Lessons of Croatia for Ukraine. Yugoslav wars


There have been suggestions from several persons (including myself) that studying history of Yugoslav Wars could be beneficial for understanding the things and decision making in Ukraine.  These conflicts are arguably the most similar historical events and both similarities and differences could help to provide better understanding and better prediction of the developments in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

A socialist federate republic, Yugoslavia was, similarly to the Soviet Union, a communistic and multinational country.  It consisted of six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia), and two autonomous provinces (Kosovo, Vojvodina) as parts of the Socialist Republic of Serbia.  Despite nominal similarities there were also significant differences – the form of communism in Yugoslavia was much more liberal, with elements of free market, people were able to travel abroad freely and the autonomy of republic members was significantly greater.

Yugoslavia was trying so solve inter-national problems by establishing supranational ideology, forged by communism, brotherhood and unity and even new Yugoslav identity.  However, these efforts failed to suppress particular nationalisms, and even led to their intense burst after supranational ideology started to crumble.  A special attention should be given to the notorious Greater Serbia program.  This program originated from 19th century and was aimed to unite all Serbs within one country.  Based primarily on linguistic (dialectal) arguments, it assumed that majority of Croats and all Muslims were actually Serbs (forcefully) converted to Catholicism and Islam and who should essentially be part of the the Serbian state.  On the other hand, it completely disregarded the rich Croatian cultural and historical heritage and was oblivious about the fact that most of Croats and Muslims consistently failed to identify with Serbian ethos.


Greater Serbia program (dark red).

Prelude to war

 The Yugoslav Wars are a collection of several conflicts fought from 1991 to 1999 on the territory of former Yugoslavia, but the roots can be traced to 1980s, when Serbian intelligentsia revived the idea of Greater Serbia, most notoriously in the Memorandum of  Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1986.  The implementation of the program became realistic in 1987 by surprise rise of Slobodan Milošević to power in Socialist Republic of Serbia.  Milošević followed socialistic policy of his predecessors, but pursued strong nationalistic Serbian and centralist Yugoslav line.  This policy brought him in collision course with Albanians, which presented vast majority of population in Kosovo and sought the status of a republic, as well as Slovenia and Croatia that desired greater autonomy within the Yugoslav confederation.  In contrast to other Yugoslav republics, state controlled media in Serbia stepped up paranoid propaganda, which was persuading people of external and internal conspiracy not only against Yugoslavia and communism, but primarily against interests of the Serbian nation.

In 1988 he initiated the so-called anti-bureaucratic-revolution, an astroturf public protest aiming to overthrow leaderships of other republics and autonomous provinces and replace them with puppet governments.  He succeeded to replace leaderships of autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina and the leadership of Montenegro, which however strengthened the opposition to his policy in the remaining four republics.

As it became clearer that there was no solution agreeable to all parties, Slovenia and Croatia moved toward secession.  In 1990 they called first free democratic elections and referendums on independence, and declared independence in 1991.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Macedonia somehow reluctantly followed suit with a delay of several months.  Their leaderships sought to strike a deal with Milošević, but when found themselves in an either-or situation, chose Slovenian and Croatian path. Both pre-election communist and post-election nationalistic leaderships of Slovenia and Croatia closely cooperated, where Slovenia was usually forerunner of the changes and Croatia was following its suit.  They vowed to help each other in case of emergency, but the will to keep that pledge came to the test during the Ten Day War.

In case of territorial defence the Croatian lag proved to be disastrous.  All republics possessed significant amount of light armour to form militia in case of the war, so called territorial defence.  Slovenian government secretly and swiftly secured Slovenian armour.  Alarmed by that fact, Yugoslav army confiscated most of Croatian armour, leaving Croatian forces practically unarmed.  This small difference would significantly influence further events.

Ten Day War or Slovenian War of Independence (June – July 1991)

Having declared independence, Slovenia overtook the control of a part of the previously Yugoslav border. The central government sent Yugoslav army to re-establish their control.  Yugoslav army left barracks in Slovenia and Croatia and after few skirmishes re-established control on most border crossings.  But part of the Slovenian response – blocking of barracks of Yugoslav army on territory of Slovenia proved to be a huge blow.   Some of barracks even surrendered and  Yugoslav army quickly found itself in a futile situation and after an agreement with Slovenian authorities pulled back to barracks.

The success of the Slovenian side was largely to the fact that Yugoslav army applied only smart part of its forces and even those had very limited scope.  Additionally, despite the fact that the vast majority of commanding structure of the Yugoslav army were Serbs and Montenegrins, they represented only fifth of ordinary conscript soldiers, so the motivation and morale of the whole army was low.

In years following the conflict there were many speculations why Yugoslav army did not pushed harder.  It was a fact that Serbian leadership, which was the real force behind the Yugoslav army, was not very interested in Slovenia because of its distance and national homogeneity, where Serbs represented only 2.5% of the population.  It was quite possible that Serbian leadership was eager to get rid of one adversary and/or break Slovenian-Croatian alliance.  Conspiracy theories went so far to even suggest that there was even an agreement between Slovenian and Serbian leadership.

More interestingly, Croatia did not officially came to help, despite many Croatian civilians tried to stop the tanks on their own initiative.  In fact, Croatian Minister of Defence, Martin Špegelj, was eager to block barracks of Yugoslav army on Croatian territory concomitantly with Slovenia, a so-called Špegelj’s plan.  He was, however, outvoted, as Croatian president Franjo Tuđman was against the conflict.  It is claimed that Tuđman thought that Croatian action would provoke the reaction of Yugoslav army that would be more decisive in Croatia than in Slovenia and that Croatia was not ready for a conflict yet, especially without arms of territorial defence.  Furthermore, it is quite possible that a part of Croatian leadership was hoping that a total conflict with Serbs could still be avoided, possibly by the intervention of international community.  Some analysts and Tuđman apologists even speculate that the war in Slovenia was just a trap for Croatian leadership.  On the other hand other analysts and Tuđman critics point out that common front of Slovenians and Croats would pose a much larger challenge for Yugoslav army.  Anyhow, the lack of Croatian support created resentment between Slovenes and created permanent rift between Slovenian and Croatian leaderships.

Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995)

Situation in Croatia was much more complex.  Serbs represented about 12% of population and were generally opposed to the newly elected Croatian government as well as to Croatian independence.  They were constantly bombarded by propaganda from Serbian media, which planted fears of repeating Serbian pogroms by the Croatian ultra-nationalist Ustasha formations, which actually happened during the Second World War.  Even before genuine changes took place, Serbs in Croatia already had held several massive gatherings in support of Milošević, often with extremist Serbian positions.  Notably, increased tensions were demonstrated by previously unseen fights between Croatian and Serbian football fans.

The situation only deteriorated after the surprising Croatian nationalists’ win.  Indeed, the elected Croatian government aimed to reverse anti-Croatian and pro-Serbian stance of its predecessors, often clumsily and without too much concern about feelings of local Serbians, so the latter perceived it as nationalistic and historically revisionist.  For example, Croatian authorities were highly suspicious of Serbs within Croatian police forces, whose share far exceeded their share in population, and tended to change that quickly.  Despite the fact that Serbs were facing the lose of the privileged status they had in Yugoslavia, they were not physically endangered.  Since their distaste of Croatian government was fuelled by Serbian propaganda, it was therefore doubtful if a different course by the authorities would produce a significantly different result.  For example, propaganda skilfully used even most benign actions, like replacing communist symbolism by ancient Croatian national symbols (red and white checkerboard), which were also used by Ustasha, as a proof of genocidal intentions of the new establishment.  It is noteworthy to point out that other national minorities, representing 8% of population, had no serious objections to the course of new authorities and even actively participated in some of the changes.

After Croatian parliament adopted constitutional changes and replaced communist symbols with Croatian, Serbs responded with so-called log revolution in August 1990.  In areas of Croatia with Serbian majority, they blocked roads by cutting down the trees, while local authorities and police did not recognise authority of the central government,  holding ad-hoc “referendums” and declaring autonomy.  Their demands gradually intensified to federalization and independence, bolstered by the fact that the Croatian government was helpless to act against them.  All efforts to establish the constitutional order by special police forces were thwarted by superior Yugoslav army.

Distribution of nationalities in Yugoslavia according to 1991 census

Distribution of nationalities in Yugoslavia according to 1991 census

It should be noted that in Croatia there existed only two larger, predominantly rural and sparsely-populated areas with clear Serbian majority centred around the towns of Knin and Glina (pink), while the rest of Serbs lived in mixed areas (white) or small pockets.  The plan of the Serbian leadership was thus at least to expand territory to neighbouring Croatian-majority areas and cities in order to establish territorial continuity, economical and intellectual base as well as sea access.  The ultimate goal was conquering more than half of Croatia and establishing a notorious Virovitica-Karlovac-Karlobag hypothetical border as envisioned by the Greater Serbia program.

In following months, authorities in Serbian-majority areas became increasingly independent and ethnically cleansed off Croats using tacit support from Yugoslav army.  In the meantime, Croatian authorities were purchasing weapons, using mostly illegal channels, and in the beginning of 1991 special police forces successfully carried two smaller actions on Plitvice and in Pakrac.  Finally, in April 1991 Croatia established the national guard as a para-military police force, as the Republic was still legally part of Yugoslavia.

In June 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, while in July Serbian rebels started military expansion of the territory to neighbouring Croatian-majority territories.  Their effort was more or less openly supported by Yugoslav army units in the area, at least by providing the armament, while large support in the form of further armament and numerous irregular volunteers came from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  The Serb forces gradually escalated the conflict and by the end of August Croatia was in full fledged war.

When it was clear, that war can no longer be avoided, in September 1991 Tuđman reluctantly ordered implementation of Špegelj’s plan (three months later than proposed by Špegelj himself), i.e. blockading and attacking Yugoslav army barracks.  The so called war for the barracks was a huge success: By capturing fair share of Yugoslav army barracks and depots, Croatian gained huge amount of heavy and light armour, which was immediately distributed to forces already engaging Serbian forces.  Yugoslav army pulled out of the rest of the barracks with armour, which  consequently meant that the depth of the Croatian territory was finally safe.

In the following months, against all odds, vastly outgunned Croatian forces succeed to stop Serbian advances.  Croatian forces eventually lost the notorious Battle of Vukovar, but not before a large share of Serb armour and will was destroyed by cleverly positioned tank ambushes.  Serbian capture of Croatian-majority cities of Osijek, Sisak, Karlovac, Gospić, Zadar, Šibenik, and most famously Dubrovnik, was prevented.  Before the cease fire in January 1992 Croatian forces even successfully performed smaller offensive and mopping-up actions.

The most important fact that restricted Serbian success was the superior motivation of Croatian forces, which even included handful of ethnic Serbs.  On the other hand, Yugoslav army was demoralized.  Conscripts from non-Serbian ethnicity and even many Serbian conscripts were reluctant to fight in the foreign republic despite all the propaganda, while Serbian irregular forces from either Croatia or Serbia lacked discipline.

During the following three years, UN forces were stationed on the territory occupied by Serbian militia according to UN resolution.  Consequently, Yugoslav army left Croatia, leaving armour to local Serb forces.  Croatian authorities were reluctant to break the resolution and alienate international community, so Croatian forces restrained from larger actions.  Nevertheless smaller actions, most notably operation Maslenica in 1993 and operation Flash in 1995 successfully returned important transport routes under Croatian jurisdiction, with little objection from international community.  However, Croatian forces were heavily engaged in fighting Serbs in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina in agreement with their leadership.  In several successful operations they interrupted important transport routes between Serbian held territories in Croatia and Serbia, making their situation in the former almost unbearable.

Meanwhile envoys of United States, Russia, EU and UN tried to broker solution for the territories occupied by Serbian militia, the so called Z-4 plan.  The plan suggested a broad federation-level autonomy with demilitarized status for Serbian-majority areas within Croatia, which meant that the occupied territories with Croatian-majority should be returned under full Croatian control.  Despite the plan was seen by Croatian leadership as unfavorable, Croatian leadership accepted it, hoping that Serbian side will reject it.  The gamble paid off, as even such grateful status was not acceptable for Serbian leadership.

Situation in 1995

Military situation in 1995 (pink: Serbs, yellow: Croats, green: Muslims)

By that time, it was clear for US, the most important Croatian ally, that Serbian leaderships are not going to accept any reasonable solution to the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina unless militarily defeated.  They tacitly agreed with long prepared Croatian action of liberation of its territory under the condition it will be as swift as possible and with as little civilian victims as possible.  In August 1995 Croatia launched operation Storm, which in blitzkrieg less than one week long returned under its control most of the territory that Serbs managed to occupy during 1990 and 1991.  By that time, Croatian forces were much better equipped and trained than local Serbian ones, and getting immediate help from Serbia was impractical.  Namely, the operation Storm was held in vast territory in central Croatia, in the area that is far from Serbia and connected only to Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It should be noted, that Milošević abstained from any concrete help, except from vocal one.  One of the important reasons was the fact, that despite several requests Serbia never agreed to union of Serbian-held territories in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia with Serbia itself.  This gave him possibility to distance himself and to claim that the local Serbian leadership was solely responsible for their own fiasco.

During the Croatian operation, the local Serbian leadership activated a previously prepared plan for evacuation of the population, so by the end of hostilities, the territory previously occupied by Serbian militia was practically without any inhabitants.  The operation was performed brilliantly and with minimum civilian loss.  However, power vacuum that followed after pull-out of military forces enabled bandits and armed irregulars to perform series of crimes, including killing few remaining civilians and burning down empty Serbian houses.  When Croatian police eventually established order, the irreparable harm had been already done.

The remaining smaller territory in eastern Croatia adjacent to Serbia, which was still under control of Serbian militia, was peacefully returned to Croatia in 1997.  Serbs never left eastern Croatia, while only small fraction of exiled Serbs from central Croatia returned, thus significantly changing the Croatian ethnic composition.

Bosnian war (1992 – 1995)

In contrast to Croatians, Muslims do not posses such rich cultural and historical heritage.  Their existence is a result of conversion of indigenous Slavic population into Islam during 300 years of Ottoman occupation.  Both Croats and Serbs considered Muslims to be part of their ethos, and even Muslims themselves had conflicting view over this matter.  During the inter-war Yugoslavia (1918-1941) Muslim leaders usually cautiously sided with Serbian leaders, usually as a trade-off for special privileges, while during the Second world war vast majority of Muslims fought within either multinational Partisan or Croatian military units.  The matter was finally resolved in 1971, when Muslims were recognised as a separate nation.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was constructed as a multinational republic, with Muslims, Serbs and Croats as constitutional nations.  In 1991, 43% of the population considered themselves Muslim, 31% Serb and 17% Croat, with 6% describing themselves as Yugoslav.  After first free elections, national parties of the three nations dominated the parliament, creating an uneasy coalition.  Muslim politicians were balancing between opposite views of Croatian and Serbian politicians, and proclaimed neutrality in the conflict in neighbouring Croatia in hope to avoid military conflict with Serbs.  Nevertheless, the Bosnia-Herzegovina already experienced the conflicts in the late 1991, when Yugoslav army attacked Croatian-majority areas in Herzegovina near the Croatian border.  Later that year Muslim and Croatian representatives finally passed Memorandum on the Sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina, after which Serbian representatives left the parliament and started the creation of an independent Serbian state.  The remaining representatives called for the referendum in the beginning of 1992, which was boycotted by Serbs, while the rest of population overwhelmingly voted for the independence.

Yugoslav army formally left Bosnia-Herzegovina after the declaration of independence, but in fact left all the armour to local Serbian militia.  Muslims were by far least prepared for the conflict, as their leadership hoped that by staying out of the conflict and keeping low profile they would avoid military conflict with the Serbs.  Official Bosnian army (by that time still formally multi-ethnic) was hopelessly outgunned and unprepared.  Croatian militias on the other hand were well prepared and reasonably well stocked, and some of its forces already participated in Croatian war of independence or in fights with Serbian forces within Bosnia-Herzegovina itself.  All three sides were supported by volunteers from abroad.

In the start of 1992 Serbs started a completely unprovoked attack against Muslim-majority and Croatian-majority areas.  Those attacks were most successful against unprepared Muslims – large Muslim-majority or mixed areas were conquered practically without any resistance, after which Muslims were humiliated and ethnically cleansed by the use of rape, killing, concentration camps or expulsion.  After fronts finally stabilised several months later, many Muslim-majority urban centres, notably Sarajevo, found themselves in Serbian encirclement or semi-encirclement and were constantly bombarded by Serbian artillery from outside and terrorized by Serbian snipers from within.  The most notorious of Serbian attack was Marakle masacre of 1994, in which Serbian daytime mortar attack on a Sarajevo marketplace killed 68 civilians.  It is interesting to note, that Serbs blamed Muslims for the incident, claiming that Muslims attack themselves in order to gain international support.  Many encircled areas, most notably Bihać, Goražde, Srebrenica and Žepa were proclaimed safe areas under UN protection.

Croatian-majority or Croatian-Muslim mixed territories initially fared far better and Serbian forces were quickly stopped.  Because of Muslim militia non-existence, Muslim fighters predominately joined Croatian militia in order to defend the area from Serbian attacks.  This however created a dangerous situation.  Croatian militia took control over both military and civilian life, and was not prepared to hand it back to civilian structures, which created the suspicion among Muslims.  In certain (but not all) areas of the Bosnia, suspicion gradually led to full fledged war between Croatian and newly established Muslim militia, helping Serbs to conquer even more territory.  It is widely believed that Muslim-Croatian war might be due to agreement reached between Milošević and Tuđman to split Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia, which was however never proved.

By the start of 1994 the Bosnia-Herzegovina was in chaos with no solution in sight.  In order to stabilize situation US brokered an agreement between Muslim and Croatian militia and NATO airstrikes helped UN forces on the ground to check further advances of Serbian forces.  Furthermore, after Serbs started to threaten safe area of Bihać, which capture would represent huge humanitarian catastrophe, US acted further by forging an alliance between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia and provided military training for Croatian troops.  In line with this agreement now well-equipped and well-trained Croatian army started operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina aimed into reducing Serbian fighting capacity and cutting Serb transport routes.

In July 1995 two save areas, Srebrenica and Žepa were shamelessly overrun by Serb forces, after which all captured Muslim men were massacred, while the rest of population was deported.  Manwhile, Serbian attack against safe area of Bihać were renewed.  Under US tacit support, combined Croatian and Bosnian forces started series of blitzkrieg operations, which liberated most of Croatia and large areas of western Bosnia.  The offensive was only stopped when the Serbian capital of Banja Luka was under threat of capture.

Pushed by worsened situation on the ground and by increasing decisiveness of the international community, Serbian leaders were finally brought to negotiation table and the war was finished by Dayton Peace Agreement.

Kosovo war (1998-1999)

By some strange yet logical twist, the last chapter of Yugoslav wars was fought in a place where everything started decade and half before.

Kosovo Albanians formed paramilitary forces, which starting in 1995 launched attacks targeting Serbian law enforcement in Kosovo.  Organization slowly strengthened through years through weapons smuggling and looting police and army posts.  As a response, in 1998 Serb paramilitaries and regular forces began pursuing a campaign of retribution targeting Albanian fighters as well as political opponents, resulting in rapes and deaths of many Albanian civilians.  Fighting gradually intensified and as a result more that 10% of population was displaced.

After attempts at a diplomatic solution failed, NATO intervened, justifying the campaign in Kosovo as a humanitarian war.  This precipitated a mass expulsion of Kosovars by Serbs while Yugoslav forces continued to fight during the UN-sanctioned two month-long aerial bombardment of Serbia.  The war ended in 1999 with the Kumanovo Treaty, with Yugoslav forces agreeing to withdraw from Kosovo to make way for an international presence.

After two years of unsuccessful, internationally-mediated negotiations, Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

by Marko Pinteric