War of Croatian Independence

On 22 August 1991, with the Croatian president’s ultimatum to the Yugoslav state presidency to halt the federal army’s aid to the Serb militias and to disarm them; failing to do so, he claimed, would make the federal army an army of occupation. As expected, the Yugoslav state presidency was rather evenly divided on its response and, accordingly, a few days later the Croatian prime minister called for general mobilisation in the anticipation of a `war of liberation’. On 14 September 1991 over one hundred Yugoslav army barracks throughout Croatia were blockaded by the Croatian forces. While the Croatian governments’ strategy emulated, perhaps belatedly, the Slovenian government’s blockade of the Yugoslav army bases in June 1991, the Croatian forces were not that well prepared for the operation; their training and deployment was inferior to that of the Slovenian forces and, more importantly, unlike the Slovenian defence ministry, the Croatian leaders had no intelligence of the Yugoslav army’s planning and intentions.

In contrast to the Slovenian operation which was restricted to the securing of the international border crossing, the Yugoslav army high command initially planned to contest almost all of Croatia in order to sever its communications with the outside world and to defeat its armed forces. And, unlike its Slovenian operation, its campaign in Croatia was, initially, not authorised by the Yugoslav federal government and the state presidency: the president of the Yugoslav state presidency and the federal prime minister, both Croats, opposed the campaign but to no avail. The army’s planned campaign in Croatia, however, required a massive call-up of reservists in Serbia and Montenegro and the activation of reserve officer personnel. Faced with a widespread resistance to this call-up, desertion of its reservists, its own poor command and communications, and unexpectedly stiff resistance from the Croatian forces, the Yugoslav army high command quickly abandoned its initial plans and restricted its operations to the following areas:

  • a concentrated assault on western and eastern Slavonia and Baranja, including the cities of Vukovar and Osjek (with substantial Serb populations);
  • an assault on the seaside town of Dubrovnik and its hinterland; . a naval blockade of the largest ports in Croatia and the extrication of the Yugoslav federal navy’s equipment from those ports;
  • the withdrawal of personnel and heavy weapons from its garrisons in Croatia, including the central garrison in Zagreb.

Apart from its drive to enlarge the territories already controlled by Serb militias, the Yugoslav federal army was also attempting to secure Serbia’s and Montengro’s communication links. The city of Vukovar, for example, (with a mixed Serb and Croat population of almost equal proportions), controls access to the Danube and the mountainous hinterland of the Adriatic city of Dubrovnik (with a very small Serb population) controls the communication links to the main Yugoslav navy base at Kotor in Montenegro.

While not deployed or armed to counter an attack of such a magnitude, the Croatian army, police units, various volunteer units as well as foreign mercenaries (probably over 120 000 in number) were able to slow down and stop the Yugoslav army’s initial advance. In particular, the volunteer units (such as those of the ultra-right wing Croatian Defence League – HOS) provided the backbone of resistance to the Yugoslav army’s onslaught on Vukovar and elsewhere. However, the Croatian forces were not able to stop the much better equipped and trained army from achieving most of its objectives: the army occupied the hinterland of Dubrovnik almost unopposed and, after a three-month siege and artillery bombardment, in November 1991, it took the ruins of Vukovar as well; most of the army’s personnel and equipment was retrieved from the blockaded garrisons and port facilities. While the fighting continued into November 1991, by the end of October the frontline – roughly following the borders of Serb-settled areas of Krajina, Lika, Banija, Kordun and East and West Slavonia – had been stabilised.

In these areas the Croatian forces faced the Serb militias who were defending their own homes and families from the Croat forces who, they believed, were intent, like the Ustasha of the past, on their annihilation. For those Serb conscripts and volunteers their primary homeland were the regions in which they grew up. In a wider sense, they regarded Yugoslavia and not Croatia as their homeland; and, as non-Serb parts of Yugoslavia were seceding from it, Yugoslavia came to mean simply the Serb-populated lands of former Yugoslavia. In defending their primary homeland, many Krajina Serbs believed they were also defending their wider homeland of the Serb lands of former Yugoslavia.

Outside the Serb-controlled areas, the Yugoslav federal army was confronting the Croat conscripts and volunteers who equally firmly believed that they were defending their own homes and families from a brutal, foreign army. However, the homeland they were defending was Croatia, as home for all Croats, including possibly, the Croatian patriots of Orthodox faith or Serb origin. According to the generally accepted, official Croatian national ideology, the Serbs who do not accept Croatia as their homeland simply have no place in Croatia. The insurgent Serbs were thus regarded as instruments of the enemy ^ of the Belgrade government intent on subjugating Croatia and the Croats to its rule. Each of the two views presented the conflict as a defence of one’s homeland from foreign rule and one’s right to live in the homeland of one’s own; the conceptions of the homeland were, however, mutually exclusive.

For the Yugoslav federal army’s conscripts and officers – the Serbians from Serbia as well as other nationalities – this was not a contest over a territory which they could call their homeland in the same sense; they were not defending their homes or the regions in which they grew up. The old Partisan vision of Yugoslavia as a common homeland to all of its nations, which, until 1991, presented the Yugoslav federal army as the defender of Yugoslavia, could provide no justification for the army’s role in this war. The Yugoslav army’s high command belatedly realised this and removed, in the later stages of the war, the Partisan army red star insignia and replaced it with a Yugoslav tricolour flag. The removal of the red star symbolised the end of the Partisan pan-Yugoslav vision as the national liberation ideology of the South Slavs. In fact, many members of the Yugoslav army had no clear ideological or patriotic conception of their role in Croatia: many did not see the conflict as a defence of the Serb lands of former Yugoslavia. This could explain, at least in part, the widespread desertion and relatively low morale in many of its units deployed in Croatia.

The stand-off reached in November 1991 was probably, at least to some extent, due to the problems of morale on both sides. Because of the resistance to the call-up and the low morale of its conscript units, the Yugoslav army did not have sufficient manpower to engage the Croatian forces outside the Serb-settled areas. The Croatian volunteers and conscripts, while committed to the defence of their homes and homeland, were in 1991 not (as yet) a force capable of engaging the Serb defenders of their homes in their homeland, backed by the Yugoslav army and its heavy weaponry. Realising that it cannot, for the time being, conquer these areas, the Croatian government moved to consolidate its gains and to remove, like the Slovenian government, the remnants of the Yugoslav federal army from Croatia. Failing to secure this through the EC, the Croatian government accepted the UN-negotiated plan for the cessation of hostilities (see below). The Yugoslav army’s high command, having extricated its personnel from the Croat-controlled areas and secured the borders of the Republic of Serb Krajina, could declare its objectives achieved; this would allow it to withdraw its conscript units while leaving some of its weaponry as well its officers in command of the Serb Krajina militias.

In contrast to the war in Slovenia, the second phase of the war in Croatia resulted in the death of more than 10 000 Croatian service personnel and civilians, in the injury of many more and in the largescale destruction of towns and villages. Many regions were cleared of their Serb or their Croat inhabitants (as well as of their minorities such as the Ukrainians) making hundreds of thousands of people refugees. Yet, in spite of failing to conquer the Serb-controlled areas, the Croatian government could safely proclaim itself a victor in what it called `The Homeland War’. The war, in its second phase, ended the threat of the Yugoslav federal army to the Croatian government (as it was replaced by the UN forces in the Serb Krajina) and contributed, mainly as the focus of a public relations campaign, to the gaining of international recognition for Croatia’s independence. As in the Slovenian case, in retrospect it appears that both objectives could have been eventually achieved without going to war with the Yugoslav federal army. But, as in Slovenia, the war shifted the focus of Croat national allegiance exclusively to the Croatian state: the war appears to have demonstrated what the Croatian president, Dr Tudjman, had argued in his dissident days, that only the Croatian state and its armed forces could guarantee peace and freedom to the Croats faced with an enemy – the Serbs – within as well as outside Croatia.

While the unpopularity of this war in Serbia eroded electoral support for Milošiević ‘s government, it enabled him to sideline and dismiss many Yugoslav army officers, of any nationality, who opposed the army’s engagement in Croatia. The war in Croatia thus helped to transform the Yugoslav army, originally a multinational force, into a Serbian force increasingly under the control of Milošiević ‘s government.

A Homeland Destroyed: the End of Serb Krajina

In a 48-hour operation, starting on 1 May 1995, the Croatian army conquered the whole of western Slavonia (UNPA – Sector West). In spite of the concentration of more 15 000 Croatian troops, the Serb defenders (outnumbered three to one) appeared to be caught by surprise and offered only sporadic resistance. The UN forces were brushed aside and an unknown number of Serb civilians killed. The Croatian government had, however, good reason to believe that Milošiević, in his efforts to obtain the lifting of the UN sanctions against Yugoslavia, would refuse any aid to the Krajina Serb forces. In defiance of Milošiević ‘s policy, the Krajina Serb leader Babice ordered the launching of several unguided surface-to-surface missiles on Zagreb and his forces shelled several towns in Croatia within the reach of their artillery. His action brought a sharp rebuke from the US government which, however, condemned neither the Croatian army’s attack nor the expulsion of almost the whole Serb population of western Slavonia (around 15 000) to Bosnia and Serbia.

In fact, this operation appears to have been a dress rehearsal for a series of much larger operations which the Croatian army launched in August and September across the Krajina region and western Bosnia. Its operations in Bosnia were part of the US plan of pacification of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the imposition of the Contact group plan for the partition of the republic into the Bosnian Muslim/Croat and Serb ‘entities’. However, in July 1995, the Croatian army had already entered into southwest Bosnia and conquered the Grahovo-Glamoci area, burning the villages and forcing its entire Serb population to flee. Having thus secured a much less defended, southwest approach to Krajina, it was ready to start its final assault on the region.

The Croatian army’s operation `Storm’, planned and executed with the assistance of the US officers, was launched on 4 August 1995, with 150 – 70 000 troops supported by armour and heavy artillery as well as NATO air strikes against Serb communications centres in the Serb Krajina. As in the May operation, the Croatian forces – which greatly outnumbered the defendents – brushed the UN forces aside and completed the operation in four days. In this operation, Milošiević ‘s government severely restricted Krajina Serb forces’ attempts to retaliate or to resist: a few weeks before the attack it replaced the Krajina Serb top commanders with reliable officers from Serbia and issued sealed orders to unit commanders to withdraw their units and to evacuate the Serb population on prearranged routes to Bosnia and Serbia. As the Krajina Serb leaders had feared since December 1992, Milošiević abandoned their cause of independence from Croatia; in return for his co-operation in the Croatian conquest of Krajina and, later, with the NATO-supported offensive in Bosnia, the US supported the partial lifting of the UN sanctions against Yugoslavia in December 1995.

In a few days between 150 and 200 000 Serbs – almost the whole of the Serb population – had retreated from the towns and villages under heavy Croat bombardment, first to Bosnia and then to Serbia. Some of the remaining, mostly elderly Serbs, fell victim to the `scorched earth’ policy which involved looting and burning of the abandoned villages. As a result, the dominant media image of the Serbs as brutal aggressors favoured by the Croatian government, was very briefly replaced on television screens by the image of Serb refugees from Krajina as victims of the Croatian army; the Western media could have hardly failed to record the largest single operation of forced expulsion of civilians in the Yugoslav conflict to date, carried out this time with the US support and without opposition from its European allies. This four-day operation realized for the first time the nineteenth-century nationalist dream of an independent and pure Croatia. As most of its Serb inhabitants from other areas had already left, Croatia would soon reach a rare level of national purity, paralleled in this part of the world only by Slovenia: by 1998, when the last UNPA area, Eastern Slavonia, was transferred to Croatia, Croatia had 94 per cent of its population declared to be Croat.

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