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Disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Croatian experience of returning temporarily occupied territories to Ukraine


The author of this article in 1993-97 worked as a consul at the Consulate General of Ukraine in Belgrade and the Embassy in Yugoslavia, which were the only official representation of Ukraine in the former Yugoslavia until 1995, as a direct witness to the wars in Croatia (1991-95) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) (1992-95). In 2002-06 he worked as Deputy Ambassador of Ukraine to Croatia and BiH, and in 2010-17 as Ambassador of Ukraine to these two countries. In 1984-85 he studied at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade, as a Balkan historian, diplomat and closely monitored the causes of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, their development and postwar settlement. The author held dozens of personal meetings with all important Croatian military and politicians related to the military. D. Domazet-Lošo, Chief of the General Staff of the so-called “Army of the Republika Srpska” M. Novaković) and Peaceful Reintegration (President of the Republic of Croatia (2000-08) S. Mesić, Head of the Government of National Salvation of the Republic of Croatia F. Gregurić (1991-92) , Speakers of the Croatian Parliament V. Šeks, L. Bebič, Deputy Speakers of the Parliament of the Republic of Croatia J. Leko, A. Sanader, J. Rainer, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia M. Granič (1993-2000), Head of the Vukovar-Srijem Region B. Halych.

The break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), consisting of six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and the two autonomous regions of Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina, was accompanied by political and military conflicts that escalated into real wars. The SFRY was a political extension of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SCS), which was established in the South Slavic peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in the autumn of 1918 due to the defeat in World War I, and Serbia itself. . In 1929, the SCS was transformed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After World War II, the Communists came to power in Yugoslavia, creating a federal state of six republics and two autonomous regions. But the defeat of the socialist system in the struggle against the capitalist mode of production resulted in the disintegration of the SFRY and the creation of six independent states based on the former republics, which were also joined by Kosovo, which has not yet received full international recognition.

Slovenia and Croatia were the first to declare their independence from the SFRY in 1991. Belgrade then sent the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to suppress national liberation movements. The so-called “Ten-Day War” took place in Slovenia (June 27-July 6, 1991), which resulted in the death of several dozen people (66 people) and the conclusion of an agreement on the withdrawal of JNA units from Slovenian territory and the declaration of independence. As for Croatia, the UNA, relying on the local Serbian national minority, which made up 13% of the country’s population, helped create a separatist union, the so-called Republika Srpska Republika Srpska (RSK), based in Knin. The defeat of the Croatian army, which was virtually unarmed (at the time there was an international resolution banning the supply of weapons to the former Yugoslavia) by the JNA and separatist armed forces in the second half of 1991, led to the loss of 27% of Croatia. In 1992, the military-political situation in Croatia stabilized, and every year that followed, Zagreb recaptured small parts of its territory.

Ukraine is not the first European country to face the problem of temporarily occupied territories. There are those who cannot regain their lands for decades, but there are also success stories that have ended in reintegration. In the Ukrainian media, politicians and experts often refer to the successful Croatian experience. Of course, the military liberation operations “Lightning” and “Storm” in early May and early August 1995 are mentioned, which, thanks to well-planned and well-planned actions of the Croatian army, allowed to return most of the territories occupied since 1991. Therefore, August 5, the day of Operation Storm and the liberation of the city of Knin, which for several years was the center of the so-called separatist formation. The “Republic of Serbian Country” is celebrated annually in Croatia at the state level as a celebration of victory in the Patriotic War (and in neighboring Serbia at the same time memorial services are held for war victims and refugees from Croatia).

Thus, on August 5, 1995, a seemingly just victory knocked on the door of a country that was fighting to the death for the preservation of its state sovereignty and territorial integrity. It would seem that at the beginning of the conflict, the international community and the entire civilized world should have helped Croatia defend its independence in accordance with the norms and principles of international law. But in reality everything was very difficult, and often quite tragic. And this life experience should be taken into account by all those who deal with such an important topic as the return of the temporarily occupied territories. Not every Croat who went through the war will say: you have to rely, first of all, on yourself. If you ask the Croats about the use of peacekeepers in this war, the comment will be something like this: they hindered more than they helped when we talk about the period 1991-94. It is said that the peacekeepers actually fixed the line of demarcation between the Croatian troops and the territories temporarily occupied by the separatists, but there was no international mandate and sometimes no political will to return these territories to Croatia. Of course, this applies only to the problem of military reintegration, because with the peaceful component everything is different. In 1995, the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission was changed and without the international community, a peaceful return to the temporarily occupied territories would have been impossible.

And what is useful in the experience of Croatia for Ukraine? Are there similarities in situations with a difference of 20-25 years? The Croatian experience certainly deserves careful study and use by the Ukrainian side. No wonder Moscow became so nervous when Zagreb began cooperating with Kyiv on this issue. Thus, in early 1991, before the start of hostilities, the aggressor launched a media attack on Croatia. The TV channels, which were often watched by Croatian viewers, were flooded with misinformation about the actions of the official Croatian authorities. The Croatian side was blamed for the aggression, which at the time was barely repelling the attackers. The state elite and all those who supported it were accused of fascism. No wonder. It’s just that in the former Yugoslavia, Soviet developments on hybrid warfare were already being used. First, checkpoints appear in areas where the national minority lives compactly, then volunteers come en masse from the neighboring country (there are no Cossacks there historically, then they were replaced by football fans), followed by military personnel. The national minority receives weapons from those who stir up the conflict, and at some point becomes a military-separatist majority. All these actions were overseen by the Russian General Staff and foreign intelligence. The Yugoslav direction was then headed by General of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Ivanov, the future Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, and at the time of the Russian attack on Ukraine (2014) – the head of the presidential administration Vladimir Putin. So don’t be surprised by the similarities in the war scenarios in Croatia and Ukraine. In order to discredit the Croatian volunteers, many fakes were prepared, in particular, a TV story was prepared about the defenders of Vukovar, alleging that they killed small children, cut off their little fingers and made a kind of necklace. Here is a variation on the topic of fake Russian information about a crucified boy in Donbass. The theory of information warfare teaches that a hundred well-prepared propaganda articles or TV reports are more effective than a hundred state-of-the-art tanks. For Kyiv, this lesson means that in addition to building modern Oplot tanks for the Ukrainian army, we must adopt advanced methods of countering Russian information aggression. It is necessary to constantly prepare and submit a quality information product to the temporarily occupied territories. The struggle for the opinions of the people in the occupied parts of Donbass and Crimea must take place continuously.

The Croatian experience is reminiscent of another important factor in victory – the fighting spirit of the troops. It is clear that when you protect your home, your family, the integrity of the state – the fighters are highly motivated. Former Croatian soldiers will remind you of the constant moral superiority in the fight against the enemy, although in the first year of the Patriotic War there were huge problems in obtaining weapons, and then the enemy could tactically win. At that time, there was an international embargo on arms supplies to the conflict region, so the Croats had to find hidden channels to obtain weapons. The Croatian diaspora made a significant contribution here, transferring huge sums of money to Zagreb.

In order to overcome the catastrophic situation after the occupation of 27% of Croatian territory at the end of 1991, a government of national salvation was formed, headed by F. Greguric, which included the best representatives of all political forces in the country. This government worked for a year, but managed to effectively put the economy on the rails of the military economy, stop the decline of major industrial and agricultural indicators, establish effective management in state-owned enterprises and encourage private enterprises to work with full commitment to national interests. That is, in a short time the economy was forced to grow. Now let’s move on to other factors that helped the military reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories. It is necessary to realize that territories located far from the Croatian-Serbian border have been returned by military means. Apparently, it is obvious that it would be easier for us, in a military sense, to return the territories ruled by terrorists if they did not have direct access to the Russian border. Of course, there were corridors that connected the separatists with the territory of Serbia, but they were not wide, they could shoot, so it is incorrect to compare them with the geographical location of the so-called “L / DNR”.

There is another factor in Croatia’s success. Serbian separatist leaders in Croatia and Bosnia (Milan Martic and Radovan Karadzic) quarreled with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic before 1995. At the time, Belgrade even cut aid to puppet armies in the occupied territories. In addition, at a time when the Croatian army was preparing for the final liberation operation “Storm”, Croatia’s top political leadership knew that troops from Serbia would not come to the aid of the separatists. The fact is that Milosevic has received assurances from influential international officials that he will not be held accountable for starting the war if he stops helping the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia militarily. And here is the audacity of the behavior of R. Karadzic and M. Martych. Therefore, when the Croatian army launched a large-scale liberation operation, the main headquarters of the so-called separatists. “Republika Srpska” took an envelope sealed in Belgrade from the safe – an official plan to counter the Croatian offensive. But it turned out that these directives contained only one word: “Retreat.” This completely demoralized the leadership of the so-called “Republic of Serbian Country” (Croatian analogue of “L / DNR”). The civilian population was ordered to pack up immediately and move to the Serbian border. The separatist army offered only sporadic resistance. The Croatian military then deliberately opened corridors for civilians and interested soldiers. This gave the Croatian side a quick and relatively bloodless final victory. Translated into the Ukrainian reality, it is as if Putin refused to support ORDLO during the liberation operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in exchange for lifting sanctions or guarantees of not being brought before an international court. Now all this sounds absolutely incredible. However, it is difficult to deny that here, ie in the key issue, the Ukrainian and Croatian scenarios are too different.

Another important detail is that no political force in Croatia has advocated the secession of separatist territories. If in Ukraine such ideas are sometimes heard from politicians, in Croatia no one even thought of such an idea. In the Croatian sense, this is complete idiocy, because Croats have fought for every piece of their territory for centuries, and to give them away is high-level betrayal, even if local Serbs in those territories have taken up arms against the Croatian state. The Croatian experience also teaches that there are always villains who make a lot of money from war and human suffering. Therefore, we must be aware that this category of people will advocate for a long conflict, usually under the guise of patriotic slogans. And finally, another important thing. The conflict in Croatia bore clear signs of interethnic and interfaith conflict – Serbs with Croats, Orthodox with Catholics. In Donbass, on the other hand, we have confrontations of a more ideological nature without a clear division on religious or national grounds. Perhaps this makes our situation a little easier, because during his life a person can reconsider his worldview values ​​several times, but very rarely changes his nationality or religion.

In 1995, Croatia carried out a fairly successful military reintegration of its temporarily occupied territory, which had been out of government control since 1991, allowing Zagreb to conduct a victorious Operation Storm. This includes the economic development of the state, the victory in the information war, and the heroism of the army. But the success of the military was made possible by several external factors. In particular, because the leader of the Serbian separatists in Croatia, M. Martic, quarreled with the President of Serbia, Milosevic, and the latter, in agreement with world players, refused to provide military assistance to the separatists. The international community’s critical attitude towards Martic, who in 1995 rejected the Z-4 ​​peace plan, which gave Croatian Serbs broad autonomy (almost federal status), also played a role, despite official Zagreb’s clenched teeth saying the plan. previous “yes”. This plan was jointly prepared by the ambassadors of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and France, and its rejection by the separatists was one of the decisive factors in subsequent events. It is also important to understand that the territory liberated by the army from the separatists had a low population density and no common border with Serbia.

There are none of these factors in Ukraine, so it is obvious:

– You should not count on a quick and victorious operation in Donbass according to the Croatian scenario.

– It is unlikely that the Kremlin will quarrel with the ORDLO, it simply controls them.

– The LDNR militants have not officially abandoned the Minsk process, unlike the Serbian separatists.

– Sanctions alone are not enough for such international pressure on Moscow, which would force Russia to stop supporting the separatists.

– The temporarily occupied territory of Donbass is on the border with the Russian border. And geography does not change.

But this does not mean that the Croatian experience is not useful for Ukraine. After all, after the military operation “Storm”, Croatia also used another way to return the territories.

Peaceful reintegration of the temporarily occupied territory

Until the end of the conflict in Donbas, while ensuring the national interests of Ukraine, we can come to a different “Croatian scenario” – not military, but peaceful. Part of the separatist-controlled area of ​​Croatia’s Danube region has not been affected by a military operation against the separatists. In fact, Croatia has seen the only successful example in the history of the United Nations of successfully reintegrating temporarily uncontrolled lands by the central government. And such, peaceful reintegration with the application of the Minsk plan on the Croatian model, has a chance in the Ukrainian realities. After recapturing most of the territory with the help of the army, Zagreb regained the rest through negotiations.

So why didn’t the victorious Operation Storm reach the Danube?

  1. This was the principled position of the then President of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, who understood that in this area, located on the border with Serbia, there are numerous units of the regular Serbian army.
  2. In 1991, separatist authorities expelled most Croats from the Vukovar region.

A military operation would lead to a head-on collision with fighters from a neighboring state, and no one knew how many would arrive in the combat zone in the event of a hot phase. Therefore, even Croatia’s victory in the military liberation operation was to bring significant human losses.

Negotiations with Serbs on the peaceful reintegration of the Croatian Danube region have been held with the participation of the United Nations, local separatists and major international players. An interesting detail: during all phases of the armed confrontation, even at critical moments for Croatian independence, there were direct secret channels of communication between the Croatian leadership and the leader of the aggressor country, S. Milosevic. Moreover, according to the Croatian side (then Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration and then Minister of Justice V. Škare-Ožbolt), they were very useful.

The Erdut Agreement, signed on November 12, 1995, became the international legal basis for peaceful reintegration. It was, to some extent, analogous to our Minsk document. The Erdut Agreement established a transitional period of reintegration, from early 1996 to mid-January 1998. On January 15, 1996, the UN Security Council established the UNTAES Transitional International Administration in the Croatian Danube region, headed by the experienced and authoritative American General Jacques-Paul Klein. The main points of the peace plan were: demilitarization of the territory, establishment of police units for the transition period, start of demining, implementation of pilot projects for refugee return, gradual reintegration of education, culture, health, communal and transport infrastructure, communications. The Croatian side also held another (fourth) amnesty for the participants in the hostilities and undertook to hold local elections in the temporarily occupied territories during the transition period. And this is another very important analogy with the Ukrainian realities, because we often hear about the inadmissibility of pardoning militants and holding local elections in uncontrolled territories.

Croatian leaders still say the amnesty disorganized the separatists, as those who fought but did not commit crimes were wondering whether or not to exercise their rights. Croats also explain that abandoning the idea of ​​amnesty would force separatists to fight to the last in fierce decisive battles, even when defeat is obvious. Instead, the amnesty gave a chance for the future to those who lay down their arms. Another crucial issue is the holding of local elections in the temporarily occupied territories. Croatia has held elections in temporarily uncontrolled territories, not perceiving them as fatal. According to the then head of the Croatian Central Election Commission, Branko Horvatin, “everyone understood perfectly well how locals would vote in areas not controlled by the government, and they were aware of the possibility of fraud. But the main thing for Zagreb was that the elections were held under Croatian law and only those political forces registered exclusively in the Croatian legal field took part in them. ” And, of course, the UN mission monitored the election process. In addition, all deportees from the temporarily occupied territories had the right to vote at polling stations throughout Croatia. These votes were added to the final results of the elections on the uncontrolled part, adjusting their result.

If transferred to Ukrainian soil, it would be something like this: students of Donetsk University, who previously lived in the occupied territories, vote in local elections in Vinnytsia, where they study, or in other cities, but their votes do not affect Vinnytsia city or regional council, and are added to the results of elections in Donetsk, Makeyevka or Debaltseve. To do this, polling stations need to be set up across Ukraine, where migrants from Donbass could take part in the elections at their new place of residence.

By the way, in the first months of the war, a state register of exiles was created in Croatia, the needs of which were taken care of by a specially created state body. “Assistance was provided in a targeted manner, it was clear where the exile and his family live, what they do, what their needs are,” –  said L. Peykovych, the then head of the body.

In mid-1996, after the demilitarization, the transitional police began to operate, whose personnel were automatically enrolled in the Croatian Ministry of the Interior a month before the end of the transition period, ie in 1998. According to the peace agreements, all regional departments were to consist of half local Serbs and the other half Croats. Patrolled exclusively in a mixed composition. There were two co-leaders in each regional department – a Serb and a Croat. It was forbidden to talk about politics in regional departments. Want to talk? Please at home in the kitchen. Former separatist police officers worked in the transitional police force, but only those who did not take part in the fighting. This requirement also applied to Croats. Representatives of Croats and Serbs sometimes wrote reports that they could no longer work on joint patrols. Psychologists talked to anyone who doubted, and if the decision was final – recruited others, those who had the will to work together. The head of the transitional police, then Deputy Interior Minister Josko Moric, assured the author of these lines that none of the Serb police officers who served the separatists had committed an unworthy act during the “transition period”. Why so – it was mainly a matter of honor.

The transition period lasted two years. Six months before its completion, Croatian currency became the means of payment in the temporarily occupied territories, and Croatian customs posts appeared at the border crossings between these areas and with Serbia and Hungary. During the transition period, the President of Croatia visited the temporarily occupied territories several times, where a “peace train” with diplomats and journalists traveled. However, in a peacefully integrated territory, misunderstandings still arise on an interethnic basis. On the other hand, in the territories that have been reintegrated militarily, such excesses are almost not recorded.

The explanation is simple: where Operation Storm took place, there are virtually no people left who once supported the separatists. And we had to work hard to restore confidence in the Danube. Following the signing of the Erdut Agreement, a governmental Committee on Peaceful Reintegration was set up in Croatia, and a few months before the end of the transition period, a National Commission for Mutual Trust. Then they set up a special government program to rebuild housing for the Serb minority. Yes, this is not a mistake – there is a special body to help those who recently supported the separatists.

The Croatian government (with some help from the international community) has deliberately allocated funds to support Serbian families, while former Croatian exiles have begun rebuilding their homes, often at their own expense. At the time, no one was happy about it, but no one was shouting at the whole world about “Croatia’s betrayal.”

Local Serbs or Serb exiles (for example, from Bosnia) lived in the abandoned houses of Croatian exiles for a long time, and their eviction was not always quick. Even five years after the peaceful reintegration was completed, I, as a diplomat, had to personally seek the support of the head of the International Observer Mission in Vukovar to return home to a Croatian exile, a Ruthenian, who was inhabited by a Serb neighbor during the war. house). The issue was finally resolved, although the owner of the house could not understand why the neighbor did not want to vacate his property for five years. This example is an illustration of the patience and tolerance that is sometimes needed if a country chooses peaceful reintegration.

The example of Vukovar, a hero city that defended itself at the most critical time for Croatia, is illustrative. Vukovar was a ghost town, where 70% of the housing stock was destroyed by shelling. Today, it is a rebuilt city with virtually no ruins. Not only is the half-ruined water tower rebuilt, which has become a symbol of the fight against the aggressor. And mutual human trust has not been fully rebuilt. But that is changing. The author has been communicating with Vukovar residents for 15 years and has every reason to say that time heals wounds. Although echoes of the conflict are still heard. When government placards began to be duplicated in Cyrillic (Serbian), it led to unrest among local Croats. But the state intervened and ended the conflict.

Once a group of Ukrainian officials and journalists came to Croatia to study the experience of military and peaceful reintegration. I remember their meeting in Vukovar with local officials who once came to work in the temporarily occupied territory when the occupying forces and the occupation administration left, but the territory was not yet controlled by the Croatian government. They still work there today. The stories were different, but almost everyone agreed: it is very good that we managed to agree and return these lands peacefully. But there was one exception to the rule. The head of the Vukovar-Srijem County office (head of the region), who headed one of the local communities in 1998, said that if the territories were returned to the military, there would be far fewer problems. He wished Ukraine to resolve the issue by military means, “once and for all”, adding: “The problems accumulated after the peaceful reintegration drank as much blood from him that you would not wish on anyone.” There has been silence… We have known him for more than 10 years, and I asked if the army had liberated five villages in his community that would have killed at least 20 Croatian soldiers. Are the lives of the problems brought about by peaceful accession worth saving? And this official, who at one time was an active participant in hostilities, then replied: “I agree, of course, it’s worth it.”

I write about this with one conviction: Ukraine, with the help of the international community, will one day be able to relatively quickly and effectively reintegrate the temporarily occupied territories of Donbass and Crimea in a peaceful way. And then we will desperately need the Croatian experience.

Alexander LEVCHENKO, expert,

Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine to the ARC in 2006-07,

  Ambassador of Ukraine to Croatia 2010-17


Implemented within the project “Information Platform” Voice of Crimea. Culture “- about Crimea honestly, qualitatively, actually” with the support of the Media Development Fund of the US Embassy in Ukraine. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the US government.


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