The Homeland War and the Road to an Independent Croatia


Croatian war veterans of the Homeland War
Croatian war veterans of the Homeland War

The Beginning of the End

In a sense the independence of modern Croatia from Yugoslavia really began with the Slovenes. In 1989 Slovenia, the most liberal and western-oriented of the Yugoslav republics, demanded greater autonomy from Belgrade. Most Slovenes, especially their politicians and intellectuals, had realized that Slovenia had little to gain from remaining in Slobodan Milošević’s Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. In a break with the Yugoslav communist system, the Slovenes demanded multiparty elections. Then at the meeting of the Yugoslav League of Communists in January of 1990, the Slovenes called for independence for each republic’s communist party from Belgrade. The Serbs and their Yugoslav allies flatly rejected this, prompting the Slovenes to leave the meeting with the Croat delegation following them shortly afterward.

It is important to note that at the time, all of the Yugoslav republics were at different levels politically. While the Slovenes and Croats were intent on reforms and greater autonomy, other republics such as Montenegro felt that they’d fare better in a stronger, more centralized Yugoslavia. Due to such views, this meant that any republic’s separation from the Yugoslav state was going to be a contentious matter.

Franjo Tuđman
Franjo Tuđman

Anti-communist parties in Croatia first started to surface in 1989, the most popular one being the Croatian Democratic Union, also known as the HDZ. It’s leader was a former Croatian general by the name of Franjo Tuđman. In February of 1990, Tuđman and the HDZ called for Croatia’s right to secede from Yugoslavia and in April of the same year, the HDZ won the local Croatian elections. Tuđman became the new President of Croatia and essentially declared the republic’s “statehood.” Soon after, the Croatian House of Parliament (known as the Sabor) drafted a constitution for the new republic. However, several clauses of this new document were quite controversial to say the least. One passage essentially declared that Croatia’s Serb minority, roughly half a million people, was not to be considered a constituent nation of the Croatian republic but to instead be deemed a “national minority.” 1 It is understandable that with past history serving as a guide, Croatia’s Serbs had a right to be apprehensive if not downright terrified. Serbian propaganda on Yugoslav state TV also didn’t help the situation by demonizing the Croatians and giving dire scenarios of what life would be like under a strong, nationalist Croatian regime. Images of Croatian atrocities against the Orthodox Christian Serbs by the fascist Ustaše were broadcast repeatedly as a harbinger of what Serbs still living in Croatia could expect in the future.

What happens in Knin doesn’t stay in Knin

In February of 1990, the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) was formed in the predominately Serbian-populated town of Knin. Knin was located not far from Croatia’s border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, another ethnically diverse Yugoslav republic at the time and far from the Serbian and Yugoslav capital of Belgrade. Fearful of what would happen to Serbs in Croatia were the later to officially leave Yugoslavia, the leaders of the SDS decided to present their constituents with a referendum of their own. If Croatia was allowed to secede from Yugoslavia, then Serbian enclaves such as Knin had the same right to leave Croatia. Though the Croatian authorities banned it, the referendum went on as planned. It came as a surprise to no one that the people of Knin voted unanimously to secede from Croatia. Knowing also that the Croatian authorities would most likely use force to keep Knin and other Serb areas in line, the SDS had secretly been creating its own militia with the help of pro-Serbian officers of the Yugoslav army (known as the JNA).

Vukovar
Vukovar

In July of 1990, the Serbs of Knin under the leadership of the SDS declared their independence from the Croatian republic and formed their own autonomous political entity, Kninska Krajina. Krajina officially declared its independence from Croatia the following February. Serb political groups and councils in Pakrac and Slavonia declared the same shortly afterward. When the Croatian police arrived to maintain order, the Yugoslav army (JNA) moved in. Though ultimately there were no casualties (though Belgrade TV reported the death of 11 Serbs), the situation had come to the brink. The Croatian and Yugoslav governments knew that it would only be a matter of time before hostilities would reach the point of no return.

The Breakup of Yugoslavia

Knowing that a breakup of Yugoslavia was all but inevitable, Milošević and his Serbian allies decided that the best thing for all Serbs ultimately would be to create a “Greater Serbia” made up not only of the republic of Serbia, but also of all areas where Serbs were in the majority. This included much of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In March of 1991, Serb Paramilitaries from Knin took over Plitvice National Park. When Croatian police units arrived to arrest them and maintain order, shooting broke out with casualties on both sides. These were the first of what would become the bloody Croat-Serb conflict for the next four years.

In December of 1990, Slovenia had been the first republic to vote on a referendum to secede from Yugoslavia. On May 19, 1991, Croatia followed suit and declared itself a separate state. To make it official, both republics jointly declared their independence on June 26, 1991. Though at first the JNA intervened to keep Slovenia in the fold, the Slovene militias neutralized them and with the help of the European Union (EU) as a mediator, forced the Yugoslav army to withdraw. Essentially after 10 days, the Serb-dominated government in Yugoslavia had given in to Slovene demands by not putting up a fight to keep the tiny republic in the fold.

However, the Serb nationalists in the Yugoslav government could not do the same with Croatia. Unlike Slovenia, which was an ethnically homogenous country practically devoid of Serbs, Croatia had a large Serb minority. While Milošević and his nationalist allies promoting a “Greater Serbia” couldn’t care less about the fate of Slovenia and its lack of Serbs, Croatia on the other hand had plenty of Serbs. Milošević and the Yugoslav government could not allow Croatia any sort of autonomy as it would put the Serbs living there in a precarious position.

The fact that the Slovenes had left Yugoslavia allowed the government in Belgrade to focus its attention and military forces on Croatia. This it did in August of 1991 when the JNA and Serb irregular forces launched attacks on the Slavonian cities of Vukovar and Vinkovci in northeastern Croatia while other JNA and Montenegrin forces attacked the famous walled-city of Dubrovnik. This started what the Croatians would call the “Homeland War.”

Serbian controlled areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993
Serbian controlled areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993

In the meantime, the JNA and irregular Serbian forces tightened their grip on Knin, Slunj, Glina, Petrinja and virtually all of the regions up to Pakrac. These areas (at least to the Serb nationalists) became known as the Serbian Republic of Krajina. Once in control of the area, the Serbian forces expelled as many Croats as possible, creating over half a million new refugees. Such expulsions of people from their land and homes was commonly referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”

It must be noted that both Serbs and Croats committed brutal atrocities and ethnic cleansing against each other. Often times Croat forces, when they entered or “liberated” an area, also murdered innocent civilians and destroyed the homes of many Serbians. The intent was to ensure that the Serbs being driven out would have nothing to claim or come back to, let alone fight for. The EU tried to contain the violence with a series of ceasefires and the UN deployed a multinational force to help maintain the peace. Despite these efforts there were several breaches of the ceasefire agreement, especially in the Croatian coastal towns of Dubrovnik, Osijek and Zadar. When the Croatia took over the areas around Medački džep, nearly 100 Serb prisoners and civilians were murdered. 2

The War moves into Bosnia-Herzegovina

Though Croatia had many Serbs and a few other minorities within it, Bosnia-Herzegovina was even more ethnically diverse and with more complicated divisions. That particular republic was divided roughly equally in three ways between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. It had been hoped that giving EU recognition to Bosnia-Herzegovina would help to maintain the country’s territorial integrity. Unfortunately the opposite happened as the Bosnian Serbs, feeling that they had the upper hand, rejected peace with the Muslims and Croats. Similar to what had occurred in other areas, the JNA and Serb irregular militias entered Serb-populated areas and either massacred or forced the non-Serbs to leave.

Spanish UN peacekeeper in Bosnia.
Spanish UN peacekeeper in Bosnia.

At first the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat forces came together in order to fight their common Serb enemy, but ultimately they too started fighting each other for territory. Ultimately though the Bosnian Croats lost out as they were forced to flee out of their strongholds in central Bosnia and further into the areas closer to Croatia proper. Atrocities and reprisals were committed on both sides with the Croats massacring many Muslims. In fact, it is now known that Tuđman and Milošević had even discussed carving up Bosnia between their forces, obviously without consulting the Bosnian Muslims who lived in these areas. In probably what was the most symbolic act and disregard for the culture and heritage of others, especially the Muslims, Croatian forces blew up the Mostar bridge, a stone crossing built by the Ottoman Turks that had stood for 427 years.

Postcard of Mostar bridge before its destruction
Postcard of Mostar bridge before its destruction

As much as I love Croatia as a country, such atrocious acts are inexcusable and indefensible.

The destructive conflict between the Croats and Muslims finally ended when the United States under President Bill Clinton got involved in the conflict. What became known as the Washington Agreement of March 1994 formed a Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Knowing that they would have to eventually (sooner rather than later) agree to a peace agreement with the Serbs as well, the Croats made a mad dash to grab as much land as they could and liberated many of the areas that had been overrun by Serb forces. Known as Operation Oluja, meaning “storm,” the Croats launched a massive offensive on Knin and other Serb controlled areas in Croatia and Bosnia. Unable to get sustained military support from Belgrade, the Serbian Republic of Krajina soon collapsed and most Serbs, fearful of reprisals from the advancing Croats, fled Croatia for Serbia proper.

For Croatia, the war was coming to an end with the Croats getting what they had wanted: a united and virtually ethnically homogeneous Croat state.

Bosnia-Herzegovinaa before and after the war
Bosnia-Herzegovinaa before and after the war

The war formally came to an end on November 10, 1995 with the Dayton Accords, sponsored by the United States. Though Croatia was now a free and independent country, many, many problems still remained.

The Dayton Peace Accords, signed in France between the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina
The Dayton Peace Accords, signed in France between the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

An Independent Croatia

Independence did not bring Croatians the democratic government and economic prosperity that many initially thought would follow. President Franjo Tuđman, though a great leader in Croatia’s time of need, was seen as being increasingly autocratic and not fully respectful or compliant of the Dayton Accords. His government seemed to drag its feet in actually implementing several parts of the agreement including the repatriation of returning Serbs, not cooperating fully to hand over suspected war criminals to the Hague for trial as well as secretly agitating for the Bosnian Croats to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Due to these and other seemingly defiant acts of the Croatian government, the EU and UN threatened to impose sanctions on Croatia in both 1996 and 1999. Given at the time that the average Croatian salary was roughly $400 a month and the unemployment rate hovering around 20%, such threats were taken seriously by Croatia’s parliament, the Sabor.

When Franjo Tuđman, Croatia’s first President and arguably one of the primary architects of Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia, died in December of 1999, his party, the HDZ, more or less went with him. Due to all of the post-war problems that Croatia was facing, a five-party political alliance led by the Social Democratic Party won the country’s 2000 elections. Though there were many old Croatian communists who won, the elections demonstrated to the outside world that Croatia indeed was becoming a more democratic country. This helped to convince many investors and other nations to lend their support through providing badly needed foreign direct investment. As this began to trickle in, the economy, especially the tourism and construction sectors, began to boom.

Croatia Today

The nearly two decades after the end of the Homeland War have brought a prosperity and confidence to Croatia that was just 50 years ago unimaginable. In 2009, Croatia joined NATO and on July 1st, 2013, Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union. Though corruption and economic instability are still problems, Croatia overall seems to be on the path to long-term prosperity that is a trait of many western democracies and industrialized nations throughout the world.

Part of the Series, “History of Croatia”

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History of Croatia

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Early History up until the Ottomans
The Ottoman advance and Austro-Hungarian rule
The Revolutions of 1848 and the Rise of Croatian Nationalism
World War I and the Creation of Yugoslavia
1930s until World War II
Croatia during War II
Croatia under Tito’s Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia: The Beginning of the End
The Homeland War and the Road to an Independent Croatia

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Notes:

  1. The Rough Guide to Croatia (Rough Guide to…)
  2. The Rough Guide to Croatia (Rough Guide to…)

    In spite of all of the bloodshed, things started to look up for Croatia. On January 15, 1992, all EU countries recognized the independence of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina from the state of Yugoslavia.