Balkan Strategic Studies

February 28, 1995

Croatia Pushes The UN and Krajina To The Brink Of A Conflict Which Could Widen To Major War

Croatian President Franjo Tudjrnan used much of February to engage in an act of brinkmanship, which brings to a head at least a year of Croatian planning to evict the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops from Croatia. Then, Croatian forces would be free to move into the historically Serbian area of Krajina, now part of Croatia, to ethnically cleanse it (and other areas of Croatia) of the remaining Serbs. This edition was delayed until early March so that more conclusive information could be included. Associate Publisher Bill Carr reports.

By Bill Carr, Associate Publisher. Croatian President Franjo la Tudjman ordered all United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) units to leave Croatian territory by March 31, 1995. The move, as reported earlier by this journal, was a step toward giving the Croatian Government a free hand to overrun territory in what is now Croatia historically owned and occupied by Serbs (now Croatian Serbs). The geographically and culturally coherent region of Krajina, within what is now Croatia, has declared that it will resist absorption into Croatia, and, by the end of February 1995, military units from the Republic of Serb Krajina were mobilizing to resist the anticipated Croatian Government intervention.

Will a resumption of the Krajina conflict inevitably cause fighting between Croatia and what has now become the main homeland of Serbs, the Republic of Yugoslavia? Is it possible that the United Nations (UN) Security Council and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), unable to prevent a wider conflict erupting across much of the Balkans, will be forced to withdraw from the region?

By the end of February it was becoming apparent that the Croatian Government was considering options other than the complete withdrawal of the UNPROFOR troops. What it mainly had in mind, according to sources in Zagreb, was a revision of the agreement covering the deployment and role of the UNPROFOR units. This, it hoped, would enable it to use the UN to restrict contact between Serb Krajina and the Bosnian Serb territory, with which it is, in some areas, contiguous.

The Government of Croatia is well aware that the ability of the Krajina Serbs to resist Croatian military action depends on Krajina receiving military, logistical and manpower support from across the Bosnian Serb border. President Tudjman, who had in February rejected any reconsideration of the UN mandate, was beginning to fed international pressure on his stand, which clearly aimed at "ethnically cleansing" Krajina -- and other parts of Croatia -- of those Serbs who remained. Earlier Croatian endeavors had forced large parts of the Croatian Serbian community to flee.
Roots of the Krajina problem

During World War II, even before the occupying Germans were removed, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, under the Partisan leader Josip Bros, (later to become Marshal Tito), determined the new internal boundaries for the postwar federation. These federal units, or republics, reflected the decisive input of Tito (part Croat) and the Slovenian, Edvard Kardelj. As a result, post-war Yugoslavia showed arbitrarily re-drawn internal boundaries which favored Croatia and Slovenia territorially.

Tito himself knew that these artificial boundaries, which included large ethnic minorities within them, would not be accepted willingly as "national" units by the ethnic minorities, or the Serbs in Serbia itself. Nevertheless, without any discussion, or establishment of a legal framework, the units were designated as the Republic of Croatia, the Republic of Slovenia and the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina. Tito said the frontiers were of no consequence as the boundaries between the Republics were only for internal administrative purposes.

Despite Tito's assurance, it was this artificial boundary structure which was used as the legal definition when the new countries were recognized by the international community as independent sovereign states. Trapped within these boundaries were thousands of Serbs who felt, with historical justification, that the ground on which they had lived for centuries, formed part of their natural homeland Serbia. From the Serbs' viewpoint the land they farmed had never been, and never would be, part of independent Croatia or Bosnia Herzegovina. Indeed the latter never had been a state as constituted on April 6, 1992, when granted recognition by Germany, and on April 7, when granted recognition by the US.

Even before gaining international recognition, President Tudjman introduced a new Croatian constitution which defined the state as the national state of the Croatian people 'and others' immediately and pointedly relegating the Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and others to second-class status. This was exactly as had occurred in 1941 when nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler had formed Croatia following the invasion of Yugoslavia. Similarly, in mid-1991, Croatian forces of the National Guard Corps (ZNG) wearing the same insignia as the fascist Ustaše in 1941, began the same process of ethnic cleansing of Serbs living within the new Croatia.

Between June 1, 1991, and November 23, 1991, Croatian forces took control of the largely Serb populated town of Vukovar, regarded by the Ustaše in World War II as one of the most important towns in the Independent State of Croatia. Eyewitness survivors, and forensic evidence gathered during and after the fighting, showed that more than a thousand Serbs were killed (frequently having first been tortured) at Vukovar before the then Yugoslav National Army fought its way into the town after razing much of it to the ground by heavy shelling.

At the time of Germany announcing its recognition of Croatia on December 24, 1991, Serb communities in Krajina joined with the self-proclaimed Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonja, Baranja and West Srem to form the Srpska Krajina Republic (RSK). Claiming the same right to self-determination as the Croats and already under attack from the Croatian ZNG, the Krajina Serbs declared their independence and exercised their right to self-defense. RSK territory was placed under UN protection in March 1992, but sporadic fighting continued throughout 1992.

In January 1993, Croatian forces estimated at between 17,000 and 20,000 troops launched a surprise attack against the Serb-held Krajina. The Serbs fought back and as part of a ceasefire agreement the area became a so-called "Pink Zone" placed under UNPROFOR protection, and within which the warring factions pledged there would be no fighting. UN Security Council Resolution 802 censured Croatia for the attack and ordered the immediate withdrawal of Croatian troops. At the Geneva Peace Conference on March 2, 1993, the RSK agreed to the Vance-Owen proposal that as the Croatian forces withdrew, only UNPROFOR, would occupy the territory formerly held by the Serbs prior to the Croatian attack. No final agreement was concluded until July 16. However, in spite of demands during August by the senior UN Civil Affairs Director in the former Yugoslavia, Mr Cedric Thornberry, that the Croatian forces honor the agreement and withdraw, nothing took place.

Instead, UNPROFOR units hastily withdrew. This was taken as a sign of weakness on the part of UNPROFOR by the Croatian military who proceeded to prepare a series of swift strikes against parts of the RSK. Early September witnessed the launch of a number of surprise attacks against Serb villages supposedly under the protection of UNPROFOR.

Shannon Boyd, UNPROFOR spokeswoman, issued a press release in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, on September 18, 1993, in which she said: "UNPROFOR troops found at least 11 villages in the Medak pocket completely destroyed . . . It was assessed that the destruction was well organized, systematic and completely thorough. Homes were reduced to rubble by detonations and dead livestock littered the area." In a follow-on press release the next day, Shannon Boyd quoted the UN Force Commander, General Jean Cot, as saying: "I have found no sign of human or animal life in the several villages we passed through today. The destruction is total, systematic and deliberate."

The day after General Cot's confirmation of the ethnic cleansing of the 11 Serb villages, President Tudjman justified the action. Speaking to the press at the Peace Conference being held in Vienna, President Tudjman said that the area belonged to Croatia and Croatian Forces had every right to establish Croatian control over it. He also said that if UNPROFOR did not stop protecting the Krajina Serbs then UN troops would have to leave Croatia.

Earlier in 1993, an Australian officer, J Mellis, in his capacity as UNPROFOR spokesman, condemned Croatian aggression in the Krajina, and deplored Croatian Government control of the media. "We have no way of presenting our views to the Croatian public," said Mellis in an interview carried by the German paper Die Tageszeitung in Berlin. "The essence of the Vance-Owen Plan a year ago was to get the conflicting sides to talk with each other, and the Croatian side has not made a single step towards this objective," stated Mellis. The next day in Zagreb another UNPROFOR spokesman, John Mills, amplified some of the statements made by Mellis. He accused Croatia of censoring information broadcast on the Croatian radio as part of the UN's Special Programs' effort to talk directly to the local population. Mills said: "We have recently discovered that some of our programs broadcast in the Croatian language were edited to alter the meaning of the information. Other UN programs had been banned by the Croatian radio without explanation; in February (1993) eight programs were banned but our protestations to the relevant Croatian authorities are ignored."
Eighteen months on

An assessment Of the present situation in the Krajina has to be made against this four-year background of resurgent Croatian nationalism and the resultant ethnic cleansing. In addition, cognizance must be taken of the facts given in a December 1993 report by the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In his report to the UN Security Council, the Secretary-General stated that at least 250,000 Serbs had been driven out of Croatia in the period between 1991 and December 1993. This forced exodus of Serbs from Croatia was in fact the start of ethnic cleansing, a term which was created by Croatian Ustaše in World War II and used later by the Western media to describe actions by the Serbs in Bosnia.

In many respects nothing seems to have changed for the better. Statements made in 1993, and since, by UNPROFOR spokespersons about Croatia's unhelpful attitude towards solving the Krajina problem through peaceful means, and Croatia's anti-UNPROFOR actions, have been vindicated by subsequent events.

On February 24, 1995, during a regular press briefing at Vukovar, UNPROFOR Coordinator for Civilian Affairs in Sector East, Phillip Corwin, in answer to questions from the international press corps, expressed the belief that the Croatian Government had decided to banish UNPROFOR from the Krajina area more than one year ago. He said: "This is not a recent decision. For a long time, Croatian authorities have been producing much false information about UNPROFOR, and not a single positive article has been published in Croatia about UNPROFOR for more than a year; this is not a mere coincidence, it is a strategy." Corwin went on to say: "A frontal war between the Croats and the Krajina Serbs was highly probable if UNPROFOR withdrew from the zone of separation between the two heavily armed sides."

Asked if it were possible for UNPROFOR to leave Croatian territory but stay in the area under the control of the Krajina Serbs (an idea already proposed by the Krajina Serbs as a peacekeeping measure), the UNPROFOR Civilian Coordinator explained that this would not be possible because (on this territory) the UN recognized only Croatia as an independent sovereign state; it did not formally recognize the Republic of Serb Krajina as an independent state.

Corwin went on to say, "The Croatian Authorities' decision is based on an incorrect assumption that UNPROFOR would be replaced by NATO Forces." Nevertheless, the Croatian Defense Minister, Gojko Susak, just two weeks before, had made it clear Croatia was attempting to position itself alongside NATO. Minister Susak is reported as saying on February 2, 1995, during a press interview: "Having NATO bases on (the Adriatic islands of) Viš and at Divulje (near the Croatian naval base) would be in Croatia's interest." Feral Tribune, a semi-independent newspaper produced in Split, revealed on January 2, 1995, that a major US military base had already been established on the island of Brac in the Adriatic off Split.

The day after Corwin's press conference at Vukovar, Alun Robert, spokesman for UNPROFOR Sector South based at Knin, said that Croatia was refusing to allow the deployment of more UN observers along the line of separation. Speaking at a press conference, Robert said: "The Croatians are restricting UNPROFOR observer movement in the area of the Croatian-controlled town of Gospic in the Lika region." He added that Croatia was also training troops intensively in this area which they were not permitting UNPROFOR to enter.

All the signals from the Croatian. Government indicate that it is preparing to attack the RSK as a means of achieving the "final solution" of being rid of Serbs from territory which they claim is part of the Croatian sovereign state. In the eyes of many countries and individuals, Croatia's stand is a valid one, based upon international recognition of the boundaries set by Tito in 1945. The claim, however, is flawed viewed from the Serbs' position. The land is their land which they have farmed for centuries. In this they are supported by the Russian Government.

The Russian Ambassador to Zagreb, Leonid Kerestedijanc, is reported in late February as saying: "In discussions and during peace talks, I have to constantly correct those who refer to the 'occupied areas' and the 'Serb occupiers'. People who have lived here (in Croatia) for centuries cannot occupy their own homes and the land of their ancestors."

On Croatian TV, on March 3, 1995, Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak told viewers that Croatia would not alter its decision that UNPROFOR troops must leave the whole of the country by March 31. He went on to say: "We will accept the positioning of international monitors/observers along the borders of Serbia and Bosnia, and along separation lines with Krajina, if they have the mandate and support of NATO, or any other power to carry it out." Minister Susak did not clarify the "other power" but it was taken to refer to the US Government which last year brokered the Croat-Muslim Alliance in Bosnia, and the Confederation between Croatia and Bosnia. [In a recent move to improve fighting capability, on March 6, the Confederation formed a joint military command headed by Croatian General Janko Bobetko and supported by General Rasim Delic and General Tihomir Blaskic of the Muslim-Croat army -- Ed.].

Minister Susak reiterated that Croatia favored a peaceful settlement, but then went on to say that Croatia now had 114,000 troops and was ready to mobilize half a million people within 24 hours. Possibly preparing the Croatian people for an outbreak of intense fighting soon, the Minister also said: "The Croatian Army will launch limited military actions (to take control of the country where the Serbs live) but, if a large scale conflict erupted, then it would be over before Belgrade and Pale could join the fight to help the Serbs in Krajina."
Diplomatic moves to head off the conflict

At the time of writing, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke had flown into Zagreb for talks with President Tudjman in an effort to persuade him to rescind his order that UNPROFOR must leave Croatia by the March 31 deadline. It seemed that the allies were making intense diplomatic efforts to persuade President Tudjman to back down. It appears that there is an agreed method of achieving that objective with Russia and the US employing the "tough guy, friendly guy" technique. The Russian Ambassador in Zagreb let it be known that Russia would advocate imposing UN sanctions on Croatia if Croatian forces attacked the RSK. Ambassador Kerestedijanc is reported by the Belgrade newspaper Politika as saying: "The regulation of Zagreb-Knin relations could continue only in the presence of UN Peacekeepers. Perhaps we can change the structure of the UN Force a little, but it is essential that there are peacekeepers on the ground to help the peace process." He is also reported as saying it is necessary to return to the Vance-Owen Plan which had been accepted by Zagreb, Belgrade and Knin as the basis for progress.

US Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke is reported by Washington sources to be offering President Tudjman a face-saving formula hinted at by Ambassador Kerestedijanc, namely a reduction in UNPROFOR troop levels and some degree of force redeployment. No reports of the outcome of their meetings had been issued by press time, except a statement from a Croatian Government spokesman which said that President Tudjman and the US Envoy had only discussed a solution for a peace process after the withdrawal of the UN Protection Force.

In keeping with Philip Corwin's statement on February 24, there is a more pragmatic approach being advocated by some US agencies, namely: "Simply tell President Tudjman he is on his own in this." They hope that Assistant Secretary of State Holbrooke made it very clear in his face-to-face meetings in Zagreb that there would be no US cavalry riding in to protect Croatia from either the RSK and/or Serbia if he chose the war option. The UK Government is known to have made the Croatian Government aware, through diplomatic channels, that neither NATO nor the Western European Union (WEU) would be permitted to put the lives of British troops at risk in the disputed areas of Croatia for something which is avoidable and unlikely to achieve a lasting solution to the Krajina problem.

Even if the now better-equipped Croatian Army and Air Force could defeat the Krajina Serbs (and that is by no means certain), the danger of an escalation of fighting spreading to involve Yugoslavia (and in particular its main constituent state, the Republic of Serbia) is real. President Tudjman may or may not have an understanding with Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic that the continued existence of the RSK is tradable for the lifting of UN sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia. Either way is likely to make little difference. The sight of Krajina Serbs fighting with their backs against the wall and refugees once more pouring across into Serbia would be too much for the Serbs in Bosnia and in Yugoslavia to take. It would be difficult for President Miloševic to restrain the Yugoslav Armed Forces in such circumstances. His hold on political office would be in jeopardy in the face of Serbian nationalism which runs deep in the Serb psyche. With ultra-nationalists such as Arkan waiting in the wings to play the nationalism card, President Miloševic will probably have to place himself at the head of the mob or lose the Presidency.

On March 6, President Miloševic met with the co-chairmen of the Conference on the former Yugoslavia, Lord David Owen and Mr Thorwald Stoltenberg, in Belgrade to discuss the Croatia-Krajina situation and efforts to find a peaceful solution to all the separate points of conflict throughout the former Yugoslavia. It is believed that the prime focus of the talks was the immediate problem of the Krajina and "what if" actions may be required should Croatia persist in ordering UNPROFOR to leave all of the territory currently recognized as Croatia by the international community.

The following day Lord Owen and Mr Stoltenberg flew to Zagreb and held similar discussions with Mr Hrvoje Sarinic, Head of the Croatian Delegation in the on-going talks with the RSK. Lord Owen said the question of the UNPROFOR mandate would be resolved before the March 31 deadline. He also expressed hope that progress would be achieved in the Croatian-Krajina Serb talks.

The co-chairmen and the US envoy are not the only people engaged in diplomatic moves to defuse the situation.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Grigory Karasin, admitted his ministry was busy drafting an action plan for the Krajina which would be presented to its international partners after approval from President Boris Yeltsin. He expressed grave concern about mounting tension in the region, the escalation of armed dashes and the formation of a joint military command between Croatia and the Bosnian Muslim-Croat Federation.
In the wings, the Bosnian Muslim Forces prepare for war

MEANWHILE, arms continue to flow into Bosnia in ever-increasing volumes. There is no question now of the truth of the disclosure by this journal last year that Tuzla airfield was being used to bring arms from the Middle East for Bosnian Muslim (Izetbegovic) forces. At the time, the, deliveries via this route were in an embryonic stage. Since January of this year, the effort has increased into an almost routine operation with flights arriving and departing nearly every night. UN officials have been denied access to the area and NATO remains mute despite evidence from people on the ground who see the US-built Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports flying in night after night.

So which country is flouting the UN Security Council's Resolution that arms must not be supplied to any member nation of the former Yugoslavia? First reports blamed the CIA on the basis that the C-130 is a US aircraft. But Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia all have C-130s. The truth is shrouded in misinformation from many quarters. It is inconceivable that NATO is unaware of what is going on. The whole affair has an air of collusion by many countries who may be building up the capability of the Bosnian Izetbegovic Forces prior to a complete withdrawal of UNPROFOR from Bosnia and Croatia.

US military sources have indicated to this journal that Macedonia has been developed into a US zone of interest, into which they have made preparations to send in more than 3,000 ground troops to reinforce the 600+ already in Macedonia.

The US, it appears, would attempt to contain from its peripheral position any conflict which might erupt in the Balkans if the present round of peace talks failed, leaving the confederation of Croats and Izetbegovic Muslims to cope with the Serbs from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yugoslavia.