Operation Oluja and the Croatian Serbs
by Radio Free Europe debate
Omer Karabeg of Radio Free Europe interviews two historians: Nikica Barić of the Croatian Institute for History in Zagreb and Bojan Dimitrijević of the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade.
Karabeg: Mr Barić, your doctoral dissertation on ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’ deals among other things also with the departure of Serbs from Croatia. What would you call it: flight before the Croatian Army or ethnic cleansing?
Barić: In my view several factors contributed to this outcome. To begin with, the dominant belief in the public and political life of ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’ (RSK) was that the Serb people should accept nothing less than their own Serb republic, which would ultimately unite with the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina and with Serbia and Montenegro. The idea of integration into Croatia, even with a degree of autonomy, was unacceptable to them, since - as the ‘Krajina’ leaders believed and publicly argued - the Serb people would not be able to survive in what they called an Ustasha and a genocidal state. Secondly, throughout the existence of RSK the Serb population lived in very difficult conditions of economic blockade, poverty and a permanent war situation, which greatly demoralized them. The younger and better educated among them left the area and sought to secure their existence elsewhere. Finally, the government of RSK as early as 1993 had prepared plans for evacuation of the civilian population in the event of an attack by the Croatian army, plans which by the end of July 1995 were made fully operational. The civilian population was evacuated together with material goods and archives. On the first day of Oluja, 4 August 1995, the RSK supreme defence council met in Knin and ordered that the planned evacuation of the civilian population in the area of northern Dalmatia and southern Lika should begin, because of the assault by Croatian armed forces moving in from the Dinara and Velebit mountain ranges. This evacuation was completed before the Croatian forces occupied the area. When the Croatian army arrived, it found it already practically abandoned.
Karabeg: Your analysis suggests that you do not think that it was a case of ethnic cleansing.
Barić: That would be correct. Last year saw commemorations of the tenth anniversaries of Srebrenica and Oluja. There was much discussion and parallels were drawn. I believe that the two events are not comparable, which is not to say that crimes were not committed against the remaining Serb population.
A highly coordinated migration
Karabeg: Mr Dimitrijević, did ethnic cleansing of the Croatian Serbs take place during Operation Oluja?
Dimitrijević: It is quite clear that this was a highly coordinated migration. It was, in my view, coordinated at the highest level - between Tuđman and Milošević - with the result that the ‘Krajina’ area became practically cleansed. As to the technical details of this event, the extent of crime and of preparations for evacuation, this remains, at least so far as the Serb side is concerned, to be established. It is likely that it suited everyone that the Serbs who remained to the end in RSK should leave. It suited the Serbian state leaders, above all Slobodan Milošević, and it suited also Franjo Tuđman. My main point is that we are talking about a highly coordinated migration.
Karabeg: When you say ‘highly coordinated migration’, does this mean that you support the thesis that the deportation of Serbs from Croatia was part of an agreement between Tuđman and Milošević linked to division of territory? Part of an agreement whose existence has never been proved, but is always talked about.
Dimitrijević: This is my deep down feeling, supported also by fragmentary documents: that Milošević coordinated the intensity of the war, varied its extent, changed the war aims, and that in 1995 the continued existence of RSK no longer suited him. The problem was how to make people leave the area. That could be achieved only through a decisive Croatian action and military defeat of the Krajina Serbs. I would like to remind you that in Serbia in August 1995 the whole operation was in fact met by relative silence. The state media gave it little coverage, as was true also for the Croatian military action in western Slavonia that May. The whole thing was somehow hushed up.
Barić: I agree that throughout the war the Croatian and Serbian sides negotiated, that they were in contact with each other, but I don’t think that Milošević handed ‘Krajina’ to Croatia. He was quite simply under international sanctions at this time and was not able to use his army to help ‘Krajina’. Up to this time he helped them as much as he could. My belief, based on the data I was able to consult, is that there was no agreement between Tuđman and Milošević. Croatia’s calculation was that the FRY army would not intervene directly in the western part of ‘Krajina’ targeted by Oluja, but there was a fear that, if the Croatian army was not successful during the first few days of action, the FRY army might intervene in eastern Slavonia. This possibility was not excluded. To be sure there were many contacts between Zagreb and Belgrade, but I would not concur that the war was from the beginning to the end agreed between Tuđman and Milošević.
Milošević could not help ‘Krajina’
Dimitrijević: I do not believe in conspiracy theories, but the fact remains that some moves become clearer if one assumes a degree of coordination. I am particularly struck by the fact that during the first half of 1995 the Serbian state security department did all it could to weaken the Krajina administration, to dismantle it, practically to bankrupt it, and in this way contributed indirectly to making the Croatian military action as effective as possible. This may appear paradoxical, but if you analyse the activity of the people from the state security apparatus through which Milošević exercised power in both Serbia and the RSK, many things related to the dismantling of the Krajina army and state become clearer.
Karabeg: Is it not a fact that the RSK army was easily defeated, and that many of the officers and government ministers left ‘Krajina’ with their families and furniture a few days ahead of Oluja? And that many of them were evacuated in buses that had come from Belgrade? Does this not suggest, if not a conspiracy, then at least coordination?
Barić: So far as I can tell, the Croatian army and state leaders really did not know that such an organized emigration would take place. They believed that a Serb exodus would take place, as discussed at the notorious meeting of late July on Brijuni, but I think that they did not expect that the Krajina Serbs would carry out evacuation - i.e. they did not expect such a quick collapse of ‘Krajina’. Its resistance, however, was quickly overcome, because the Croatian army was far superior in numbers and training. The Serbs were much weaker, though on the first day they did mount resistance in Kordun and Banija. I repeat, it is not that Milošević no longer wished to aid ‘Krajina’; he was no longer able to do so, because of the international sanctions and the general situation in which Serbia found itself. One should not forget, however, that between 1,000 and 1,500 officers from FRY served in the RSK army until the very end. They were sent military and every other aid, as much as was possible. Without this help the RSK would have collapsed sooner. It could not have existed without Serbia’s or FRY’s financial, personnel and material aid.
Dimitrijević: Military aid was extended to the last moment, but the strategic decision not to keep Krajina going had, I believe, already been made by Milošević.
Key decisions were made in private
Karabeg: Why, to take one example, was Plan Z4, which offered wide autonomy to Serbs in Croatia, rejected? This is really difficult to understand. It is hardly likely, in my view at least, that the Krajina Serb leaders would have done this on their own, without Milošević’s agreement.
Barić: I must admit that I don’t understand that either. We simply don’t have reliable sources. According to the evidence at my disposal, Milošević at the start of 1995 took no position on Z4. He would not receive international representatives, led by the American ambassador to Zagreb Peter Galbraith, who went to talk to him about the plan. Why did he do this? Did he perhaps think that he was still in a position to realize aspirations in regard to eastern Slavonia? Plan Z4 gave no guarantees to the Serbs in eastern Slavonia, but only to those living in the municipalities of Banija, Kordun, Lika and northern Dalmatia, where the majority of the Croatian Serbs lived before the war. Or maybe he simply thought that the plan offered too little to the Serbs. As far as the Krajina leaders are concerned, their perception was very confused. They were quite intransigent. They argued that one should make not the smallest concession to the Croats. However generous the plan Z4 may seem now, too much so indeed from the Croatian point of view, from the angle of the Krajina leaders’ unyielding policy it appeared like a capitulation. One must not forget that several prominent public figures, Belgrade intellectuals and politicians such as Kosta Čavoški or the current Serbian prime minister Koštunica, supported the Krajina Serbs in their stance. The then opposition leaders, such as Mr Koštunica, argued that the Serb people in ‘Krajina’ could not accept autonomy in a few municipalities, or as they liked say in a few ‘Tuđman counties’.
Dimitrijević: I wish to add to this. I do think that it will remain difficult to grasp the strategic aspects of the war, because the nature of Milošević’s rule was such that he made all major decisions tête-à -tête, without any witnesses or record, thus leaving much room for speculation.
Karebeg: What is most surprising is that no one with authority in Belgrade at this time, whether in government or in opposition, was able to offer good advice to the Krajina leaders, to point out all the advantages offered to them by the Z4 plan.
Dimitrijević: The fact is that most people in national-opposition circles believed in the fiction that Serbian arms were capable of defending the Serbs in both ‘Krajina’ and Republika Srpska. Hence things ended the way they did.
The Hague is uninterested in historical circumstances
Karabeg: In its indictment of General Gotovina, the Hague prosecutors speak about a joint criminal undertaking the aim of which was to remove permanently and by force the Serb population from the ‘Krajina’ region. It seems that they have in mind something close to ethnic cleansing.
Barić: I must say that as a historian I think differently and see all these things differently than the Hague prosecutors. The historian is not a judge in The Hague. I think that some of the charges against generals Gotovina, Markač and Čermak do not stand, and can be refuted. The indictments do not take into account all the historical circumstances - the emergence of a Serb ‘Krajina’, its duration, and the causes of its collapse - but are drafted in accordance with a different principle. I do not deny that during and after Oluja, crimes and violence against the remaining Serbs, including the destruction of their property, did take place. But I would not agree with the proposition that it was a matter of a well-prepared criminal plan.
Karabeg; Why do you think the prosecution resorted to such severe formulations in reference to the crimes committed against the Croatian Serbs? One could not say that is biased, given that it is severe also in regard to the crimes committed by Serbs.
Barić: I don’t wish to suggest in any way that the prosecutors are biased against Croatia or the Croatian people. That is not what I wish to say at all. I only wish to say that the prosecution functions in accordance with its own chosen principles. There is the indictment also of Slobodan Milošević. So far as I am concerned, his responsibility for the start of the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is greatest by far. It is another question, however, whether I as a historian would agree with the content of the indictment, whether it was all like that, whether I would interpret all of that in the same way as the prosecution. I think I would not. But I do not think that the prosecutors are in the business of helping some and attacking others. They are simply doing their job.
Karabeg: Mr Dimitrijević, what is your view of the judgement of the Hague tribunal prosecution that this was a matter of a criminal undertaking, the aim of which was to remove permanently and by force the Serb population from the ‘Krajina’ region?
Dimitrijević: It is dangerous to comment on this from the Serb side, because every rational attempt to go beyond events lays one open to criticism. What is perfectly clear, on the other hand, is that the Croatian armed military-police operation or aggression, whatever you wish to call it, was very well planned in its military aspect, and that this military aspect was subsequently overshadowed by the wave of violence directed against the people who remained. The large number of people who were killed after the end of the military operation, as well as the destruction of property, permit the possibility of this interpretation.
Barić: Oluja was first of all an action by the Croatian state aimed at ending an armed rebellion. The idea was to liberate the occupied territory and to return it to Croatian administration, to allow the return of Croat refugees and exiles, and in the last instance to raise the siege of Bihać which had lasted one thousand and two hundred days. Following Operation Oluja living conditions in Bihać were greatly improved, and it was possible to send humanitarian aid there. Furthermore, once the Croatian forces had reached that area, the Bosnian Serb leaders agreed to peace. The international community, by contrast, had been unable to establish peace during the previous three years. These are some of the realities of Oluja. There was also, of course, violence directed at the Serb population, there is no doubt about that. The Hague tribunal’s prosecution, however, takes no account of all these aspects, of all these facts. They find them all quite irrelevant.
Incidents or part of a plan?
Karabeg: After Oluja, when there were no longer Serbs in ‘Krajina, why were their houses torched and their property destroyed? Some speak of 20,000 burnt houses. Was this not done precisely in order to prevent Serbs from returning to ‘Krajina’?
Barić: Following Oluja, some of the remaining Serbs were killed, and some property was destroyed. My research, however, has convinced me that there was no order for this to be done, especially not from the very top of the government. It occurred among the mass of soldiers, policemen and criminally-minded civilians. There is evidence of the Croatian military police recording such events, but it is another matter how many of the perpetrators were charged. This naturally left a stain upon the whole action, and made a painful impression. In contrast to Operation Bljesak [Flash], when one could say that the Croatian side behaved correctly towards the Serbs surrounded in the area of western Slavonia, at least as much as was possible in war conditions, after Oluja there were unfortunately many cases of burning and murder.
Karabeg: You believe that these were incidents rather than part of a plan?
Barić: I do not believe that the Croatian high command or state leaders had planned such acts, but it is a fact that in the euphoric and triumphant atmosphere there was no reaction to their taking place. There was a feeling of intolerance towards Serbs, formed at the start of the war. Revenge too came into play, as well as barbarism.
Karbeg: Mr Dimitrijević, were these incidents or part of a plan?
Dimitrijević: One must bear in mind that when ‘Krajina’ was occupied or liberated, depending on your point of view, the war was not yet finished. There was no definitive political solution in sight; Dayton came several months later. It is therefore possible that on the Croatian side there was an indirect or tacit approval of such acts. Naturally no side, whether the Serbians in Kosovo or the Croatians in the actions after Oluja, left written records about it, so it will be most difficult to document. If I had been born in ‘Krajina’ or had some relationship to the area, I would perhaps strike a different tone; but as someone from Serbia and as a historian I view things differently. I would say that the degree of hatred that existed between Serbs and Croats in the period 1991-5 must have had its effect too. After all, this was characteristic not only for Oluja, but also for other military or post-military operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where after the end of the war there was destruction of civilian infrastructure belonging to the opponent nation, which was often ethnically cleansed or expelled from a given area.
Knin fell in Belgrade
Karabeg: Going back to the original question, was ethnic cleansing of the Croatian Serbs carried out during Oluja?
Barić: I would say not. I would like to add that a book by the French scholar Xavier Bougarel called Bosnia: anatomy of a war was published in Belgrade in 2004, in which he analysed the problem of ethnic cleansing in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. His conclusion was that the departure of the Serb population during Oluja was ethnic self-cleansing. I myself have reached the same conclusion. This is different from the violence perpetrated by Serbs against Muslims in the Drina valley in 1992 or at Srebrenica. One cannot place an equals sign between Oluja and those events, notwithstanding the fact that as I have said the Croat side did commit acts of violence against Serbs during Oluja.
Dimitrijević: Setting aside the discussion about military and post-military operations, it seems to me that the outcome of it all was that the area was ethnically cleansed. This is the main conclusion, at least so far as the Serb side is concerned. If I too may refer to a book, a book by General Milisav Sekulić, former head of the operational department of the RSK army, was published in Belgrade several years ago under the title Knin fell in Belgrade. This in my view is an accurate conclusion, and I would leave it at that.
Translated from Zarez (Zagreb), 9 February 2006
Serb refugees after Operation Oluja