The Tragedy of Yugoslavia - The Croatian Calamity
August 17th, 1990. Communism, worldwide, is on its deathbed. The Soviet Union is falling apart at the seams, and China moves in an increasingly capitalistic direction. The Berlin wall has fallen, and Germany has been re-united under a western-style government.
Yugoslavia was no exception. The past 10 years have seen decentralization and ethnic nationalism - the two very things that go against communism. The various states are acting as essentially independent actors - much to the ire of Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic, who have visions of a "greater Serbia" spanning the Balkans.
Following the Croatian elections of 1990, in which the League of Communists was crushed handily by a Croatian nationalist party, the Croatian government adopted a new flag and constitution, declaring itself to be the Republic of Croatia. The new Croatian government also forced Serbs living in Croatia to sign "loyalty slips" pledging allegiance, much to the ire of the Serbs. In retaliation against the new government, the Serbs cut down trees and blockaded several important Croatian roads, greatly hampering the government. This was known as the log revolution, and it saw minor skirmishes and fatalities - including several Croat policemen.
Later in 1990, Slovenia held an independence referendum, in which 88% of voters expressed their support for an independent Slovenia. Meanwhile, Milosevic and the Serbian government criticised these referendums as attempts to "destroy Yugoslavia" - though in reality, they had little care for Yugoslavia either, and cared far more for the self-determination of all ethnic Serbs scattered across Yugoslavia. Additionally, the Yugoslavian army (JNA), which was previously a decentralized army held accountable to each regional government, announced a new plan to centralize in Serbia. This was met with large resistance, and several republics simply re-organized their armies, thereby avoiding handing them over to Serbian control. In May of 1991, Croatia held an independence referendum, with 94% of Croats desiring an independent Croatia. The Serbs in Croatia, meanwhile, had boycotted the referendum.
On the 25 of June, 1991, both Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. In response, the Yugoslav army (controlled by Serbia) invaded Slovenia, however, Slovenian resistance was simply too strong. Slovenian guerilla fighters destroyed tank columns and severely slowed the advance of the JNA. Furthermore, Slovenia was of no major interest to Milosevic - it had no ethnic Serbian population, while nearby Croatia had a large Serbian population. After 10 days of fighting in Slovenia, a ceasefire and independence agreement were reached, while the JNA positioned itself to attack Croatia.
The JNA began to overrun large areas of Croatia (around 1/3 of the country's area), mostly areas which had a presence of ethnic Serbs. The first major instance of war happened in Vukovar, where 36,000 JNA troops and Serbian militiamen besieged a mixed, wealthy city of Croats and Serbs. The JNA fired thousands of artillery shells and rockets daily, besieging the cities 2000 Croat defenders for 87 days before they finally gave in. Vukovar was the first European city destroyed by war since the destruction of Dresden in 1945 by Allied bombers - and after 87 days, the casualties were high. Around 2,000 Croatian soldiers and civilians were killed, while around 1300 JNA and Serb forces were killed. This doesn't include the 300 or so Croat civilians who were massacred after the battle ended.
The tenacity of Croat resistance at Vukovar, however, dampened on the morale of the Serbs and JNA. Even with an 18-1 manpower advantage, it still took 87 days and the complete annihilation of a city in order to produce a Serbian victory. In October of 1991, the Serbs besieged Dubrovnik, a city on the coast of the Adriatic sea with a large Serbian minority. While the Serbs managed to score initial victories, capturing the hills surrounding the coastal city, the Croat forces managed to hold out in the end, much to the dismay of Milosevic and Serbia.
Invigorated by their success at Dubrovnik, the Croats launched operation Orkan-91 in an effort to recapture Western Slavonia. This operation was a partial success. Croat advances were initially successful, but by the end of Orkan-91, they were too exhausted to push any further - and the weather was not helping, with an average reported temperature of around 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Reports also suggest that the JNA was brought to the brink of collapse, as they had lost around half a thousand soldiers and a large chunk of territory. Following Orkan-91, a ceasefire known as the Vance plan was signed, in which the JNA agreed to pull out of Croatia and refugees were allowed to return to their home, along with the demilitarization of Serb-held parts of Croatia.
With the failure of the JNA as an effective fighting force, the Serbs re-organized at the end of 1991. The Republic of Serbian Krajina was born. This state was essentially a puppet state of Serbia and had no international recognition, as well as a terrible economy. Serbian Krajina had little economic resources and was essentially destroyed by war, and this, along with the ongoing war in Bosnia (which I will cover next) made it impossible to form any trade relations with the outside world. Nevertheless, the border between Serbian Krajina and Croatia was essentially frozen until 1995.
On May 1st, 1995, Croat forces launched Operation Flash, a massive attack into Serb-held Western Slavonia. This offensive pitted 7200 Croat soldiers against 3500 Serbs - a 2:1 manpower advantage. Over the course of the next two days, Croatia managed to capture 220 square miles of territory, displacing around 13000 Serbs. Croat forces eventually managed to advance down the Zagreb-Belgrade motorway and capture the town of Okucani, effectively ending Serbian rule in Western Slavonia. Roughly 500 soldiers died in the fighting, and the Serbs launched rockets against Zagreb in retaliation, killing seven.
The final nail in the Serb coffin was delivered on August 4th, 1995, when around 100,000 Croat soldiers launched Operation Storm. This operation was the largest land battle in Europe since the end of World War II. Ultimately, the Croat forces were simply too strong. They were able to identify key weak-points in Serbian lines and achieve breakthroughs, in a manner which eerily mirrored the German Blitzkrieg of half a century earlier. Serbian forces, in a manner of a few hours, found themselves cut off into various pockets of resistance, and were ultimately encircled and wiped out by the Croats. Ultimately, the Croats managed to recapture around 4,000 square miles of territory and essentially wipe Serbian Krajina off the map, retaking key towns like Lika and Gracac. Around 200,000 Serbs also fled the region. By this point, Croatia had control over nearly all of its territory, while the Serbs were more focused on the war in Bosnia.
With the Erdut agreement in November of 1995, the Croatian war of Independence was essentially over. Agreements were made on the return of refugees, and Croatia began the long process of re-integrating the war-torn former Serb territory. However, the war on Bosnia was still ongoing - and ultimately, the fate of the entire Balkan region was still up in the air.
The human toll of the Croatian war is also staggering. Around half a million people were displaced, and around 15-20,000 were killed. Ethnic massacres were common during the war, and Croatian infrastructure in the eastern half of Croatia was completely destroyed. The Croatian economy had lost 37 billion dollars. Even today, tensions between Serbia and Croatia are still extremely high. Nevertheless, unlike most wars of today, the outcome has been relatively clear. Croatia's borders are well defined and Croatia as a whole is a stable country. Tragically, however, the Balkans still have major problems - and a repeat of war is entirely possible.