LAS VEGAS -- President Bush recently echoed Vice President Dick Cheney's support for Croatia to join the European Union, a bid that has been stalled because of the former Yugoslav republic's slowness to own up to and prosecute its 1990s war crimes and its failure to ensure protections and rights for minorities, including returning Serb refugees.
Croatia also faces the possibility of being excluded from the 2008 European soccer championship because when an Italian team's fans taunted the Croatian team's fans at a match in August by waving Yugoslavia's old communist flag, the other side took great offense and showed the competition what it was really made of: They formed a giant human swastika and gave Nazi salutes.
Old habits are hard to break. "In World War II, Hitler had no executioners more willing, no ally more passionate, than the fascists of Croatia," A. M. Rosenthal wrote in The New York Times in 1998. "They are returning, 50 years later, from what should have been their eternal grave, the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Western Allies who dug that grave with the bodies of their servicemen have the power to stop them, but do not."
In 1995, The London Evening Standard's Edward Pearce wrote that "you can understand Croatia best by saying flatly that if there is one place in the world where a statue of Adolf Hitler would be revered, it would be Zagreb," Croatia's capital.
And The Washington Times reported: "A German tank rolls through a small village, and the peasants rush out, lining the road with their right arms raised in a Nazi salute as they chant, 'Heil Hitler.' Mobs chase minorities from their homes, kicking them and pelting them with eggs as they flee into the woods. Europe in the 1940s? No. Croatia in the 1990s."
Last month Croatian TV broadcast video of a speech made 10 years ago by Stjepan Mesic, now Croatia's president. Mr. Mesic is seen saying, "This thing they're asking Croats to do: go kneel in [Croatian concentration camp] Jasenovac ... we have no reason to kneel anywhere. We Croats have won twice in World War II, while all the others did it only once. We won on April 10, when the Axis powers recognized Croatia's independence, and we won after the war since we once again found ourselves with the victors."
Such were the "allies" to whom retired American generals were dispatched in the 1990s to train against the Serbs and help restore Croatia to its Hitler-defined borders. (We later did the same for Kosovo, whose independence we continue to push for.) One has to wonder at the ubiquitous "Nazi" analogies hurled at the Serbs - the designated villains of the Balkans - considering that this analogy was started by a former Nazi state that in 1995 ethnically cleansed 350,000 Serbs and by its Muslim former apprentices who helped kill hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and other undesirables in 40 of Croatia's World War II concentration camps.
One has to wonder also because Croatia (along with Bosnia and Kosovo) hired American PR firms to make the analogy stick. Sure enough, our policymakers and our media - on the same page when it comes to the Balkans - bought it and recycled the propaganda to us, and continue to do so today. This despite the fact that our ally, President Franjo Tudjman - the "Father of Croatia" - was about to be hit with a war crimes indictment that was finally, slowly and quietly being prepared by the United Nations, allowing him to die a free man. (As was the case with wartime Bosnian-Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, a fundamentalist who asked to be buried "next to the martyrs.")
To placate the European powers, Croatia has finally apprehended two of its most notorious criminals from the Balkan wars, Ante Gotovina and Branimir Glavas - despite the move being very unpopular because, as with Bosnian and Albanian Serb-killers, Croatian Serb killers are national heroes.
While to the world, "Serb" is synonymous with "war criminal," Croatians, Albanians and Bosnians accused of war crimes get acquitted, or get convicted and released to a hero's welcome, or go unpunished and pursue political careers, as is the case with indicted war criminal and Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku (and Ramush Haradinaj before him). All the while, we refuse to admit our 1990s alliance in Croatia with Nazi sympathizers, and in Bosnia and Kosovo with forces supplied and trained by al-Qaida, Iran and others.
A recent breakthrough occurred in October, when Zarko Puhovski, the Croatian president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said on a radio program that war crimes in the Croatian town of Osijek are still unsolved because 1990s Croatia was a place where killing Serbs was normal. "In the first few years it was normal to kill Serbs, then it was normal to forget they had been killed, and now we finally talk about it," he said.
The Serbs weren't angels, but they are the only Balkans players to have admitted as much and actively done something about it. The media, our policymakers and our filmmakers still refuse to take the messier but more accurate view of the Balkans. For it is the more daunting task, one that could force the realization that the Serbs weren't just fighting their enemies; they were fighting ours.
Nazism is not "part of the ugly past." It was not a bout of madness that has been straightened out. The undead are among us.
Julia Gorin writes about the Balkans and serves on the advisory board of the newly formed American Council for Kosovo. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.