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South Slavic: December 13, 2001

13 December 2001, Volume 3, Number 41


Part I. Part II will appear on 20 December 2001.

Radio Most (Bridge) by RFE/RL's Omer Karabeg with historians Zeljko Kruselj from Zagreb and Predrag Markovic from Belgrade.

RFE/RL: The official view in Croatia is that the War for Independence (1991-95) was a defensive one. That was confirmed by a declaration adopted by the Croatian parliament last year, which said that the war was waged against Serbian aggression. Mr. Kruselj, as a historian, do you agree with that view?

Zeljko Kruselj: Yes, I do share that view because it really was a defensive war, a war for liberation. The vast majority of the Croats share that view and the reason for that is simple -- the war took place in Croatia.

From the Croatian point of view, there is no question about it. The only thing that raises questions is what happened on the margins of the war, like, for instance, the crimes, the ethnic cleansing, and the legacies of such developments....

Croatia had no choice but to go to war. Croatia did not choose to make war. Croatia was an object in the story of the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation.

Predrag Markovic: I am not so sure about the objects and the subjects of the war. After reading [Croatian politician] Hrvoje Sarinic's, [Serbian politician] Borisav Jovic's, [Yugoslav General] Veljko Kadijevic's, and many others' memoirs, one is left with a strong impression that there was a high level of [mutual] understanding about the way the war was to be waged between the then political leaderships of Serbia and Croatia.

It seems to me that, unlike many other wars, this war was not started with the intention of defeating the enemy. That was not obvious even on the Serbian side. The aim of the war does not seem to have been the ultimate destruction of the Croatian state, although one can hardly say what the aim of the war actually was.

On the other side, the war was used by the Croatian regime and the Croatian state to provide themselves with legitimacy, which is not an unusual thing to do. Most newly created states do get legitimized -- historically and politically -- through wars. There is a war at the very beginning of every state, and it remains in the collective memory of the population as a war for liberation, a war that legitimizes the new state.

RFE/RL: Mr. Markovic thinks that the war in Croatia is distinguished by a high level of understanding between the Serbian and Croatian leaderships, implying the existence of direct or at least tacit agreements between the two sides. Mr. Kruselj, what do you make of that theory?

Zeljko Kruselj: I cannot agree with my colleague Markovic. There is, of course, something to what he says, but if you read Sarinic's memoirs carefully, as well as Jovic and Kadijevic, I do not think that you could come up with such a conclusion.

A formal agreement was never made. There were some agreements about Bosnia-Herzegovina, though. However, as far as Croatia is concerned, the story is far more complex. Even if there were some attempts [to cut a deal], they were never realized. One can see it by what happened on the ground. This is why I cannot agree that it was a previously arranged war and that everything was clear from the very beginning.

One can see from Kadijevic's and Jovic's memoirs how war aims were formulated and then later scaled back. Obviously, [then-Croatian President Franjo] Tudjman was also forced to modify his goals as his position improved.

RFE/RL: Mr. Kruselj, do you agree with the dominant view in Croatia that the war was set off by the armed aggression of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA)?

Zeljko Kruselj: There is absolutely no doubt about that. Without the involvement of the Yugoslav People's Army, the rebel Croatian Serbs could have never conquered 26 percent of Croatia's territory. They even conquered parts of Croatia where -- demographically speaking -- there were no Serbs at all. That could have never been done without the cooperation of [General] Ratko Mladic's Knin corps and the Banja Luka corps operating in western Slavonia.

Predrag Markovic: No one can deny that the war took place in Croatia and that it was waged in such a way that towns were destroyed, especially Vukovar, a town that tragically symbolizes that war. I do not deny either that war aims were modified over time.

But no one can explain why the Kupres plateau and the passes of Mt. Velebit -- which were crucial strategic points -- were surrendered to the Croatian army without resistance. That move does not look like a serious attempt to defend the Srpska Krajina.

Episodes like that from the last few years of the war indicate that there was a sort of agreement -- but certainly not a formal one.... If one believes Sarinic's claims, after 1991 [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic was not very interested in the fate of the Croatian Serbs. For him, they were just another episode in his manipulation of the populations of different former Yugoslav regions.

RFE/RL: What you are trying to say is that Milosevic was not really interested in the fate of the Serbs from Krajina. That means he did not really care about Greater Serbia's borders: the Karlovac-Karlobag-Virovitica line that [Radical leader Vojislav] Seselj used to talk about so often.

Predrag Markovic: I think so. What I do not understand is whether Milosevic had a coherent political vision at all. Talking about visions, Tudjman was far more coherent than Milosevic. He seemed to have had a clear plan and he knew what he wanted.

Zeljko Kruselj: I think that, even if he wanted to, Milosevic could not have prevented the Serbs from Krajina from starting their 1991 adventure....

What does Knin mean to Serbia, so remote, in the Croatian mountains? Nothing. It was just a nuisance and that's all. There is no doubt that he did not need the Serbs from Croatia, or at least a part of them. That became obvious in 1995 when Milosevic refused to help them and they were left to face the tragic fate they could not have expected when it all started in 1991.

However, that has nothing to do with the very character of the war.... The war was waged by the reserve police force, special units, and volunteers, who, little by little, created the Croatian army. Obviously it was not a conventional war, but it certainly was a very dirty and bloody war.

RFE/RL: There are many confusing things about that war. For instance, the JNA used all available means to destroy Vukovar but did not close in on Zagreb when Croatian forces were weak. Mr. Kruselj, why do you think the army stopped near Vukovar and why it was so important to them to destroy that town?

Zeljko Kruselj: That question has been discussed in Croatia for quite some time, but so far without any definitive conclusions being drawn. My personal theory is that it was simply colossal stupidity on the part of the JNA.

They probably knew -- since they must have had intelligence information -- how weak Croatia was at that time. I suppose they expected no serious resistance -- and then kept stubbornly attacking Vukovar after they found it well defended....

However, it turned out that, although destroyed, Vukovar was such a painful slap on the wrist for Milosevic and the JNA that they were unable to press on. Ultimately, Vukovar saved Croatia.

Predrag Markovic: I am familiar with the dominant theory in Croatia that the JNA, after having suffered huge losses during the Vukovar operation, faced a collapse in morale and that the demoralization prevented the JNA from going on. However, there are several points that need to be made.

First, Vukovar was never properly encircled. There was a corridor open towards Osijek. I do not know whether it was a blunder, bureaucratic thoughtlessness -- which is no wonder for that relatively inert army -- or an opportunity offered to the defenders of Vukovar to escape using the corridor. The fact is that during the Vukovar operation, the town was connected with Slavonia in the rear, especially with Osijek....

Another interesting thing is the Dubrovnik operation. One must say that the looting of Konavle and the image of Dubrovnik under shellfire represented unprecedented vandalism, and it certainly did resound all over the world. But the fact is that the tragedy of Dubrovnik in a way accelerated the international recognition of Croatia. One of the fiercest attacks on the city took place in December, shortly before Croatia received international recognition. One cannot help but wonder if the two events were connected.

RFE/RL: The war in Croatia was unambiguously defined in The Hague tribunal's indictment of Milosevic. According to the indictment, between August 1991 and June 1992, Milosevic participated in "the criminal enterprise aimed at forceful elimination of all the non-Serb inhabitants from Croatian territory". One might say that the experts from The Hague tribunal who wrote this definition were quite familiar with his war aims.

Zeljko Kruselj: Basically, I agree with that definition. I also think that the war boomeranged back onto the Serbs, particularly if we bear in mind what happened in 1995.

But I would like to return to what my colleague Markovic said about Vukovar. As far as the corridor mentioned by my colleague is concerned, I suppose he is talking about the Marinci-Bogdanovci corridor. That corridor was defended with all available means by the Croatian forces. People were killed there in fierce fighting.

Therefore, the point is not that the Serbian side -- or the JNA -- left a corridor to the Croatian side. When the corridor was finally closed, the fight for Vukovar was over.... It is well-known what happened to Vukovar after its fall, as well as the fury of the JNA when it entered the town....

Predrag Markovic: Allow me to say that before the war started, the Croatian authorities made no effort to calm the Serbian population and persuade them that Belgrade's propaganda was wrong.... The Croatian Serbs had been traumatized by their experiences in World War II and were understandably very nervous. A leadership that wanted to preserve peace would certainly have done something about it.