Critical Political Decisions

It was never clear, and it is still not quite clear whether the Serbian President Slobodan Milošević knew that a big offensive of the Croatian army, called “Storm”, would start. He spent that end of the week, on Friday and Saturday, the 4th and 5th of August 1995, in the residential facility on Crni vrh. He returned to Belgrade in the evening and convened several meetings, including with the Serbian military leadership and he held them. Croatian intelligence services intercepted on August 5, relatively early in the morning, a conversation between the Chief of Serbian Army General Momčilo Perišić and Colonel Mirko Radaković, located somewhere in Krajina. The Colonel mentioned a possible fall of Knin and added that everyone was fleeing. The chief’s response was modest, let them take care of themselves, and only a few hours later they recorded a conversation between General Perišić and Milan Mrkšić. The latter asked him whether Belgrade would send any help. Several hours later, they could hear the phone call from Ratko Mladić and his opinion that Knin was lost and that no one can defend it.

Tuđman was not brought the key information needed for a big operation in August, whose anniversary was celebrated these days in the neighbouring country with a military parade with the message, by the intelligence. He obtained the information several months earlier. The first days of May of that year, after returning from Belgrade, his then special envoy, Dr. Dušan Bilandžić reported to him. The news was decisive. If the Croatian army attacks then Republic of Serbian Krajina, the Serbian army will not start military intervention. Bilandžić also passed the estimation that in the case of the attack, most of the Serbian population would move out either to Bosnia or Serbia.

Several years later, in September 1998, in Budapest, I followed a discussion of Master Ozren Žunec, Croatian Deputy Defence Minister, who gave an excellent analysis of the “Storm”. What caught my attention was, first of all, his opinion that the Croatian army would perform such operation at any time after 1992 and his question on why they waited with the decision? His answer was that it could be expected that the Croatian army would carry out the Operation Storm at a time when the then Yugoslav People’s Army started destructive and bloody war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and consequently made Croatian battleground free. Therefore, in 1992 or at the latest in the spring of 1993. And he added that the reason for this could only be political, the agreement on the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina requested by either Tuđman or Milošević either their collaborators, on a series of meetings, in accordance with their respective concepts of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia.

Milošević started the Yugoslav wars with a request for the natural and ethnic borders. Tuđman talked during the same years about the establishment of extended Croatian nation state as the only sense of political engagement. And such state could only be ethnically homogenous, which could be reached with, as he called it, humane resettlement, and actually agreed exchanges of large groups of the population. Croatian publicist, an editor of the Zagreb “Jutarnji List”, Darko Hudelist added that the Croatian president continued with this political thinking from the time of the Second World War, which state that particularly Serbs and Croats have to determine, by an agreement, their borders and move people based on agreement and without violence.

In 1995, Ratko Mladić’s army did a gruesome massacre of innocents at Srebrenica. International estimates from that time, primarily estimates of the UN administration and its special representatives on the Balkans, were completely incorrect. As if they believed in the thesis of the non-violent migrations. They organized buses and trucks that would help move the residents. Chief Representative of the UN General Secretary, Yakushi Ashari, went on vacation to the Croatian coast with most of his associates. Bosnian troops under the command of Alija Izetbegović called the commanders of the city defence to special training.

Mladić’s Serbian army started toward Bihać.

On July 21, 1995 the mayor of Bihać municipality, Adnan Alagić, sent an appeal to President Tuđman. We fear new Srebrenica, the city has 180,000 people, and we are afraid of new crazy bloody intervention. The letter was obtained by the then US ambassador in Zagreb, Peter Galbraith, is one way or another. Tuđman hosted him and Turkish President Demirel a day or two later at Brioni. He informed them that the Croatian army, according to the agreement signed between Croatia and Bosnia on joint fight against Serbian aggressor, would intervene in the territory of neighbouring country.

Tuđman had correctly interpreted the US decision on an active presence in the region and their search for peace. This was the first estimate that allowed the operation “Storm”. He knew that neither America nor Europe could afford a new Srebrenica in Bihać.

The next meeting, on the last day of July 1995, was also held in Brioni. Tuđman called his most trusted military associates. He presented them the preparations for a major offensive in Krajina. He recorded this conversation, as he was doing with all conversations and confidential meetings. The transcript became available after his death. The president said that Serbs must disappear, that it was necessary to execute such attacks that they would no longer exist. And he continued, and I quote, Bihać is not our main task, but such strikes in several directions from which the Serbian forces will no longer be able to recover. Tuđman was even more precise. He spoke about the leaflets that would contain an announcement of the general disorder, of the great Croatian victory, that the Serbian civilian population should not leave, because they would “guarantee them civil rights,” and he laughed at it.

His second estimate that allowed “Storm” was that the latest peace plan, the so-called Z4, would not be adopted. The proposal sponsored primarily by the American administration planned a large autonomy for the Serbs in Krajina. And as Tuđman properly estimated, they rejected it. The authorities in Krajina, because they calculated they could get more, and Milošević because he feared that such a proposal would also apply to Kosovo.
Specifically, big autonomy implied right to own schools, police, courts, health care, even the right to own parliament. Last negotiations on the proposal, at the request of the European negotiator Thorvald Stoltenberg, were held in Geneva. Croatian intelligence services intercepted all phone conversations of Serbian negotiators. The transcripts showed that they had a completely wrong estimation, first, that the negotiations were not needed, then that Croatia already carried out the mobilization, but it would not dare to attack and last, that Milošević would start a huge mobilization in Serbia and send help.

Peace plan Z4 had failed. Later, just ahead of the “Storm”, several different statements could be heard, but it was too late.

Tuđman knew he could prepare a third part that would allow a big offensive. It was a statement on the right to protection of the territory within its internationally recognized borders. This is what he wrote to the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl On August 3 of the same year. He notified him that they were trying to achieve a peaceful solution at the Geneva negotiations, but that it was obvious that a peaceful solution to the occupied territories is more and more away, and that he had decided, because of this, as the head of state, to start the next day, early in the morning, an “action against paramilitary rebel groups which had long been supposed to be disarmed, in accordance with Security Council resolutions and various international plans.” He also added that the action would not be directed against the Serbian national community, because they “will do everything in our power to protect them and provide them with normal life in accordance with all human and ethnic rights.”

The offensive could begin.

Milošević followed the action from his residence. The plans with which the bloody Yugoslav wars had started, the plans to protect the Serbs, wherever they live, as well as the request for merging into one country had failed. There was no decree on the military intervention of his army, of course. The US negotiator Richard Holbrooke told Tuđman unambiguously few days after the end of the offensive to forget his concepts of division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also passed the message that Milošević acknowledges that the eastern Slavonia is part of Croatia but that he could not say that in public.

Only people left. The opinions varied, most often repeated those about 200,000 Croatian citizens of Serbian nationality, who fled on their way to Bosnia and Serbia. Forever. It was a horrible price of politics, as understood by Tuđman and Milošević, and they established Croatian-Serbian compromise with historical agreement on delimitation. Politics that had ethnic homogenisation as its primary goal.