The Strange Case of Miro Barešić – Reflections on a Controversial Memorialisation in Croatia
On July 31, 2016, Tomo Medved, the outgoing Minister for War Veterans in Croatia, visited the village of Draga, located near the Croatian coastal town of Sibenik. Here he delivered a remarkable speech, stating that:
Miro Barešić is one of the greatest Croatian patriots whose work and sacrifice we have to respect. For years, in the diaspora and in the Homeland War, he fought for a free and an independent Croatia and never gave up on his ideas, although he felt the injustice that was systematically inflicted on Croats. Like many other immigrants, who were willing to give their lives for Croatia, he was a ‘defender before defenders’. He returned from Paraguay, even though he knew that in Croatia there are people who persecuted him, but he participated in the war and experienced the realization of his dream. Thank you, Miro, for an independent, sovereign and free Croatia.
The speech was held on the opening ceremony of a monument dedicated to Miro Barešić, a Croatian soldier in Croatia’s 1990s war, who was killed in combat against rebelling Croatian Serbs in 1991. The phrase ‘Homeland War’ that Medved used, is the official name used in Croatia for the 1990s war, in which Croatian forces fought against the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and rebelling Croatian Serbs.The war started in 1991 and ended in late 1995. Most fighting ceased after August 1995, when Croatia sucessfully conducted the notorious military campaign “Oluja” (Storm), which was – during and in the aftermath of the operation – accompanied by crimes against local Serbs. The word “defender”, how Medved referred to Barešić, is also an official and widely used term in Croatia for Croatian 1990s war veterans – not for rebelling Serb soldiers. Therefore, how people in Croatia refer to the War and to the soldiers who fought in it, says a lot about the existing narratives of the war. And this is particularly true in the strange case of Miro Barešić …
The 1990s war in Croatia is officially seen as an exclusively “defensive and liberating” war (Deklaracija o Domovinskom ratu 2000, 021-16/00-04/06), while a similar opinion exists in the public. Therefore, Croatian soldiers are seen as defenders who defended the country, or as it is widely referred to: the Homeland. However, different opinions on the character of this war exist.1
In that sense, one would think that there is nothing unusual in dedicating a monument to a fallen soldier who had fought in a war perceived as strictly defensive. But two things strike as odd, already at the first glance of Barešić’s case. First, Barešić was killed only 19 days after enrolling in the Croatian army, in the first operation he took part (before that he was responsible for planning small-scale operations). Therefore, it is unusual that a soldier who did not distinguish himself in heavy fighting has a statue erected in his name, with state officials opening it. The second thing that can be observed from Medved’s speech is that he mentions Barešić’s years spent in diaspora, during which he also “fought for a free and an independent Croatia”, willing to give his life like other Croatian immigrants. Additionally, Medved named him the “defender before defenders”, who was persecuted before the war, most likely pointing to the time of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This is where Barešić’s case becomes interesting, showing that he was no ordinary soldier: his deeds for the national cause originate from the time before the 1990s war.
Born in Sibenik in 1950, Barešić as a young man in the age of 20 was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing the mandatory military service in the JNA. After serving his sentence, he left Croatia and went to Sweden, where a community of Croats already existed – some migrating for economic, some for political reasons.
On April 7, 1971, Barešić and his accomplice Anđelko Brajković, entered the Yugoslav embassy in Stockholm with pistols. After shooting at the secretary and the janitor of the embassy (seriously injuring the unarmed secretary), the two intruders heavily wounded the ambassador Vladimir Rolović and took him hostage in his office, tying him up and beating him. After Brajković shot Rolović through the mouth with the police in front of the office, Barešić took the gun, and shot in the ambassador’s head. Rolović died in the hospital eight days later.
The trial against Brajković and Barešić, along with three accomplices, started already in June 1971 before the court in Stockholm. It revealed that the men started to plot the attack as soon as Barešić arrived in Sweden. He intended to call their group “Black Legion”, naming it after a notorious unit of the Croatian World War II fascist Ustasha movement that committed massive war crimes against Serbs, Jews, Roma, and Croatian anti-fascists. Brajković and Barešić admitted the crimes in court but did not express any remorse. The only one shown in court was Brajković’s regret that he did not shoot the janitor, too. In August 1971, both men received life sentences, while other accomplices received smaller fines.
All these facts, established before the court, were presented to the Croatian public by Vladimir Matijanić, a journalist working for the Croatian daily newspaper “Slobodna Dalmacija”. In late August 2016, Matijanić published an article presenting findings from the book “10 verzija više jedna jednako istina, zapisi o bonskom i štokholmskom procesu ustaškim teroristima”. The book, written by the Yugoslav criminologist Vladimir Vodinelić and published in Split in 1973, provides information given during the trial in Stockholm. Matijanić’s article was published after the ceremony for revealing Barešić’s statue, where his family members claimed that he acted in self-defence. Additionally, and this was also not proven in court, far-right media claimed that Rolović was working for the State Security Service, popularly known as UDBA, notorious among the Croatian immigrants. Thus the narrative of Barešić’s victimhood and Rolović’s “guilt” was created in a part of the Croatian media.
Barešić’s life after being convicted in Sweden continued to be odd. Sweden actually released him in 1972 after another group of Croatian immigrants hijacked a Swedish plane and demanded that Barišić and Brajković were to be released. The two men fled to Spain, back then still ruled by fascist Colonel Franco. In Spain, Barešić had to spent another 18 months in prison, after which he departed for Paraguay, which was at the time a hiding place for persons on the run from the law, including many Nazis such as doctor Josef Mengele.
Eventually, Barešić trained soldiers of the Paraguaian military. In 1977-78, under a false identity, he moved to the US to work as a driver and bodyguard for Paraguay’s embassy in Washington, D.C. When he returned to Paraguay in 1979, US authorities requested his extradition due to the charges of extorting money from Croatian immigrants in the US. Upon his extradition, Barešić was interrogated and after some months the US authorities dropped the charges against him. Since the US authorities discovered his true identity, they did not want to extradite him back to Paraguay but sent him back to Sweden in 1980. There Barešić was imprisoned, until in 1985 Sweden cut his prison sentence to 18 years and released him in 1987. Barešić went back to Paraguay and stayed there, until he returned to Croatia in 1991.
Although in the mentioned book, as well as in a part of the Croatian media and official statements of the Serbian and Montenegrin ministries of foreign affairs, Barešić was referred to as “a terrorist”, he was never charged and tried for terrorism. Some media, like the Croatian daily newspaper “Vecernji list”, said that Barešić for some is a terrorist and for others a freedom fighter, while his family referred to him as a revolutionary, thus including all “labels” traditionally surrounding the issue of terrorism, as observed by Paul Wilkinson (2006, 20). Most missed is the fact that it was a somewhat banal reason Barešić could not be tried for terrorism in Sweden in 1971: Sweden introduced anti-terrorist legislation not before 1973. Hence, he was convicted “only” for murder.
The crime itself shows a lot of resemblance to terrorism. As Paul Wilkinson wrote, “terrorism is a special form of political violence”, “a weapon or method” used by different protagonists “for a whole variety of political causes or purposes” (2006, 1). Wilkinson names several characteristics of terrorism, such as being directed at a wider audience rather than just immediate victims; that it often involves attacks on symbolic targets; that it wishes to influence political behaviour in some way, by trying to pressure its opponents into meeting the perpetrators’ demands (2006, 1, 6). An important characteristic of terrorism is that is uses violent attacks and force in order to reach further political objectives, aside of the direct target of the attack or violence (Schwenkenbecher 2009, 106). It is also important to notice that terrorism targets its violence and attacks on non-combatants and innocent in order to achieve its political goals (Coady 2004, 772). It uses them as a means to an end, stripping them from their subjectivity, committing depersonalised killing (Schwenkenbecher 2009, 107). Sub-state terrorist groups can have different political motivations: ideological, religious-political and those caused by single issues (Wilkinson 2006, 4). Besides sub-state terrorist groups, terrorist acts can be committed by states against other states and their citizens, but also against its own citizens (Aust 2010, 265).
If we define terrorism in this way, Barešić’s case becomes even more interesting and resembling a terrorist act. Barešić and his accomplices organised an attack on the embassy and the ambassador himself as a symbol of Yugoslavia, which they perceived as a criminal state that discriminates Croats and denies their demands of creating a nation-state of their own. Even if the perpetrators planned only to take Rolović hostage in order to pressure Yugoslavia to release Croatian political prisoners – as they shouted in the embassy according to the witnesses – their motivation was clearly political and their main target was not Rolović, but Yugoslavia as such. The perpetrators themselves as well as their family members and sympathizers claim(ed) that Rolović was armed and an agent of the Yugoslavian State Security Administration (UDBA) – implying that he was neither unarmed nor innocent. This is actually an attempt to depersonalize the victim. It is part of the effort, shared as well by mainstream centre-right leaders like Andrej Plenković, to show Yugoslavia as a terrorist state and consequently to stylize themselves as freedom fighters or revolutionaries, rather than terrorists: a typical “one man’s terrorist is another’s man freedom fighter” dispute emerges. It is not working in favour of Barešić that he was released after a demand was raised by terrorists: something that is only done for other members of terrorist groups.
Although legally never convicted as such, one has a number of reasons to classify Barešić as terrorist. One fact remains undisputed, which Barešić did not deny before court: that they killed a person who was definitely unarmed at the moment last shots were fired. It is also a fact, despite as being seen by some as a victim of the Yugoslav terror, that he was sentenced by a Swedish court. Besides Barešić served a lot less than the life sentence, initially pronounced by the Swedish court.
Looking upon his life, the crime he committed and the time he served in the army, one question emerges: why was a monument erected in Barešić’s honour? His 19 days in the Croatian military in the very early stage of the 1990s war – a month before the crucial Vukovar battle – , without taking part in some large-scale operations or life-saving missions, could barely pass as a criteria for erecting a monument. It would mean that literally thousands of soldiers deserve a monument dedicated to them. The fact that Barešić was killed, and therefore could be treated as a victim, is tragic from a personal and moral point of view, but could hardly be seen as a basis for erecting a massive monument, opened by a minister, visited by other officials and thousands of sympathizers and covered so vividly by the media.
Since the event of revealing the monument gathered some controversial public figures from Croatia’s far-right as well as some persons wearing Ustasha insignia and shouting Ustasha chants, one understands that it is much more than Barešić’s war merits. Taking into account that all his sympathisers minimalize his act of killing, but praise his fight for Croatia in the Yugoslav times and during the war, one can conclude that the murder is seen as the cause for which he is honoured with a monument. The murder is interpreted as a counter attack against the Yugoslav regime and its secret service which launched a series of killings of dissident Croatians abroad. Although Barešić is also seen as someone who took part in creating an independent Croatia, he is in this respect probably perceived as somebody taking down Yugoslavia. His act of killing an ambassador represents a symbolic killing of a state, whose very existence stands opposite to a nationalist Croatia. His murder of – as sympathisers might see it – a depersonalised and villainized individual representing a terrorist state is, of course, seen as a heroic gesture, worthy of a monument. Barešić’s statue works as a monument of taking down Yugoslavia and forming what, as Barešić’s supporters believe, was a just Croatian desire – a sovereign nation-state. Therefore, in the already 25-year-long nation building process of Croatia, the identity is still constructed as opposed to the Yugoslav one. Although the monument does not explain Barešić’s involvement in the killing of the ambassador, it works on one level for people knowing the context and on the other, more aesthetic one – resembling Yugoslav socialist realism Partisan monuments from the 1940s and 1950s – for the uninformed, who can see a monument erected to a person portrayed as a hero. This is why an anonymous anti-fascist group has decided to paint the left hand of Barešić’s statue red, presumably stating he has blood on his hands.
Instead of giving a conclusion on my own, I would like to quote another statement. The reason why the monument has been erected in memory of Barešić and a somehow official notion of who he really was – a terrorist or a freedom fighter – was best summarised by the controversial Minister of Culture Zlatko Hasanbegović, who was present at the opening ceremony of the monument as well as on a TV show in mid-August, where he concluded:
Therefore, it is perhaps the key to understanding that our [Croatian] relation towards Baresic was and still is actually [our] relation towards every Yugoslav state. Or totally simplified, for those for whom Yugoslavia was and still is the realization of Croatian national ideal, Miro Baresic is a killer and a terrorist. For those for whom every Yugoslavia was and still is the negation of any Croatian state, Baresic is one of many of those who were willing to make any sacrifice for freedom, national independence, and freedom.
Aust, A 2010, Handbook of international law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Coady, C A J 2004, ‘Terrorism, morality, and supreme emergency’, Ethics, vol. 114, no. 4, pp. 772-789. Available from: Jstore.com.
Deklaracija o Domovinskom ratu 2000, 021-16/00-04/06.
Prosecutor vs. Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez (2004) IT-95-14/2-A.
Schwenkenbecher, A 2009, ‘Terrorism, supreme emergency and killing the innocent’, Review of International Affairs, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 105-126.
Wilkinson, P 2006, Terrorism versus democracy: The liberal state response, Routledge, New York and London.
- The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for instance, acknowledged that Croatia had a decisive role in the bloody conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina before the two states signed an international agreement in 1994, uniting against Bosnian Serbs (Prosecutor vs. Dario Kordić and Mario Čerkez  IT-95-14/2-A). Nevertheless, I will not go further into the issue.