Any innocent victim of the war, be they of Croat, Serb or any other ethnicity, deserves respect, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm in Knin on Wednesday.
In his address, he recalled a message of reconciliation addressed by the late President Franjo Tudjman in Vukovar in June 1997 to Croatian returnees and the local Serb population: "A victor who cannot forgive sows the seeds of future rifts and evils, and the Croatian people do not want that."
Plenkovic said that this message should be borne in mind in building an inclusive, tolerant and forward-looking Croatia. "As a country that won a war that was imposed on it, with numerous innocent civilian victims, we regret all the casualties, especially civilians, and not just Croats, but Serbs and members of all other ethnic communities as well."
Legitimate right to defence is not and cannot be excuse for wrongdoing
Plenkovic expressed regret for war crimes committed by Croats, saying that "a legitimate right to defence is not and cannot be an excuse for wrongdoing." "Any such act is painful for the families of the victims and an ugly scar on the righteous face and defensive nature of the Homeland War," he added.
"We are aware that our victory in Operation Storm was traumatic for many Croatian Serbs who primarily associate it with the departure of a portion of the Serb population from their homes in what were previously occupied areas. While for the majority of Croats this was a forced exodus organised and ordered by leaders of the Serb rebellion in Knin, many Serbs still see it as an exodus before Croatian forces," the prime minister said.
Plenkovic said that 25 years on it was time to look at the complexity of what had happened then with equanimity. After Operation Storm, the Croatian state has made great efforts to ensure that Serb refugees who so wish return to their homeland and much has been done in that regard, There are still difficulties that need to be removed so that they can feel equal and live in dignity, he added.
"We know that the whole time many Croatian Serbs in free areas of the country shared the fate of their Croatian compatriots, and many of them were in the Croatian army, of which we should be proud," Plenkovic stressed.
It is important that in Operation Storm the Croatian Serbs do not see only the exodus of their people but also the end of the war that paved the way for their return to Croatia, for everyone who so wishes.
"Finally, respects are due to every innocent victim, be they of Croat, Serb or any other ethnicity. Respects to thousands of innocent Croat victims from Vukovar to Dubrovnik ... Respects to innocent Serb victims from Paulin Dvor to Varivode," Plenkovic said.
"We do not question the legitimacy or righteousness of the Homeland War nor do we downplay the victory won in Operation Storm," he added.
Humanity of a victor who regrets every lapse or war crime not prevented
Plenkovic said that this shows the magnanimity and humanity of a victor "who, despite everything, regrets every lapse or war crime that was not prevented."
"We expect the same from all sections of Croatian society, especially from representatives of the Serbs in Croatia, who should also clearly condemn all the war crimes committed against Croats," he stressed.
True reconciliation can only be built on truth that is based on fact, on full cooperation in discovering all those still listed as missing and in seeking justice for all the victims, Plenkovic said, adding that all war crimes that do not fall under a statute of limitations will continue to be prosecuted regardless of the ethnicity of the victim or the perpetrator.
"Today, as the world copes with the biggest health threat in the last hundred years and with the gravest economic crisis since the Second World War, we must again strengthen our national unity around Croatian strategic goals. That's why we should be inspired by the courage and self-abnegation of Croatian defenders and we will be able to cope with the great challenges facing us," the prime minister said.
Plenkovic reiterated that Operation Storm was "legally legitimate, militarily inevitable and politically necessary," adding that it was an imperative for the Croatian leadership at the time to make it possible for displaced Croats to return to their homes and to reconnect parts of the country that had been severed until then.
With more than 20,000 dead and 15% of the housing stock damaged, Croatia suffered huge damage in the war which set it back 15 years in terms of development, Plenkovic said, noting that Operation Storm was also a turning point for peace and stability in southeastern Europe "which is why we can rightfully regard it as our greatest victory."
The prime minister announced that a special law on civilian casualties of the Homeland War would be adopted to resolve painful issues still burdening Croatian society.