Debate on the wars in Croatia and Bosnia - Part I
by Dušan Bilandžic, Mile Bjelajac, Ivo Komšic, Denis Kuljiš, Martin Špegelj
'The work A Soldier’s Memoirs [Martin Š pegelj, Sjećanja vojnika, edited by Ivo Žanić, Zagreb 2001], written by retired four-star general Martin Š pegelj, represents a unique testimony on the 1991-5 Yugoslav wars. It provides an account of the totality of the events available only to a top commander who, moreover, having become inspector-in-chief of the Croatian Army, had visited every inch of the battle front. Based on established facts and personal observations, the book provides an insight into the hidden nature of the military conflict, its protagonists and their motivations, and consequently represents an indispensable source for all future research. This is why the editors of the journal Gordogan (Zagreb), in view of the book’s exceptional importance, organised a round-table discussion on it on 14 February 2003. In addition to General Š pegelj, the debate was joined by the historian Dušan Bilandžić, the Bosnian politician (and direct participant in some of the events covered in the book) Ivo Komšić, the Belgrade historian Mile Bjelajac, and Gordogan’s own Denis Kuljiš acting as moderator.’ *
Denis Kuljiš: General Š pegelj’s book is a much expanded and in fact new work, based on a series of texts published in Globus [Zagreb] at the end of 1995, while Tuđman was still alive. Parts of the book appeared even earlier, as short newspaper articles written at the end of 1992, and as a longer essay published in Erasmus [Zagreb] in 1993. But whereas the earlier publications were passed over in silence, the book has provoked tremendous political reactions, and in my view has made a major contribution to demolishing the Tuđman ideology.
The book deals with three key themes that I would like us to discuss here. The first relates to the start of the Homeland War, i.e. to Š pegelj’s famous plan to seize the JNA garrisons. The plan of the Croatian military commanders at the time was to surprise the JNA with an all-embracing attack and, after capturing its war materiel, to use the Territorial Defence - the legal force available to the republican government - to seize the initiative and establish a new military balance of forces. This plan, as you know, caused much controversy as to whether it was realistic, opportune or wise - a controversy that was never resolved, however, because the plan was never implemented. The second issue deals with the establishment of a system of parallel commands, of two lines of command authority. In addition to the normal military one, there existed also Tuđman’s private line of command, through which he was able to pursue his own policy - the kind of policy for which Milošević is now being tried in The Hague. The third issue, which has only recently acquired significant political exposure, relates to the presence of Croatian soldiers in Bosnia as part of a general plan of attack on that country, which, judging by all accounts, had been agreed between the Croatian and Serbian leaders. I propose we take up these themes in sequence, and invite the author to start the ball rolling.
Martin Š pegelj: First, on the question of the supposed Š pegelj plan to attack the JNA barracks. There was no such plan. There is no mention in my book of any plan to attack the garrisons considered in isolation from other actions. President Tuđman, acting on the advice of the minister of the interior Josip Boljkovac, stated on 27 December 1990 that he would not accept any defence plan, and certainly not a frontal attack on the garrisons, which I myself did not in fact propose - I have no idea where the concept of a ‘frontal war’ comes from. Tuđman’s words were: ‘I will not accept either this or indeed any other defence plan.’ It is essential to note that he was against any defence plan, let alone an alleged ‘frontal’ attack on the barracks. At that time, in December 1991, such an attack would have been sheer madness, not because it could not have been done, but because all other kinds of preparations were needed as envisaged by my own defence plan. It was necessary, for example, to win allies in Yugoslavia and international support, to stabilise our presence in Bosnia, to import the planned remainder of weapons, to organise a general mobilisation, etc. The talk by Tuđman and Boljkovac of attacks on the barracks was in fact a construction designed to ensure rejection of the Croatian defence plan - Croatia, like all other republics, had its own defence plan. It is possible that they naively believed that lack of defence would avoid aggression. It is possible that they wished to prove to Milošević and others that they favoured constructive negotiations, leading to the establishment of a confederation as an interim measure. My impression is that the defence plan was rejected largely in deference to Belgrade.
My 27 December 1990 plan for defending Croatia offered to the Croatian leadership (Tuđman, Mesić, Manolić, Ramljak, Domljan, Boljkovac, and others) is presented in full in my Memoirs on pp 149-156. There was nothing special about it, nothing that Slovenia or any other Yugoslav republic did not already have. It involved seeking an open military alliance with Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (basically with the Muslims and Croats there), and a secret one with Sandjak and Kosovo. The military alliance with Slovenia was never activated, however: Tuđman rejected it at the decisive moment, as part of his affirmation of his pro-Belgrade orientation. In my book I give what I consider to be a convincing explanation of why Tuđman behaved as he did. It is interesting that none of Tuđman’s close allies has ever spoken up on this subject. There is, however, the recent book by Davor Marijan, Smrt oklopne brigade [Death of the Armoured Brigade], Zagreb-Sarajevo 2002, which purports to deal with the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990-91. Marijan tries to justify Tuđman’s measures and so attacks my book, but without properly engaging with its arguments. His assertions are based on JNA documents, which were drawn up, however, only as an exercise in propaganda. He argues that the JNA was so strong that it could have crushed us at will. All this in 2002! He says, for example, that the JNA re-constituted its units into a higher fighting category. There were A, B and R units, the A units being up to 60% full, which allegedly imbued the JNA with great fighting capacity. This is what General Bobetko used to say - Marijan simply reproduces his arguments.
The truth is that in 1990 the total annual contingent of the JNA consisted of 180,000 men. However you classify the units, this number remains as given. Marijan might argue that the crisis would prompt the JNA to shift some of its soldiers from the east to the west, to strengthen the JNA in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But this was impossible. It could not send soldiers to the west in order to fill the ‘A’units, because of the fear of an armed uprising in Kosovo. Sandjak too was restless; Hungarians, Croats and Czechs in Vojvodina were unhappy, and in March 1991 Belgrade took to the streets against Milošević. As a result soldiers were moved from the 5th (westernmost) military region to the 1st (Belgrade), not the other way round. The proclamation that units were fully manned was a propaganda trick, which Marijan ought to know. The soldier and officer contingent in Slovenia remained at the same level as in 1988. Slovenia and Croatia, moreover, were no longer sending recruits outside their territories, which significantly changed the national composition of the army on the ground.
The strengthening of the JNA began properly only in the autumn of 1991, with the call up of mainly Serbian reservists. This is why I insist that the Croatian defence plan should have been activated at the end of June 1991 - things grew progressively more difficult after that. In the end it proved vitally necessary to implement the defence plan, albeit unsystematically and against Tuđman’s will. I proposed at the start of September 1991 to move against the JNA depots and to blockade the garrisons, which is when our true counter-offensive began. People took upon themselves to seize the weapons. Between 12 September1991 and 2 January1992 we seized 250 tanks and around 200,000 modern infantry, anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, which allowed us to arm 240,000 men and women and thus practically win the war for Croatia in 1991. So it is not possible to argue that ‘Š pegelj’s defence plan’ was not implemented. Marijan’s book is nothing but unconvincing HDZ propaganda. Tuđman’s grave and unforgivable responsibility lies in the fact that because of him we started to defend ourselves late, and as a result in a disorganised manner.
I was right to argue that the JNA could not wage a domestic war. Everything was moving in the direction of break-up, while the JNA command’s goal was a strong unitary state. It fell apart like a house of cards at the first major conflict in Slovenia, and only then began to mobilize reservists from Serbia and Bosnia, so that from the beginning of September 1991 we had Serb reservists garrisoning Croatia - so that in the autumn of 1991 the JNA was stronger and more dangerous than in June of that year. Marijan, on the other hand, argues that the delay in capturing weapons and in confronting the JNA made sense, because the JNA grew progressively weaker. This is nonsense!
Tuđman failed to prepare for the war in Croatia. He instead gave full priority to negotiating with Milošević, and as proof of his good intentions sought to avoid doing anything that might irritate Belgrade. One should recall our lack of preparation in the autumn of 1991. Once we had taken over the JNA depots and garrisons, we used their weapons to move immediately - the very same day - to the front, in order to meet the enemy’s advance. However, thanks to Tuđman’s catastrophic mistakes real chaos prevailed at the start, and it was only the commitment of ordinary people, their readiness to defend their country, that saved us from having to negotiate with Milošević at Bjelovar [in western Slavonia] rather than at Ilok [on the Danube].
As for the parallel command system, it is an inconvertible fact that, in addition to the normal line of command descending from the general staff, there was also an abnormal and malignant line of command passing through HDZ organs. Thus, for example, during our first offensive in western Slavonia in 1991 when we definitively halted the aggression from the east, i.e. after a highly successful month-long counter-offensive in western Slavonia in which we suffered hardly any losses, five of our strongest brigades were withdrawn from the front. Surprised by their sudden departure, I radioed General Tus [the chief of staff] to ask him for an explanation as to why the offensive had been halted. He told me he himself did not know - he, in fact, was planning to continue the action towards the river Sava. I promptly left the front at Daruvar and went to see Tuđman to ask him what was happening. He replied that, in view of the successful counter-offensive, we were preparing to sign a permanent cease-fire in Sarajevo. This was on 28 December1991. I replied that we could in the meantime reach the Sava; but he doubted it. I subsequently learnt that the order to end the offensive was issued directly to the brigade commanders, bypassing the general staff.
There was also the sudden halt in military activity in Bosnian Posavina [the Sava valley]. This came in the wake of the agreement reached in Graz, whereby Zagreb abandoned Bosnian Posavina in return for southern Croatia (see Sjene nad slobodom [Shadows over Freedom] by Petar Kriste, the book by General Petar Š imac, and others). These secret deals, including the secret commands issued to HV formations, were the work of Gojko Š ušak acting with Tuđman’s approval. Finally, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina too, up to the signing of the Izetbegovic-Tuđman agreement of 1994, was conducted through the HDZ line of command. ‘Herzeg-Bosna’ and other territories chosen by Tuđman and Š ušak were treated as integral parts of Croatia. Serbia was an ally in the division of Bosnia - everything was done in agreement with Milošević.
As for the stormy debates about Croatia’s war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there should be no dilemma on this issue. The HV and part of the HVO waged a war against the Bosniaks and the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina in cooperation with Mladić and Karadžić. Oil from Croatia fuelled Serb tanks in action not only against the Bosniaks but also against the HV. Who will be tried for this? The main instigators are dead. But Croatia must remove this shame from itself - we must not be held responsible for lunatics like Boban, Š ušak and Tuđman. During 1992 and 1993 four elite brigades of the HV were sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina, together with parts of an additional six brigades. Herzeg-Bosna was financed as if it were part of Croatia. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina cost Croatia two million DM per day, paid by the Croatian tax payers. The ‘state’ of Herzeg-Bosna had all relevant institutions (and piles of corrupt officials) - the only thing it lacked was its own budget, since it did not collect taxes nor did it have any regular source of income. At the end of 1993 people within Tuđman’s circle talked of three million DM per day. We must not forget either the great suffering of both soldiers and civilians caused by this policy, and the fact that the war is not truly over yet. As a result of that war we have an unstable state in Croatia’s hinterland, and still cannot be certain that the Bosnian issue will be resolved in a manner that corresponds to our national interests. How are we to account for the fact that nothing has been done to air this issue in Croatia?
The signing of the permanent cease-fire in Sarajevo on 2 January 1992 signalled the transfer of the war to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was to be divided between Serbia and Croatia in accordance with their military achievements. This was a tragedy not only for Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also for Croatia. It was only at the start of 1994 that Tuđman realised that Bosnia-Herzegovina could not after all be divided into two parts, that there was a third one, and that this third part had an army of nearly 200,000 men. So he decided to achieve Croatian expansion by negotiating not only with Milošević, but also with Izetbegović. The Croatian army withdrew only gradually from Bosnia: the 175th brigade, made up of conscripts from all over Croatia, evacuated its last soldier only in April 1994. All military actions up to the time of the agreement with Izetbegović were conducted in secret, bypassing both the government and the parliament.
Kuljiš: But was not the cease-fire signed as part of the arrangement that brought in UNPROFOR, i.e. under the pressure of the international community?
Š pegelj: They said that it was done on the orders of the international community, in anticipation of Croatia’s recognition, etc. At that time, however, the international community had little influence. Tuđman talked about it because it helped him to take the war to Bosnia, to begin its partition. I do not believe it was the true reason. The cease-fire which ended the conflict in Croatia was in Milošević’s interest, however, since he was facing total defeat there, while Tuđman was in a hurry to create a Greater Croatia. That was what really mattered, not the will of the international community. Formal recognition was of great psychological importance, of course, but one must remember that the 1974 constitution gave a great deal of independence to the individual republics. True, some of its provisions had not been implemented in the period 1974-90, but they could have been activated. So formal recognition was nothing but a declaration on the part of the outside world that Yugoslavia was breaking up into its federal parts. Why single out Croatia? Macedonia too was recognised, and Bosnia as well - the latter, moreover, at a time when it was being divided.
I wish to end by saying that my proposal to unite with the Bosniaks to end the war through joint action was rejected by Tuđman at a meeting of the supreme state council. It was said then [in the middle of 1992] that the Bosniaks were leaving our common units. But in fact they were being arrested and taken to concentration camps! Mate Boban promised at the time to give up Bosnian Posavina, so that Serbia could have a corridor to Banja Luka. The war against Bosnia-Herzegovina had already been decided - everything else was subordinated to that.
Bilandžić: Those who attack Š pegelj’s book argue that Tuđman’s refusal to prepare our defence served to postpone the start of the war; that the relationship of forces was greatly to our disadvantage; and that the JNA, backed by the Serb nation, was the fourth military power in Europe. For these reasons it was necessary to do everything to avoid war with Serbia. We know, however, that the JNA at that time was falling apart and that, as Š pegelj insisted in the summer of 1991, it was finished. There is, however, the role of the international community to be considered. According to some, Germany, Austria and the Vatican were ready to recognise Croatia: they certainly did not wish the JNA to crush it. But I am not sure that France, Italy and Greece did not hope for this; that they did not support the JNA in its intention to bring Croatia to its knees. A high HDZ functionary and member of the Croatian government told me at the time that his high-positioned friends in the West, some of whom occupied important posts in the intelligence community, were advising him to leave, since we would lose against the JNA. If Britain and France were sending this message, was it not a signal to Tuđman to try to do all he could to avoid war?
Regarding the negotiations between Tuđman and Milošević, I think it is high time we in Croatia admitted that they included the partition of Bosnia, and that Bosnia was attacked. We must be clear on this. Those who defend these negotiations on the grounds that Croatia was very weak refuse to accept that the main motivation behind them was, in fact, the desire to partition Bosnia. This failed for three reasons. First of all, Tuđman and Milošević were not in the same position as Stalin and Hitler in regard to Poland. In 1939 Hitler sent the Wehrmacht and Stalin the Red Army, and the two forces met at an agreed line. Milošević and Tuđman, however, did not have such forces. It took Milošević a year to create an ethnically pure Serb army. Tuđman, of course, was in an even worse position. Secondly, the agreement was never formally reached in the sense of having a precise map . Both wished to divide Bosnia, but also they tried to trick each other in the hope of maximising their respective territorial gains. True, they agreed on the question of Bosnian Posavina, but not on those of Baranja, eastern Slavonia, the Knin ‘krajina’, Dubrovnik, etc. They kept talking to each other, but without ever reaching a final agreement. It should be remembered also that they were not always in full control of the military situation, and that - especially in the early phase of the war - various warlords were roaming around, fanning local conflicts. Tuđman, however, reduced his whole strategy to one option only: reaching agreement with Milošević.
It is important in this context to refer to the possibility of creating an anti-Serbian coalition in order to avoid the war. I myself believe that this was possible. Tito showed how it could be done. He governed Yugoslavia on the basis of an informal alliance involving non-Serbs and the democratic forces in Serbia itself. This strategy was realised in the National Liberation Struggle with the aim of saving Yugoslavia. The alliance lasted thirty years: it kept Yugoslavia going. But instead of continuing this policy, the republican and provincial leaders preferred to negotiate separately with Milošević. Tuđman negotiated with him, so did Kučan, Izetbegović, Gligorov, Rugova, and so on.
The reason why partition of Bosnia proved impossible in the end was that the allegedly ‘hopeless’ Bosniaks - who according to the Croatian leaders at the time would not fight - actually together with other Bosnians created an army of 200,000 men. Finally, one must not forget the position of the international community, which albeit very feebly and hesitantly did support the existing republican borders. For example, David Owen was for the partition of Bosnia from the start - he writes in his book Balkan Odyssey [p.33] that ‘refusal to make these borders negotiable put all peacemaking within a straitjacket that greatly inhibited compromises between the parties in dispute’ - But the United States in the end drove a stake through the heart of that policy, by insisting through Holbrooke that there would be no partition. Had America not intervened, Bosnia would have been divided. It is possible that without American intervention one would still be at war today.
Kuljiš: Tuđman preferred to talk about territories to be gained rather than about territories he was ready to surrender in exchange. I believe, however, that the main subject of the Tuđman-Miloševic negotiations was not division of territory, but division of population. They talked about exchanging territories and populations. This means that their basic concept was the concept of ethnic cleansing, what Tuđman in his article for The European called ‘population transfer’, and for which he sought international political and financial assistance. The idea that it was necessary to form homogeneous nations had been elaborated, however, by Ćosić in his writings: Serbs in Serbia were weak, they were losing demographically to Albanians, they would be stronger if they were joined by the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs: so let the latter join Serbia. Tuđman’s reasoning was the same in regard to the Bosnian Croats: What is the point of having Croats in western and central Bosnia? They should move in order to bulk out Croatia’s middle. We are talking about demographic engineering on a wide scale. So I do not agree with Professor Bilandžić that they have failed to divide Bosnia. On the contrary, they succeeded in what mattered to them most: creating two separate bodies of population; reallocating the Croat and Serb populations, leaving between them an undefined and unallocated ‘little Bosnia’. Hence, if one looks at the nature of the military operations conducted in Bosnia, it is clear that the war was directed (this is true also for Operation Storm) not only at taking territories, but also at driving out their population. The main aim was to create a new and irreversible demographic situation.
A participant: Just a small detail bearing this out. As part of preparing local public opinion for this, the Catholic Church was used to distribute to the Bosnian Croat population - even those living in Posavina - photographs of villages over towards Herzegovina where a new border was supposed to emerge, in conformity with maps that were already being circulated as part of the same effort at influencing public opinion.
Bilandžić: This is a subject that most people refuse to confront. I remember when following Operation Storm the Serbs left for Serbia, the Serb Orthodox bishop of Š abac and Valjevo said: ‘Look, God himself is helping us. We [Serbs] have scattered too far and wide, and need to reconsolidate. God is helping us in this by sending us the Serbs from across the Drina.’
Kuljiš: The Serb nationalist intelligentsia has always been preoccupied by the Albanian demographic threat. On the eve of the war, half of the conscripts from Serbia were ethnic Albanians. This meant that the two peoples were becoming equal ‘in numbers of bayonets’.
Š pegelj: Albanians formed 22-24% of the all-Yugoslav contingent on the eve of the war. They were sent to serve in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were not allowed to serve east of the Drina-Vukovar line.