Spokes In The Wheel For Truth For Croatian Alojzije Stepinac

Poster for documantary film: Stepinac – Cardinal and his Conscience

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the death of Blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, the Croatian Catholic University and Interfilm held at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb on Saturday, February 8, the premiere of the new documentary film “Stepinac: The Cardinal and His Conscience”, authored by Croatia’s acclaimed writer, journalist, screenplay writer and its director Visnja Staresina.

Reportedly, Staresina has been preparing for the film for ten years. Her aim is said to have been to avoid the way Cardinal Stepinac has so far been portrayed through the Croatian-Serbian disagreements, in which the Serbian propaganda machine had constantly insisted on painting Cardinal Stepinac as a Ustashe collaborator despite the fact that post-2000 historical research, when Yugoslav Archives were open to researchers in Croatia, prove beyond any doubt that Stepinac in fact rescued many persecuted Jews. Of particular note are most thorough historical research findings by USA historian dr. Esther Gitman.

“When I started working on the film, I was surprised at the way in which Alojzije Stepinac was perceived out there. For example, my reference was the American media out there, and I tried to make sure that the participants in the film are the people who are not part of this existing paradigm,” said Staresina last week.

In this new documentary, Stepinac’s involvement in rescuing Jews during WWII is enveloped in the story of Renata, a girl whose entire family disappeared in the Holocaust during WWWII in Croatia. She emigrated to Israel in 1952 and decided to forget everything. The film reconstructs and follows the rescue of Renata Bauer.

In this documentary film “I let him (Stepinac) speak through his sermons, through his letters, through his spiritual testament, where you see him condemning racism since 1937, not 1942 or ’43. New York Times, articles published by the Jewish News Agency in 1943, which mention sermons from the Archbishop of Zagreb. It wasn’t very simple to say these things at the time, and it wasn’t easy to become news in the New York Times,” Staresina comments on her film.

This documentary film has been translated into English so that it can reach more people throughout the world, and the aim of its author is to get as many people as possible to know the truth about Cardinal Stepinac.

Croatian National Theatre Zagreb
Premiere of film “Stepinac – Cardinal and his Conscience”
Photo: Pixsell

Among other things, the film “Stepinac: Cardinal and His Conscience” reveals how Stepinac, as a human being, a man and Archbishop of Zagreb, faced and dealt with the greatest challenges of the 20th century. For Alojzije Stepinac that challenge was, undoubtedly, how to execute good deeds and save as many persecuted people from sure death as possible. This indeed was no easy task in the madness of a vicious war where the fight for independence (of Croatia) and the fight against that independence (to retain Yugoslav federation of states) took the nation into often dark pursuits for victory (as all wars do), regardless of whose that victory may surface as the outcome of the war. The film delves into the challenge of talking about the global and universal significance of Stepinac’s work; it explores the reasons why his character and the works that accompany him are not globally accepted and grounded on the truth to this day.

Apart from emphasising the relevance of Stepinac’s exemplary actions and morality, which contain messages that are applicable universally to this day, this documentary film, filled with Stepinac’s courageous and righteous actions despite fatal adversities, fits so aptly into the story of Croatia within the 20th century Europe.

Stepinac’s personal involvement in organising the rescue of Jews during WWII Croatia is presented in this documentary film through interviews with historians, researchers, as well as through personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors and their descendants; likewise, through testimonies of descendants of families who participated in these WWII rescue operations.

At the film’s premiere, its director and screenwriter Visnja Staresina stated that her guiding idea was to make a film that would show why Stepinac was globally relevant in his time, not just at Croatian local levels. “From the moment he was elected the youngest bishop in the world, through his anti-racist sermons reaching out from conquered Europe, from the Independent State of Croatia to the free world as a rarity, through the trials that made him globally known and the condemnation of the trials that provoked major protests from New York to Chicago and Dublin seeking his release. Finally, at the time of his death, leading commentators wondered what would happen between the Church and the communist regimes now,” said Staresina.

Cardinal Josip Bozanic (C) dr Zeljko Tanjic (R)
Photo: Pixsell

The Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb joined this documentary film project primarily because Blessed Cardinal Stepinac, in addition to being an important church and historical figure, is also the patron saint of that University. Since its founding in 2006 the University has been involved in various ways with view to making the truth about blessed Stepinac known worldwide. Many public lectures have been given about him, students had opportunities to study the character and work of Blessed Stepinac through elective subjects, and professors participated in various conferences and scientific conferences. The Croatian Catholic University, together with the Archdiocese of Zagreb in 2016, organised a scientific conference attended by historians from Croatia and Serbia, and a large collection of papers on the Blessed Archbishop Stepinac and the Serbs in Croatia in the Context of World War II and Post-War was published. Together with the publishing house Christian Contemporaneity (Kršćanska sadašnjost), the University also published a book by Dr. Esther Gitman, “Alojzije Stepinac – Pillar of human rights” (2019).

“We are convinced that with the image, the word and the new testimonies presented in this film about blessed Alojzije will once again show the greatness of a man who, in the difficult years of Croatian and European history, was faithful to his call, resolutely and courageously, advocating especially for the endangered, led the Zagreb Church. To those who had not met him the film will give the opportunity to do so and encourage them to reflect upon his person. And also, for those who disagree with us the film gives the opportunity to evaluate his work and gives another documented insight into his life and work,” said at the premiere the Croatian Catholic University Rector Dr. Zeljko Tanjic.

Visnja Staresina (C) Esther Gitman (CR)
at the premiere of film: Stepinac – Cardinal and his Conscience
Photo: ika.hkm.hr

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine. Have you ever heard that quote? It’s actually a paraphrase of an ancient Greek proverb. The Greek biographer Plutarch referred to this proverb in the first century A.D. when he made the following complaint. He said: “Thus, I do not see what use there is in those mills of the gods said to grind so late as to render punishment hard to be recognised, and to make wickedness fearless.”

One of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s translations was a 17th century poem, ‘Retribution,’ by Friedrich Von Logau: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.”

The analogy I venture to bring here is related to the fact that even though ample evidence of Alojzije Stepinac’s good deeds in rescuing Jews and other persecuted people during WWII those to whose advantage it is to continue suppressing this truth and continue promoting the Serb-led (or communist Yugoslavia-led) fabrications about his collaboration with the Nazi’s are not likely to abandon their wicked ways any time soon. Why? Well, to bring out the obvious, it is of political advantage to them to continue walking in dark corridors where truth has no chance of being illuminated. And so, regretfully, instead of turning in the right direction, the wheels of justice for blessed Alojzije Stepinac on the international level have mainly been turning in the other direction, grinding out stones that become even coarser. That has sadly been the power of politics and political interests.

The problem is that political interference which has had a devastating effect on the truth ever since the trumped-up charges against Stepinac by Yugoslavia’s communist regime in 1945 continues in many ways. The communist Yugoslavia totalitarian regime ensured that the willingness and ability to investigate injustice and corruption that would show the communists up as liars and falsifiers of history was suffocated and incapacitated. This went on until 1990’s when Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and only since then were all researchers able to access the archives and the truth. But even when a significant mass of that truth was found to not resemble the truth communists were peddling for decades, that illuminated real truth continued to be treated with some scepticism and avoidance by even the politicians in power in Croatia, majority of whom belonged to the communist echelons of former Yugoslavia! Such cold and apparently dismissive reception of the truth, which in fact redeems Alojzije Stepinac from all the communist trumped-up charges, from all the false accusations regarding his deeds or “omissions” during WWII, is in fact part and parcel of what still goes on in Croatia: corruption and fraud perpetrated by well-connected politicians and by their allies and like-minded persons in the country and outside it. If it weren’t like that, then even common sense tells us that the Croatian government would have long ago stood behind the clearing of Stepinac’s name through research and presentation of findings and opened up its “wallet” to support such projects. It has not done that and the presentation of truth that is of national importance (because the brush that tarnished Stepinac also tarnished the freedom-loving Croatian people) still remains within the realms of good will of people and institutions willing to back such projects financially.

Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (inset photo of Zeljko Tanjic)
Photo: Screenshot Croatian TV

This is why this documentary film by Visnja Staresina (2020), why books by Esther Gitman (“When Courage Prevailed The Rescue and Survival of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia 1941-1945”;  “Alojzije Stepinac – Pillar of Human Rights”) and dr. Robin Harris (“Stepinac: His Life and Times”), the documentary film “When Truth Prevails” authored by Jadranka Juresko-Kero (2011) and other many works on this subject are crucial spokes on the wheel of justice and truth not only regarding Alojzije Stepinac but also regarding Croatia during WWII and after. The wheel of justice turns in the right direction by the force of these spokes despite the political sabotage of the truth. Ina Vukic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Croats, ICTY and Communist Yugoslavia Counterintelligence

 

Robin Harris (L) Visnja Staresina (C)
Zeljko Tanjic (R) (Rector of Croatian Catholic University)
Photo: Screenshot

 

 

11 December 2017 saw the launch of journalist Višnja Staresina new book titled “Hrvati pod KOS-ovim krilom – završni račun Haaškog suda”, translated into English the book title would read: “Croats under the wing of Communist Yugoslavia Counterintelligence Service – The Hague Tribunal’s Final Account”. The book presents as compelling reading particularly as it contains presentations of the manipulations, falsifications, fabrications, mounted court processes, unjust verdicts, politically motivated indictments brought before the court, the Hague Tribunal ICTY,  that were designed and executed to damage and convict Croatian people of crimes they had not committed, crimes that fall under the doctrine, of joint criminal enterprise, where the convicted person does not even need to be indicted of having personally committed any crimes.

A comprehensive review of this book was delivered by Robin Harris in Zagreb, Croatia at the book’s launch and it reads as follows:

I was honoured to be invited to speak at the launch of this important book.

Višnja Starešina is a knowledgeable and authoritative commentator on the activities of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – the ICTY – and on the political background. She is a fearless journalist of great integrity, and her conclusions should be studied by those in charge of the affairs of this country.

The book could not be more timely or more necessary. Croatia today feels stunned and abandoned, a sensation only increased by the clearly well planned international move to crush dissent in the social media. It is natural that people are asking why Croatia finds itself in this position. Hrvati pod KOS-ovim krilom (Croats under the wings of Yugoslav Counterintelligence Service)  provides at least part of the answer.

I shall summarise the arguments of Višnja’s book, adding a few observations of my own. But before that I cannot avoid commenting on the orgy of self-congratulation with which the ICTY terminated its twenty-four years of work. The Croatian President spoke tactfully though eloquently in defence of Croatia on that occasion. But the picture that the ICTY judges and officials painted of their own achievements is so grotesquely misleading that it cannot go unchallenged.

The ICTY has been an expensive failure. It has done the bare minimum that was expected of it – but slowly, incompetently, working through dishonest compromises, heavily politically influenced, following an immoral programme of equalising guilt between the constituent parties. From starting out as a modest attempt to uphold standards of justice that the international community was too weak and divided to impose by force – it became – as those recent vainglorious speeches show – a self-declared paradigm for future conflict-resolution by international courts. The judgements of the Tribunal, even if sometimes merited on other grounds, were not in fact reached by processes, or according to standards, which would have been acceptable in any developed country – let alone in Britain, which so heartily endorsed the ICTY conclusions.

A classic example is the creation of the concept of the Joint Criminal Enterprise, which in its most extended – and least defensible – form, was used to achieve a guilty verdict in the recent case against the Croat Six from Bosnia and Herzegovina. That was an unjust judgement. It may be accepted – just as the weather tomorrow may be accepted – but it does not need to be respected, and neither does the institution which delivered it.

Two other brief preliminary points:

First, contrary to the claims of the Tribunal’s admirers, its record does not demonstrate that international justice is a useful means of righting international wrongs. Only one significant indicted war criminal was delivered to the court before Operation Storm. It was only after Croatia, with US support, achieved military victory against the Serbs, that the ICTY had any chance of operating at all. This makes it ironic, to say the least, that the Tribunal then sought to indict the very political and military figures whose success made its work possible.

Second, the work of the Court, as Višnja shows, was subject to sustained manipulation by outsiders, not least by the JNA Military Intelligence, the KOS. The assumption that the further away justice is delivered from the concerned parties, the purer it will be, has been shown to be false. That lesson extends beyond the realm of courts. Even small countries, like Croatia, cannot expect better, but rather worse, treatment, if they surrender their interests to multilateral, international bodies, than if they seek bilateral, state-to-state agreements. Sovereignty is important, however small your state.

So let me turn directly to the book. There are eleven chapters and a final and important epilogue. The book examines events on the ground and arguments in the Tribunal both chronologically and thematically.

Chapter one describes the origins of the Hague Tribunal, an organisation which from its modest beginning in 1993 expanded to an annual budget of 270 million US dollars with a staff of a thousand people.

Visnja Staresina and her book cover

Chapter two provides an overview of the close but murky relationship between the Tribunal and the different state intelligence services. An especially important role seems to have been played by British, Australian and Canadian personnel. Particular focus applies here to Graham Blewitt, an Australian, with an anti-Croat track record, who from the Tribunal’s establishment in 1994 to the raising of the last indictments at the end of 2004, was the effective chief of investigations. Višnja suggests that Blewitt served as a guarantee that, the British policy of sharing Serbian and Croatian guilt for the war, as a precondition for the new erection of some new Balkan state association under Serb hegemony “would prevail (p.27). [..jamstvo da će se u politici optuživanja provoditi britanska politika podjele srpsko-hrvatske krivnje za rat, kao preduvjet za ponovnu uspostavu neke nove balkanaske državne asociajicije pod srpskom hegemonijom].

I shall offer a comment on that subject later.

The other intelligence service whose plans and interests were of great importance was the JNA Kontra-obaveštajna služba, or „KOS“. Its head, General Aleksandar „Aca“ Vasiljević, it is suggested, had, well before the outbreak of hostilities in 1991, inserted key agents into what would soon be warring entities. From these positions, KOS agents could do far-reaching damage, while putting the blame onto someone else. A well-known instance is Operation Labrador – the bombing of the Zagreb Jewish graveyard and attempted bombing of the Jewish Community Centre in August 1991. But there were kennelfuls of Labradors, only some of which have ever been tagged and identified.

Chapter three is about Vukovar. Vukovar is crucial to the work – and to the failure – of the Hague Tribunal, for as Višnjna notes:

Uz malo truda, sintezom zločina nad Vukovarom, nad ratnim zarobljenicima i civilima poslije zauzimanja grada i etničkog čišćenja na cijelom okupiranom području istočne Slavonije i Baranje nakon uspostave lokalnih vlasti, moglo se napraviti i vrlo uvjerliv slučaj genocida – najtežeg zločina koji podrazumijeva politički planirano istrebljenje nekog naroda ili etničke grupe s određenog teritorija“. (p. 43) (Translation of quote: With a little effort, synthesis of crimes against Vukovar, against prisoners of war and civilians after the city’s occupation and ethnic cleansing across the whole of the Eastern Slavonia and Baranja region after the establishment of local authorities, a very convincing case for genocide could have been made – the worst of crimes that imply politically planned extermination of some peoples or ethnic group from a certain territory)

Responsibility for the crimes was quickly transferred to local Serb officials – notably Slavko Dokmanović, who conveniently later committed suicide. JNA involvement, by contrast, was minimised, while the role of Četnik paramilitaries was stressed.

Chapter four deals with events and investigations in the Lašva Valley and in Northern Hercegovina.

I found this chapter extremely revealing. Having read Charles R. Shrader’s excellent book, The Muslim-Croat Civil War in Central Bosnia, and having interviewed many Bosnian Muslim and Croat refugees in 1993, I thought that I knew the situation pretty well. But I did not, until now, grasp the full military rationale for the Muslim military campaign in Northern Hercegovina. Nor, despite at the time hearing various unsubstantiated allegations, did I grasp the extreme and extensive savagery of the mujahedeen – who were imported, deployed and controlled by the Army of BiH in its campaign to expel Croats. The Bosniak intelligence service, the AID, sought to conceal that connection. But their success in doing so raises other large questions  – about the seriousness of the work of the Tribunal Prosecutor’s investigative team 9; about the involvement of other agencies – including the British – in downplaying the mujahedeen atrocities; and about the total failure of Croatia, then and since, to publicise the persecution of Croats.

By contrast the (equally real) crimes committed by Croat forces in the military campaign in the Lašva Valley, notably at Ahmići, were vigorously pursued by the Prosecution. The cases relating to these operations were used first to assert a degree of command responsibility unwarranted by realities, resulting in the 45 year sentence (later sharply reduced) against the HVO general Tihomir Blaškić. They then served to allege, in the judgement against Dario Kordić, the existence of a politically-determined plan of ethnic cleansing of non-Croats. This was the foundation of the indictment against „Prlić and others“, which involved President Tuđman and the Croatian state.

As is described in chapter five, no such extended line of responsibility was established by the Prosecution against Serbia for crimes committed in pursuit of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Serb concentration camps were an embarrassment because they were created and commanded by JNA, including KOS, officers. Višnja Starešina provides documentary proof of the responsibility of the KOS and of General Vasiljević for these camps. It was necessary to ensure, therefore, that investigation of these facts was frustrated, as indeed it was – by a series of politically convenient and timely deaths.

Chapter six deals with the background to another equally timely death – that of Slobodan Milošević.

The Tribunal’s investigative staff had invested suspiciously little effort in the case against Milošević and Serbia. The Prosecution was, therefore, now desperate for convincing evidence, and when this became available through the good offices of Vasiljević and the KOS networks concessions were willingly made. Instead of sitting beside Milošević on the bench of the accused, as had originally been envisaged, Vasiljević now appeared in 2003 as a major prosecution witness. Moreover, reliance on Vasiljević and on the new post-Milošević government in Serbia for documentation – the Tribunal’s own efforts having been so limited and fruitless – allowed Belgrade to provide just what was necessary and no more. Documentation was redacted and filtered – unlike that supplied wholesale by Croatia under President Mesić. Great efforts were made to deflect blame away from the Yugoslav state, military and intelligence authorities onto Milošević. And then Milošević, himself, on Saturday 11 March 2006, obligingly died before a judgement was reached.

With chapter seven the story returns to Vukovar. The Hague Prosecutor was less interested in pursuing this case, once the Serbian state, the JNA and the KOS became the Prosecutor’s allies in the case against Milošević, of which Vukovar was now just one element. In Belgrade, a criminal case was also now brought. But significantly – as the book notes – while that in The Hague was entitled „Vukovar hospital“ which involved the whole process of identifying and selecting patients up to and including their liquidation, that before the Belgrade court was entitled simply „Ovčara“, in other words removing the first part of the crime in which the JNA and the KOS, that is the Yugoslav state, were the perpetrators. This would not have mattered so much if the Belgrade trial had not been the scene for the preparation – and suppression and distortion – of evidence for the trial in The Hague. This soon became apparent in the way the ICTY indictments were framed.

This chapter also covers the detailed circumstances of the Vukovar Hospital crime, as vividly described in Višnja’s documentary. It shows JNA involvement right up to the moment of the executions. It describes the performance orchestrated by the KOS for media consumption.

To my mind the key fact is the arrival on the evening of 19 November at about eight o’clock of General Vasiljević and other JNA military intelligence officers at Negoslavci, a few miles from Vukovar. The JNA already had a full list of all those inside the hospital. The next day they were to be evacuated. There is, naturally, no evidence of what was actually said at this meeting. But it is as clear as day that its purpose was to decide on which categories of enemy – all of course were regarded as „Ustaše“ anyway – should be subjected to particular kinds of torture and interrogation, and then liquidated.

Vukovar deserves to be regarded as a crime on the level of, and with similar purposes to, that of Srebrenica – which is the subject of chapter 8. Again the connection with former JNA and KOS officers is evident. The methods and chains of command are similar – in the Srebrenica case via Mladić to Karadžić. But while that chain of command was exposed, it was concealed in the case of Vukovar.

Chapter nine examines why the KOS was such an important player. The answer is: because the JNA was indeed, as the book says, „the last defence-bunker of communism and Yugoslavia“(p. 205). As the rest of the structures started to crumble, particularly in Croatia and Slovenia, the JNA, and what can be described as its „brain“, the KOS, became effectively the new power centre.

Chapter ten deals with the indictments against Croats connected with the military operations, Medački džep in 1993 and Storm/Oluja in 1995. It illuminates the unprofessional practice of the Hague Prosecution, notably in the use made of Savo Štrbac and his misnamed NGO „Veritas“ in researching alleged crimes. Chapter eleven deals with the recent case of the Croatian six.

What strikes me in these cases is the complete absence of realism. Wars are never completely clean. But there are degrees of dirt. Moreover, a set of moral rules apply – the rules that over centuries became known as „the laws of war“, from which the different Geneva and Hague Conventions and eventually the ICTY emerged. According to these traditional understandings, there is a difference between aggression and defence, between regaining one’s own territory and capturing someone else’s, and between letting civilians leave a potential battle field and driving them out of their homes. That residuum of moral good sense and legal tradition was effectively discarded in the first instance hearing of the case against Gotovina and others.

Similarly, in the case of the Croat Six, an elaborate, artificial structure of decision making and blame was devised to entangle in shared criminality people who had little or nothing to do with events on the ground. There is no credible evidence that President Tudjman sought to recreate the Croatian Banovina, or that he organised ethnic cleansing, or that he ever agreed with Milošević to divide up Bosnia – which is, indeed, a lie worthy of and perhaps stemming from the KOS. Again one is struck by the lack of understanding of the real significance of decisions made and the limited range of options available. No allowance was made by the Tribunal when assessing Croatian state policy for the fact that Croatia received no assistance from Bosnia when its territory was attacked – nor that without the HVO, and the operationally independent unit of Herceg-Bosna, the new Bosnian state would have been totally overrun in the first months of Serb aggression. No credit was given for the fact that without Croatia’s military action in 1995, Bosnia would now probably be a Serb fiefdom, with much of the Muslim population cowering in camps. No mention was made, except in passing, that even during Muslim-Croat hostilities half a million Muslim refugees were being fed and housed in Croatia – an extraordinary humanitarian gesture demonstrating practical good will from the Croatian state and people.

The book touches in many places on the role of British policy. I would like to add my own comment on this.

British state policy in the early 1990s was, indeed, as is described in this book, a continuation of that traditionally pursued by Britain of resisting German influence in South Eastern Europe, which had for many years also involved looking favourably on Serbia and Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. This was reflected in British Government hostility to Croatia, to which a certain amount of wartime nostalgic sympathy for the Partisans and the Serbs also contributed. It was, however, a quasi-automatic reaction rather than a thought out response, a result of laziness in the absence of leadership. The proof is that had Mrs Thatcher been Prime Minister in 1991 not John Major it would have been different. So explanations of state behaviour dependent on traditions of state interest are never entirely satisfactory.

Under Tony Blair, for example, there was a change in attitude – not towards the new Croatian state, which was now viewed – as I am sure Mr Blewitt viewed it – as a kind of Ustaša revival – but towards the Muslims in Bosnia. Previously, London had viewed the Muslims with no sympathy at all, as at the time of Srebrenica. I remember the military briefings blaming the Muslims for their own predicament.

Britain was also the main political force behind bringing and pursuing the Gotovina case. This, though, was not driven by British state interest, but rather a desire to spite the Americans, who had been proved right in pushing for the military option against Belgrade. Britain is now well disposed towards to Croatia. This is not primarily because of a change in interests but a change in UK government personnel.

Finally, in assessing the motivation of the Tribunal, particularly in later years, it is important not to forget that ideology became increasingly dominant. The doctrine and practice of universal jurisdiction, as a central element of global governance, has been pressed by America – until the election of President of Trump – and by the EU. It is also backed by powerful international financial interests. This globalist anti-national programme is arguably the single most important factor driving world events. Its adherents regard Croatia as the antithesis of what they want the new world order to look like. Croatia is a small, recently created, state, committed to national identity and to the Catholic faith and tradition. Today’s doctrinaire internationalists certainly view Croatia with at least as much contempt and hostility as did Karl Marx. That should be a badge of pride; but the badge is also, and will always be, a target.

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(Dr Robin Harris is a British historian, author and publicist worked as close adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself from 1985, writing her speeches and advising on policy. By the close of her premiership, he was probably the most trusted member of her political team at Downing Street, and he left Number Ten with her.)

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