Balkan Special Report
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Tudjman/Reuters Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman. (Reuters)

The fall of communism brought much uncertainty to Yugoslavia in 1990, encouraging nationalist sentiments in several of its republics. In Croatia, the first, free post-World War II elections produced a landslide victory for Franjo Tudjman's nationalist-oriented Croatian Democratic Union party – a group that very early proclaimed its distaste for both the ethnic Serbs living in Croatia and their cousins in Serbia, where Yugoslavia's federal capital was located.

The nationalist fervor in Croatia led to great tension among Croats and Serb ethnic groups, who still held centuries-old prejudices against each other despite living together under communism. Ethnic Croatian Serbs, in particular, feared the reincarnation of a pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia – one that during World War II killed thousands of Serbs in concentration camps. Similarly, Tudjman and other Croats believed that the Serbs held designs on incorporating Croatian territory, particularly the region of Krajina, into a "Greater Serbia."

The mistrust and tensions eventually gave way to scattered fighting in Croatia and bickering between the two republics. In 1991, Serbian separatists in Croatia began a series of attacks on Croatian police units, killing more than 20 by the spring. That May, Serbia added to the hostilities by blocking the installation of Stipe Mesic, a Croat scheduled to be the chairman of a rotating presidency in Yugoslavia – a move that technically left the country without a leader. In June 1991, Croatia struck back declaring their independence from Yugoslavia. (Croatia's independence was later recognized by the European Community, the United States, and the United Nations in 1992.)

Full-scale fighting between Croats and Serbs developed almost immediately, with Yugoslavia's military backing the Serbian separatists in their fight in Krajina. Serbs gains came quickly, as Yugoslav planes strafed and rocketed Croatian villages and insurgents on the ground took the Croat stronghold of Kostajnica. By the end of 1991, Croatian Serbs had gained control of nearly one-third of the country.

Mediation efforts led by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance did manage to produce a cease-fire agreement in Croatia in January 1992, but sporadic fighting continued. United Nations peace keepers, in particular, had difficulty disarming combatants inside the internationally protected areas set up under the agreement.

As tensions continued to smolder beneath the surface in Croatia in mid-1992, an all-out war broke out in neighboring Bosnia between the republic's ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Croats. The Bosnian conflict drew in participants from all sides, including Croatia, which backed the Bosnian Croats in their fight mainly with Bosnian Serbs but also in sporadic conflicts with its supposed ally, the Bosnian Muslims.

In late 1992, Croatian army forces began attacking Bosnian Serb communities in southeastern Bosnia Herzegovina, unraveling a Bosnian-declared cease-fire and drawing a warning from Yugoslavia, which threatened to intervene on behalf of the Serbs. Croatian army forces would later break Croatia's one-year-old cease-fire as well in January 1993, crossing a U.N. dividing line and attacking Serb-occupied territory in Krajina.

The January Croatian assault, which derailed peace talks across all of the Balkans, brought a brief return of fighting, but still not a complete resumption of the all-out war that characterized the latter half of 1991. Indeed, a relative calm in Croatia followed for several months into early 1994, with U.N. peace keepers monitoring the front line positions of ethnic Serbs and Croat army forces.

In March, Croatia and Serb rebels signed another cease-fire, this time with both sides agreeing to withdraw their fighters away from a 600-mile confrontation line running down the middle of the country. The cease-fire, however, would prove short-lived as fighting in Bosnia once again drew in the Croatian army.

In late 1994, after Bosnian and Croatian Serbs joined forces to launch an attack on the Muslim enclave of Bihac (located across the border from Serb-occupied Krajina), Croatia announced that it would enter the Bosnian conflict to support the Muslims.

Croatia's pledge to intervene in Bosnia was not surprising, given a spring 1994 deal in which the Bosnian government and the Croats agreed to focus their combined efforts on fighting ethnic Serbs. Croatia also had no desire to see Serbs near the Bihac area, which would put them dangerously close to Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Initially, the 1994 Serb attack on Bihac produced only smaller skirmishes between Croatian army forces and rebel Serb forces in nearby Krajina, with Serbs clinging to their gains from 1991. By mid-1995, though, Croatia began to flex its muscles. Having laid out an estimated $1 billion to upgrade its military the previous year, Croatia launched several offensives in 1995, seizing a 200-square-mile area of Krajina from the Serbs in May, and, in late July, sending several thousand troops some 50 miles into Bosnia – a maneuver that cut off a key Serb supply route to Krajina.

Croatian gunners/Reuters A Croatian Army gun crew fires at Croatian Serb positions near the Adriatic Sea in August 1995. (Reuters)

In August 1995, the Croatian army launched a full-scale invasion to recover all of the Serb-held areas in Krajina. Some 200,000 Serbs fled to Serb-held areas of Bosnia or to Serbia, as Croatian troops quickly reclaimed rebel strongholds such as Knin, and other cities. Within a week, Croatia proclaimed victory in its battle to recover Krajina.

Croatia's lopsided victories in Krajina and Bosnia helped produce momentum toward peace talks for the Muslim republic, with the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia (representing the Bosnian Serbs) agreeing to the basic principles for a settlement by September. During that period, though, Croatian soldiers continued their campaign of terror through Krajina, burning and looting property and engaging in mass killings of ethnic Serbs.

The Dayton agreement reached in November 1995 brought a general peace to the region, with mass violence by Croats against Serbs generally halting by the end of 1995. The following year, the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague imposed its first sentence in the prosecution of Balkan war crimes: a Croat foot soldier accused of helping to execute more than 1,000 Muslim civilians in Bosnia.

Occasional violence against Serbs in Croatia continued into 1997 and 1998, but far from the coordinated attacks conducted during the 1991-95 war. One big development in post-war reconciliation efforts came in October 1997, when Croatia facilitated the hand over of 10 suspects to the war crimes tribunal, including Dario Kordic – a Bosnian Croat considered one of the most wanted by the Hague.

With peace generally in place, Croatia began the process of rebuilding its shattered economy – an area with which the country continues to face uphill challenges after years of communist mismanagement and war damage to bridges, power lines, and roads. – Tim Ito, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive producer

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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