At first there were only two sentences uttered.
That Hitler wanted the world without Jews, and Croatia and its policy wanted a country without Serbs.
That every crime is eternal and cannot be celebrated.
In contemporary Europe, it is almost impossible to find similar direct and entirely unambiguous estimations directed at a neighboring country which Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić uttered in a way which left no room for neither alleviation nor assuagement. Vučić called the Croatian military operation “Storm”, which ended the Yugoslav wars in the beginning of August 1995, an ethnic cleansing and a crime which triggered the expatriation of two hundred and fifty thousand Croatian citizens of Serbian nationality. Croatian responses and denial ensued, as well as claims that Vučić is making such accusations in an effort to conceal internal political problems and the issue of the final decision concerning Kosovo.
We could wrap things up here by discussing whether this is another case of establishing the myth of Serbia as the eternal victim of history, a country surrounded by enemies, or of Croatia concealing the expatriation of Serbs with a military triumph.
However, neither the former nor the latter would be sufficient.
Both would lead us away from the answer. For this reason I must resist the temptation of judging Vučić or pointing out the intentions of the Croatian government.
I wish to find out why, after the Croatian military triumph in 1995, two hundred and fifty thousand people were forced to leave everything they and their ancestors had worked for and set out into the unknown?
I shall start by recalling the confidential meetings between the Croatian and the Serbian presidents. Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman were not merely military opponents, but politically like-minded. They shared two key views. First, that the republic borders of former Yugoslavia were unfair, and second, that just like all Serbs, all Croats have the right to live in a united country. The renewed Serbian nostalgia in the eighties for the country that conquers in wars and loses in peace called for a different state head. It called for a politician who would know how to take on a new political project and protect those who support the menacing rallies in solidarity with the Serbs in Kosovo, as well as the Serbs in Croatia. After all, as it was being reported, the Serbian Kosovo was in Serbia, as well as in Croatian Dalmatia.
The question of contemporary Serbia had to be eliminated under the umbrella of the country of all Serbs. The umbrella of a plan which, so many years prior, Nikola Pašić had defined as a territorial unification of the Serbian nation. The plan had its basis in a document which was given to Prime Minister of Serbia Pašić in August of 1916 by the high representatives of Great Britain, France and Russia. Serbia was promised Bosnia and Hercegovina, Slavonia, and the entire Adriatic coast from the Ploca Cape to the Bay of Kotor. This promise, seventy years later, became the frame for Milošević’s new plan. It was precisely for this reason that he wanted to determine new western borders of the third Yugoslavia, to incite national rallies in Croatia and ask for the help of Yugoslav national army which was to protect the rallied Serbs.
On March 16, 1991, in a secret meeting with the representatives of counties, he announced for the first time the possibility of Yugoslav wars. He said that it is always the powerful, and never the weak, who determine borders and that he was ready to fight for his right and the interest to live in a united country. He also added that he did not know why Knin, Banija, Lika, Kordun and Baranya should belong to Croatia, when the Serbian majority in those areas only represented a problem for it.
During those same days in March, Tuđman assured his close associates that Milošević was the only one who could converse with Croatia because they had similar views both on the borders and on the division of Bosnia. Tuđman kept repeating that those areas where Croats were already a majority, especially Bosnia and Hercegovina, should belong to Croatia. For this reason, Tuđman believed, they needed to conclude a historical agreement, a great Serbo-Croatian compromise on borders, with Milošević as a good partner. The fateful meeting ensued.
On March 25, 1991, Tuđman and Milošević met in a hunting residence of Yugoslav monarchs in Karađorđevo. Tuđman returned to Zagreb in a state of euphoria. I am citing the daily notes kept by Dušan Bilandžić, who Tuđman called right away and informed of a principal agreement with Milošević on the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as on the promise that Croatia will be given the borders of Great Croatia, just like had been defined in the Cvetković – Maček Agreement back in 1939. Milošević’s biographer, Slavoljub Đukić, wrote in his book Political Cemetery, that soon after the said meeting in Karađorđevo, Serbian President decided on the fate of Serbs in Croatia. He decided that he would hand them over to Tuđman, with whom the two of them had a shared goal – the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This statement was complemented by the Head of Tuđman’s office, Hrvoje Šarinić. In his memoirs, he quotes Milošević’s response to Tuđman from November of 1993, that it was absolutely clear that Knin was Croatian and that he himself had solved 90% of the Serbian national issue with the Republic of Serbia.
Milošević only had one condition. That Knin was not to be handed over to Tuđman politically, in peaceful negotiations, but only by means of war. They both realized that this was not only a matter of Croatian military triumph and the conquest of Knin, but also a matter of Tuđman’s goal to expatriate Serbs from Croatia. Like a cold-headed accountant, Tuđman assessed that the number of Serbs once the Yugoslav wars were over had to be more than halved. After the military operation “Storm” and the conquest of Knin, this goal was achieved. In 1991, Croatia had 12.2% of citizens of Serbian nationality, and according to the 2001 census, it now has only 4.5%.
Slobodan Milošević received the news of the conquest of Knin in his holiday home and he didn’t utter a word.
They maintained a direct and confidential contact with Tuđman until death.
They addressed each other as Slobo and Franjo.