The war of Yugoslavian dissolution was fought in three constituent republics during 1991 and 1992. An overview of the fighting in each region is given in this section.
Much of the trouble started brewing in 1990. Like other Communist nations in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia underwent significant economic turmoil and hyperinflation as it tried to rid itself of a socialist economy. Nationalist factions within the ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) walked out on a January 1990 congress and so doing effectively destroyed the party. Yugoslavia’s communists reorganized themselves along republican structures, giving new prominence to the local communist organizations, but without a national party leadership, there was little to check rising nationalism in all the major Yugoslavian republics and when this nationalism combined with Yugoslavians’ growing distaste for the Communists led to non-communist governments being elected in four of the six republics at the next free elections.
In Slovenia, the reformed communist Party for Democratic Renewal was defeated by the DEMOS coalition of anti-communist political parties. In Croatia, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) under Franjo Tjudman gained the majority in the republic’s Parliament.
Bosnia-Hercegovina’s communists were defeated by nationalist groups representing Muslims, Serbs, and Croats with the Muslim Party of Democratic Action gaining power. Macedonian nationalists also gained power in that republic’s elections.
Only in Serbia and Montenegro did the former Communists manage to hold on to power with Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) gaining the majority of seats in Serbia. These elections were indicative of how the nation would later disintegrate from the newly re-ignited nationalist and irredentist unrest.
Following the election of the Croatian Democratic Union, Serbs within Croatia’s borders staged an August 19 referendum calling for Croatian Serb autonomy. When the Croatian government declared the referendum illegal, Serbs in the Krajina region raided government armories and blocked roads and railways leading to the region. Croatian police efforts to put down the uprising met with interference from JNA and Serbian authorities. This in turn sparked HDZ extremists to arm themselves to counter the Serbian insurgency. The situation was made worse when both Croatia and Slovenia assumed command of their regional TDFs and when Slovenia staged a successful separatist referendum.
1991 started with Yugoslavia in military and constitutional crisis. A January 9 Federal Presidential order for all unauthorized forces to disarm was widely ignored. Only emergency diplomatic maneuvers averted clashes between the JNA and Croatian TDF and irregular units over the enforcement of the order. A January 10 meeting among the six republics on reorganizing the Yugoslav federation was a failure as competing visions of the nation could not be reconciled. In February, both Slovenia and Croatia emplaced secession legislation and signed a mutual defence pact against JNA intervention.
Ethnic tensions continued to rise in the region as a result of three events. In February, the Serbs in Krajina declared their secession from Croatia. Then in March, 100,000 anti-SPS protestors in Belgrade organized by the Serbian Renaissance Party’s Vuk Draskovic were met with riot police and JNA troops using tanks and APCs. The violent Belgrade clashes caused a great deal of concern over the combative nature of the Milosevic government and the potential use of the JNA to settle civil disorder. Also on March 1, armed Serbs police in Pakrac in Krajina attempted to disarm their Croatian colleagues and started a riot as thousands of ethnic Serbs in the town came out to show their support. 200
Croatian ”specijalici” riot police were sent in later in the day. The next day, the JNA were deployed in Pakrac to restore order and force the Croatian special police from the area.
Fighting within Krajina would continue and grow in intensity in May. Gun battles occurred in Plitvice National Park, bombs exploded in Knin, and the JNA occupied Kijevo. May encompassed several JNA crackdowns on Croat and Serb fighting in Krajina with armored units occupying many of the villages around Knin and paratroopers relieving the Serb-besieged Kijevo. Adding to the tensions in May were the Krajina and Croatian secessionist referendums. Krajinans voted 90% to remain part of Yugoslavia, while 92.2% of Croatians voted for secession. It was on this stage of ethnic tension that Croatia and Slovenia jointly declared their independence and so started the war of Yugoslavian dissolution.
The formal declaration of Slovenian independence came on June 25, 1991 and brought forth an immediate call for military intervention from the Federal parliament. Two days later, almost 2,000 JNA troops were mobilized to seize border crossings on the Slovenian borders of Austria, Hungary, and Italy. After twelve hours of pushing through roadblocks and heavily armed resistance, the JNA reached and seized the crossings. The Slovenian airports were closed down and the Ljubljana airport came under JNA airstrikes. June 28th saw a brief halt to JNA activities and the implementation of a fragile European Community-brokered ceasefire, which quickly fell apart and sporadic fighting continued throughout Slovenia. The Slovenian TDF proved its effectiveness in a well-organized campaign against the JNA in which it was able to stage effective blockades of JNA troops before a second ceasefire was implemented. On July 3, the JNA began returning to its Slovenian barracks allowing an uneasy peace to settle during the summer.
Slovenia had participated in EC-sponsored talks with Croatia and the Federal Government on the island of Brioni on July 7. This called for a ceasefire and a three-month moratorium on the implementation of Slovenian and Croatian independence declarations. Three months later, on October 7, Slovenia once again declared its independence and dissociated itself from Yugoslavia. This was accepted by the Yugoslav government, who agreed to withdraw JNA troops and hand over military equipment by October 25th. Slovenia had attained its sovereignty.
Like Slovenia, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia on June 25th, 1991. Unlike Slovenia, however, the JNA fought a campaign of territorial conquest with much of the fighting revolving around protecting the Serb-dominated regions of Krajina and Slavonia.
Eastern Croatia and Krajina came under heavy conflict with JNA, Serbian irregulars, and Croatian ZNG all fighting over the same territory, despite the Brioni and the later Ohrid peace talks. The overmatched Croatian ZNG was unable to prevent a steady advance of Serb/JNA forces across Eastern Croatia and lost several villages to armored and infantry thrusts by August. The fighting also produced a significant refugee problem within Yugoslavia, with nearly 90,000 people being displaced internally and several thousand fleeing to Hungary.
By September, international pressure forced further EC-brokered ceasefire talks, but the ceasefires were unable to hold for more than a few hours. Croatians were able to regain some control over the fighting by blockading of 15 army bases, which quickly surrendered on September 15 with their equipment. That same day, the JNA bombed and shelled Ploce where Croatian forces had pillaged a naval base for weapons. On September 19, a JNA armored column also moved into Slavonia near Osijek to engage Croatian defenders in the heaviest fighting of the war and on September 22, they had gained control of Petrijna and several other towns. At this point, the JNA was suffering heavily from desertions and agreed to a ceasefire which lasted to month’s end. The ceasefire gave Croatian forces the opportunity to improve their positions by moving armored units and heavy artillery into new combat positions. Most of the Croatian equipment had been captured from the surrendered JNA bases.
When the fighting began again on October 1, the Croatians were in a much better position to stall the disintegrating JNA and Serbian forces. Croatian forces fought hard to capture JNA garrisons within Croatia. In response, the Yugoslav navy blockaded and attacked the Croatian ports of Dubrovnik, Ploce, Pula, Rujeka, Sebenik, Split, and Zadar, which created severe shortages of water and electricity in those cities. A few days later, on October 8, Croatia declared its independence.
Fighting would continue in Croatia until the beginning of the new year. HOS staged attacks into Serbia (November 5,6), Vukovar fell to Serbian forces (November 17), and the JNA launched renewed offensives against Dubrovnik, Osijek, Karlovac, and Sisak (December 27) while Croatia managed to recapture parts of western Slavonia (December 20). Then, on January 3, a lasting ceasefire ended the major fighting in Croatia as the United Nations granted recognition to Slovenia and Croatia. Although the ceasefire would be sporadically and continually violated in the coming months, the war in Croatia was over. Peace was ensured by the deployment in March of a 14,000-member UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to the regions of Slavonia and Krajina.
With its multiethnic population, it was only a matter of time before Bosnia-Hercegovina became the scene of bitter ethnic fighting in the war of Yugoslavian dissolution. The people of Bosnia consist primarily of Muslims but with Serbs and Croats both strongly represented in the balance. But ethnic fighting is a deceptive term, implying that there is no greater purpose to the war than killing one’s neighbors. The Bosnian war was not about ethnic hatreds and the term was used only as post-facto justification. Instead, the war occurred because of a mix of irredentism and expansionism.
By January 1992, the Serbian leadership knew that Yugoslavia no longer existed except as “Greater Serbia” and their main concern then became the enlarging of Serbian lands so that they would have the biggest territory when the ashes settled. Bosnia, with its large Serbian population and borders to Krajina would have appeared the best region for a territorial war.
The Bosnian government had made legislative changes to prepare for independence in October 1991 with an independence plebiscite held on November 9-12. The people of the republic voted overwhelmingly for independence, although it was claimed that the Serb-dominated Krajna (sic) had voted 90% in favor of remaining with Yugoslavia. This split was enough to frighten the European Community from granting Bosnia-Hercegovina international recognition in January 1992, in the belief that doing so would lead to ethnic fighting. This did not prevent the Serbs from declaring the Autonomous Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia-Hercegovina on January 9 and removing themselves from independence debates in the Bosnian government.
Tensions would increase between the three ethnic groups in Bosnia. On February 24, a bomb injured 12 people in an Odzak Croatian Cultural Center. Three days later, another bomb in Banja Luca damaged the central mosque. Tensions would rise even higher following a February 29-March 1 referendum on independence when 99.4% of the voters preferred independence. Bosnian Serbs boycotted the vote and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said that an independent Bosnia was unacceptable and there were several clashes between Serbs and Muslims in Sarajevo and Bosanski Brod. This did not stop Bosnian President Alija Izbetgovic from proclaiming the republic’s independence on March 3.
Although diplomacy would defuse the tensions for the next few weeks, by month’s end, fighting had broken out between Bosnian Serbs and Croats in Bosanski Brod and Neum. On March 27, the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina and its loyalty to Yugoslavia were proclaimed.
Amid intensifying fighting in April, Bosnia-Hercegovina received international recognition. The fighting occurred all across the new republic, with Serbs attempting to capture and hold territory where possible. The goal of the Serbs at this point was to open an overland corridor from Serbia to Bosanska Krajina and the Serbian Republic of Krajina in Croatia and in this they had succeeded by month’s end. They captured Zvornik, Srebrenica, and Bratunac and were poised to besiege and shell Sarajevo by April 21.
The fighting in Bosnia then settled into a pattern of intense fighting broken by short-lived ceasefires as the war became a state of siege against the Bosniak and Croat citizens of Bosnia-Hercegovina. In May, the JNA forces, which had been supporting the Bosnian Serbs, had all non-Bosnian members recalled to Yugoslavia. This left 55,000 Bosnian Serb JNA members still in Bosnia and they and their equipment were assigned to the Bosnian Serb Army.
Then in June, Federal Croatian forces entered Bosnia in force to assist Bosnian Croats in expanding Croat-held territories around Bosanski Brod, Mostar, and Travnik, thus creating the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosna. This came as a shock to the Bosnian Muslim forces who had previously considered the Croatians as allies. Instead, the Croatians seemed to be cooperating with Serbs in carving up Bosnia. The creation of Herzeg-Bosna was welcomed by Bosnian Serbs as legitimizing their territorial conquests and the creation of ethnic cantons. Muslims treated Herzeg-Bosna as illegal, but did not have the military or political assets to dispute it. Muslim control of Bosnia had by this point shrank to holding the cities of Tuzla, Zenica, Sarajevo, Visegrad, and Gorazde as well as a small pocket north of Bihac. The rest of the nation was split between Serbs and Croats.
Fighting would continue interminably over the summer, although the establishment of a UNPROFOR base at the Sarajevo airport by Canadian and French peacekeepers to permit entry of relief flights was one moment of brightness. The UNPROFOR peacekeepers would be replaced a month later by French, Ukranian, and Egyptian forces who would continue the dispersal of relief supplies to Bosnian citizens over the coming months.
Despite the presence of UNPROFOR in Sarajevo, a lasting peace is not readily forseeable. Peace, when it comes, will have to be a diplomatic, rather than military, solution because none of the belligerents in Bosnia-Hercegovina have the military resources to create their own peace and all are on precarious political and economic footings. However, a diplomatic peace effort is also begarred by the results of the war. Both Bosnian Serbs and Croats have peace plans calling for ethnic cantonments based on the territories they have captured. Bosnian Muslims, however, who make up the majority of the population would be dispossessed under such a plan, which would legitimize Serb and Croat land grabs and the creation of as many as 1 Million Bosniak refugees. To bolster its case for cantonments, the Bosnian Serbs have been engaging in “ethnic cleansing,” which involves forcibly evicting non-Serb residents from Serb-held regions, creating even more refugees.
Many of the refugees have fled to Hungary, Croatia, and Kosovo. Others remain in Bosnia, unable to leave, and ill prepared for the coming winter.
In the long term, the continued fighting in Bosnia must end. No war can continue forever. The only questions are when, and how many will have to die first. This war simply becomes another justification for Blood Vengeance in the next round of fighting.