Under pressure from the EC (now EU), Croatia declared a three-month moratorium on its independence, but heavy fighting broke out in Krajina, Baranja (the area north of the Drava River opposite Osijek) and Slavonia. The 180,000-member, 2000-tank Yugoslav People’s Army, dominated by Serbian Communists, began to intervene on its own authority in support of Serbian irregulars under the pretext of halting ethnic violence.
When the Croatian government ordered a blockade of 32 federal military installations in the republic, the Yugoslav navy blockaded the Adriatic coast and laid siege to the strategic town of Vukovar on the Danube. During the summer of 1991, a quarter of Croatia fell to Serbian militias and the Serb-led Yugoslav People’s Army.
In early October 1991, the federal army and Montenegrin militia moved against Dubrovnik to protest the ongoing blockade of their garrisons in Croatia, and on 7 October the presidential palace in Zagreb was hit by rockets fired by Yugoslav air-force jets in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on President Tudjman. When the three-month moratorium on independence ended, Croatia declared full independence.
On 19 November, heroic Vukovar finally fell when the army culminated a bloody three-month siege by concentrating 600 tanks and 30,000 soldiers there. During six months of fighting in Croatia 10,000 people died, hundreds of thousands fled and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.
To fulfil a condition for EC recognition, in December the Croatian Sabor belatedly amended its constitution to protect minority groups and human rights.
Beginning on 3 January 1992, a UN-brokered cease-fire generally held. The federal army was allowed to withdraw from its bases inside Croatia and tensions diminished.
In January 1992, the EC, succumbing to strong pressure from Germany, recognised Croatia. This was followed three months later by US recognition and in May 1992 Croatia was admitted to the UN.
The UN peace plan in Krajina was supposed to have led to the disarming of local Serb paramilitary formations, the repatriation of refugees and the return of the region to Croatia. Instead, it only froze the existing situation and offered no permanent solution.
In January 1993, the Croatian army suddenly launched an offensive in southern Krajina, pushing the Serbs back as much as 24km in some areas and recapturing strategic points such as the site of the destroyed Maslenica bridge, Zemunik airport near Zadar and the Perućac hydroelectric dam in the hills between Split and Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Krajina Serbs vowed never to accept rule from Zagreb and in June 1993 they voted overwhelmingly to join the Bosnian Serbs (and eventually Greater Serbia).
The self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Serbian Krajina’ held elections in December 1993, which no international body recognised as legitimate or fair. Meanwhile, continued ‘ethnic cleansing’ left only about 900 Croats in Krajina out of an original population of 44,000. In March 1994, the Krajina Serbs signed a comprehensive cease-fire that substantially reduced the violence in the region and established demilitarised ‘zones of separation’ between the parties.
While world attention turned to the grim events unfolding in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Croatian government quietly began procuring arms from abroad. On 1 May 1995, the Croatian army and police entered occupied western Slavonia, east of Zagreb, and seized control of the region within days. The Krajina Serbs responded by shelling Zagreb in an attack that left seven people dead and 130 wounded. As the Croatian military consolidated its hold in western Slavonia, some 15, 000 Serbs fled the region despite assurances from the Croatian government that they were safe from retribution.
Belgrade’s silence throughout this campaign showed that the Krajina Serbs had lost the support of their Serbian sponsors, encouraging Croats to forge ahead. On 4 August the military launched a massive assault on the rebel Serb capital of Knin, pummelling it with shells, mortars and bombs. Outnumbered by two to one, the Serb army fled towards northern Bosnia, along with 150, 000 civilians whose roots in the Krajina stretched back centuries. The military operation ended in days, but was followed by months of terror. Widespread looting and burning of Serb villages, and attacks upon the few remaining elderly Serbs, seemed designed to ensure the permanence of this huge population shift. Allegations of atrocities caught the attention of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague. Of the two Croatian generals charged with committing crimes against the Serb population, General Gotovina is awaiting trial and General Norac was convicted and sentenced by a Croatian court for killing Serbian civilians at Gospic.
The Dayton Accords signed in Paris in December 1995 recognised Croatia’s traditional borders and provided for the return of eastern Slavonia, which was effected in January 1998. The transition proceeded relatively smoothly with less violence than was expected, but the two populations still regard each other over a chasm of suspicion and hostility. The Serbs and Croats associate with each other as little as possible and clever political manoeuvring has largely barred Serbs from assuming a meaningful role in municipal government.
Although stability has returned to the country, a key provision of the agreement was the promise by the Croatian government to facilitate the return of Serbian refugees, a promise that is far from being fulfilled. Although the central government in Zagreb has made the return of refugees a priority in accordance with the demands of the international community, its efforts have often been subverted by local authorities intent on maintaining the ethnic purity of their regions. In many cases, Croat refugees from Bosnia and Hercegovina have occupied houses abandoned by their Serb owners. Serbs intending to reclaim their property face a forbidding array of legal impediments in establishing a claim to their former dwellings plus substantial obstacles in finding employment in what are now economically precarious regions. To date, only about half have returned.