army also made peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina possible. This should be repeated every week, with as little enthusiasm as possible, but never without passion. It is often said that the Croatian Army saved Bihać from the fate of Srebrenica. Although, Bihać, due to its size, would perhaps not experience the disaster that Srebrenica had, with the elements of genocide. However, the army led by Bosnian Serbs Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić was not defeated by the allied bombardments. They were bombarded for weeks, yet the enemy did not surrender. The key moves and blows that made them (the Serbs) surrender were done by Croatian Army, its brigades, guards brigades, some Croatian Home Guard brigades, and guards brigades of the Croatian Defense Council, which I had the honour and good fortune to award with the highest Croatian national decorations three years ago.

Twenty-eight years have passed and some would say there are fewer of you. But there are still a lot of you out there and that’s great. I believe that next year this number will be at least the same as this year and that all those who wish to come will come, or if their obligations prevent them, that they will all be alive and well, that generations will continue to live and work. Some are nearing the end of their working life, but they will certainly not stop contributing to their country and community to which they gave the maximum that was possible at the time. In 1991, Croatia embarked on a path that, fortunately for them, no European country had to embark on, and to this day none has – with the exception of Ukraine in the last two years. What is war, what is loss, what it looks like on the doorstep of the greatest achievement after the fall of the one-party regime and the arrival of democracy, and the great expectations that have been created in the people, what it looks like when everything is turned upside down and when one needs to start all over – only the Croatian people know. Every mother and every father will be happy to say that their child, their daughter or son, is unique or special. There are no clear criteria for that. But, when we talk about the destinies of peoples, political communities and political nations – and the Croats are a political nation and followers of a long-standing state right – then we can talk about being unique. And that is the special thing that Croatia has and others don’t.

Would we trade places with others? We probably wouldn’t. This is our path, it was the right one, it was just, it was not devoid of mistakes, as no human path is devoid of mistakes. But we learned from them and thus victory was achieved. Once again, glory and deep respect, and eternal memory to those who carried the flame of freedom, who burned in it, to their families and to those who are alive and who pass down that flame. Domovini vjerni! [Faithful to the Homeland!]”