20 December 2001, Volume
NOTE TO READERS:
The next issue of "RFE/RL South Slavic Report" will appear on 10 January 2002.
HOW TO EVALUATE CROATIA'S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE?
Part II. Part I appeared on 13 December 2001.
Radio Most (Bridge) by RFE/RL's Omer Karabeg with historians Zeljko Kruselj from Zagreb and Predrag Markovic from Belgrade.
In 1991, a part of the Croatian military and political leadership wanted to provoke a conflict, which makes them a deserving partner of the JNA [Yugoslav People's Army] and the rebel Serbs. They all agreed that the conflict was needed in order to resolve some issues concerning both sides and for which they were not able to see any other solution but war.
Another thing is that at the outset of the conflict, [then-Croatian President Franjo] Tudjman was not interested in escalation. One must bear in mind that Tudjman strongly opposed General [Martin] Spegelj's plan to seize most of the JNA's barracks in Croatia.
Tudjman's policy could be defined this way: first a little bit of diplomacy, then a little bit of fighting, two steps forward, one step back. The Yugoslav side or the JNA's General Staff acted the same way. This is why some extremely illogical things happened concerning troop movements on both sides. Tudjman would make his troops go and stop, go and stop -- and it was never clear who actually was waging war and with which goals.
The most controversial issue seems to be the character of the Croatian army's Operation Oluja (Storm), which ended the war in Croatia in the late summer of 1995. Mr. Markovic, how do you see that operation?
From the Serbian point of view, the most interesting thing about Oluja is that Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian and Yugoslav leadership reacted with indifference, just as they did a few months earlier during Operation Bljesak (Flash). I was shocked when, while Bljesak was under way, people in Belgrade celebrated May Day by dancing the traditional kolo, listening to popular singers, and roasting lambs at the picnic grounds of Ada Ciganlija.
If they totally ignored Bljesak, they were not able to do the same with Oluja because of the immense wave of refugees that flooded into Serbia.
But the fact is that the Serbs of Croatia were left to their fate. It all started well before Bljesak and Oluja. The surrender of the Kupres plateau and the passes on Mt. Velebit -- which took place long before -- were, in military terms, crucial for the further development of the conflict. Therefore, if we want to determine the exact date when the Serbs from Krajina were left to be crushed by the Croatian army, that happened long before Bljesak and Oluja.
You are trying to say that the Serbian leadership did all they could to help Oluja succeed?
The first time I started to think that way was when I saw Smiljko Sagolj's TV report about the "triumphant" conquest of the Kupres plateau. One could see that the store windows and those in private houses were untouched. There were no signs of fighting.
Therefore, the Kupres plateau, which -- as we know from World War II -- is crucial in military and strategic terms for the region, was simply left to the Croatian army long before Oluja. So were the passes on Velebit, which were later used by the Croatian army for the transit of troops and for logistical purposes.
I do not see anything amazing about that. Milosevic in 1995 was quite different from Milosevic in 1991. The same goes for Tudjman. Their positions essentially changed. The key factor behind those changes in their positions and interests was Bosnia.
One cannot understand the situation in Croatia at that time without bearing in mind the situation in Bosnia, which was getting dangerously complicated. Milosevic became aware that he stood to lose everything because of the increasing concern of the international community, which started to become more and more involved in what was going in the former Yugoslavia.
In that context, he had nothing to gain in Croatia. This is why he -- in essence -- wrote off the Croatian Serbs, since he considered them less important than the Republika Srpska. Oluja could not have been carried out in only three or four days if Milosevic had not made such a decision previously.
On the other side of the border, [Radovan] Karadzic and especially [General Ratko] Mladic -- who previously took part in the war in Croatia in one form or another -- cancelled any serious aid to the Serbs from Krajina. They and Milosevic were well aware that the fight for Croatia was lost since the Croatian army at that moment was far stronger than the army of the Republika Srpska in both technical terms and regarding the number of troops....
Mr. Markovic, do you think that the crimes committed during Oluja were aimed at setting off ethnic cleansing? Were these planned or isolated incidents?
That is hard to say. The crimes were certainly not discouraged. According to what is known so far, there is no evidence whatsoever that the leadership of the Croatian army and state tried to prevent them, just as other leaderships in other war zones of former Yugoslavia never tried to do so.
Maybe there was an organized spontaneity in those crimes. Maybe the army and the lower levels of military command had received tacit signals [to do something].
As far as the crimes are concerned, it is obvious that there was no formal decision, that is no formal order. What happened happened, even if no written order is ever discovered.
However, one must not forget that the vast majority of the crimes were committed after Oluja. After the operation had been completed and the army had already left, other units arrived and the crimes took place in that chaos.
The fact is that the perpetrators of those crimes are, for the most part, known to the public, as are the crimes they committed. The perpetrators were arrested and brought to justice.... But out of some 500 [arrested], very few were properly sentenced, while most were either acquitted or released from prison much before they would have been in a normal legal system....
Finally, let us return to my first question. Mr. Markovic, how would you characterize the War for Independence in Croatia?
The answer to that question will be different in Serbia and in Croatia. I suppose it must be difficult for the Croatian public to discuss it in a critical way because the war remains necessary for Croatia as a sort of a raison d'etre, as a war that created the state.
But this view will be modified over time. If, for instance, European integration reaches this region, if we all -- within a more or less united region -- become part of a united Europe, it will be hard to define this simply as a war for independence and liberation. A re-evaluation will be in order.
As far as the Serbian public is concerned, it has always been seen as a tragedy and a moral defeat. The public here is quite ill-disposed towards that war.
The only thing that remains unclear to the Serbian public is who should be blamed for the war. According to some polls, the majority opinion is that the Croats should be blamed. A minority think that the main culprit is Milosevic, but they are still a minority.
The majority opinion in Croatia is that the war was the result of Serbian nationalism and the national goal of a Greater Serbia, the pursuit of which ultimately ended in disaster. That view is rejected in Serbia, except in some closed circles, and I do not think it will be accepted for quite some time -- if ever.
I agree with my colleague Markovic that the war will never be seen in Croatia and in Serbia in quite the same way. Few on either side can discuss it in a detached way.
My colleague Markovic said that the war is seen as a moral defeat in Serbia. Most Croats, however, see the War for Independence as a great moral victory and the source of legitimacy for the Croatian state. And that is right.
Croats will nonetheless have to recognize that some in their ranks committed crimes against civilians. This cannot just be explained away. Truth must be confronted.
However, this does not vindicate the Serbian view that the Croats are to be blamed for the war. Back in 1991, no one would have wanted such a conflict because our position was so weak and defeat seemed a certainty.
Of course, truth proved otherwise. The point is that back in 1991, the vast majority of Croats realized that life in what used to be the Yugoslav federation -- as it existed -- simply was not possible anymore.
They felt that Croatia and also Slovenia should seek a loose confederation, or, if that was not possible, that the path towards independence should be peacefully explored. But the events that followed proved differently, and what happened -- happened.