The Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia from 1992-94 arose in the immediate context of the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia following the death of Marshal Tito in 1980. The roots of ethnic, religious, economic, and ideological division were, of course, much deeper, and nowhere were such divisions so pronounced as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the historic borderland between East and West. In an era in which the entire region was dissolving into its component parts, it should not have come as a surprise that the long-standing enmities existing between Muslims and Croats in Central Bosnia should have bubbled to the surface once again to fuel the fires of civil war.
The political and cultural division of the South Slav tribal groups destined to become the modern Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs began in the sixth and seventh centuries a.d., soon after the completion of their migration into the former Illyrian provinces of what had been the Roman Empire. All fell under the domination of more powerful cultures—Germanic, Magyar, and Byzantine Greek—which they resisted to greater or lesser degrees, but which ultimately determined their basic orientation. The Slovenes and Croats adopted the Western, Roman Catholic ways of their Germanic and Magyar overlords. The Serbs, on the other hand, adopted the Eastern, Orthodox Christian mores of the Byzantine Empire.
In the sixth century, the Slovenes' ancestors moved into the southeastern region of Germanic territory as far as what is today central Austria. Dominated by the Bavarians and the Franks from 745 to the twelfth century, they fell under the rule of the Austrian Hapsburgs in the thirteenth century and remained a constituent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. The Croats' forefathers reached the area of modern Croatia in the sixth century. In the early tenth century, the Croat leader Tomislav established an independent Croat kingdom that incorporated most of present-day Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tomislav was crowned king of the Croats by Pope John X in 925, but the unified Croat kingdom was shortlived, being subject to attack from its neighbors and riven by in-fighting among the Croatian nobles. Defeated by Hungarian king Ladislas I (1077-95) in 1091, the Croats accepted his successor, Kalman the Bookman (1095-1116) as king of both Hungary and Croatia in the so-called Pacta Conventa in 1102. Following the Battle of Mohacs and the extinction of the Arpad dynasty in 1526, the Croats chose Hapsburg prince Ferdinand (later Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, 1531-64) as king. Thenceforth, with only brief periods of quasi-independence until 1918, the Croats were ruled as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Croatia retained a degree of autonomy but was generally under Hungarian control except for the so-called Military Frontier (Krajina) in eastern Croatia created by the Hapsburg emperors in 1578 as a bulwark against the Ottomans. Ruled directly from Vienna according to its own customs and laws, the Military Frontier was populated by peasants, including many Germans, Magyars, and Serbs as well as Croats, who were granted land in return for military service.
The ancestors of the modern Serbs and Montenegrins settled in the mountainous regions of the eastern Balkans in the seventh century and were nominally subjects of the Byzantine Empire, thus giving their culture an Eastern orientation. However, Serbian tribal leaders (the zupans) frequently sought to throw off Byzantine rule and establish an independent Serbian state. The weakness of the Byzantine Empire in the late twelfth century allowed Serbian zupan Stjepan Nemanya to establish an independent Serbian kingdom in 1168, which he ruled until his death in 1196. The medieval Serbian kingdom reached its apogee under Stjepan Dushan (Stjepan Urosh IV, 1331-55).
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the borderland between the Croats and the Serbs, was contested ground throughout the Middle Ages, as the Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, and finally the Ottoman Turks vied to control it. The Bosnians gained independence from Serbian domination in the mid-tenth century only to fall under Hungarian influence in 1254. In 1376, the greatest of the Bosnian rulers, King Tvrtko I (1353-91), aided by the Ottoman Turks, expanded his rule into western Serbia and took most of the Adriatic coast. However, the Bosnian kingdom created by Tvrtko I disintegrated after his death in 1391, and in 1393, the Hungarians recovered those portions of Croatia and Dalmatia that they had lost.
The invasion and eventual conquest of the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks, which began in the fourteenth century, added further complexity to the region's ethnic, political, religious, and cultural rivalries. On June 28, 1389, the Ottoman Turks under Mursad I and his son Bayazed soundly defeated a coalition of Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, and Wallachians led by Serbian prince Lazar I in the Battle of Kosovo-Polje—"the Field of Blackbirds"—but it took the Turks until 1459 to complete their conquest of Serbia and incorporate it into the Ottoman Empire. In 1463, the Ottomans extended their conquests into Bosnia, and in 1483 they took Herzegovina. Zeta (modern Montenegro) fell in 1499.
The conquest of the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks also established the basic tripartite religious division of the Balkan peoples that still exists today. The South Slavs had been converted to Christianity by the end of the tenth century, with the Serbs in Serbia and eastern Bosnia generally accepting the Greek formulation, and the Slovenes and Croats adopting the Latin version. Religious differences between Serbs and Croats were solidified by the Great Schism of 1054 that divided Christendom into competing western Roman Catholic and eastern Greek Orthodox branches; by the domination of the Croats by the Roman Catholic Magyars; and by the nomination in 1219 of Rastko (later Saint Sava), the son of Stjepan Nemanya, as the Orthodox archbishop of the Serbs. Further dissension among the Christian populations of the region was created by the adoption of the Bogomil heresy as the official religion of the medieval Bosnian kingdom.2
The third major religious competitor arrived with the influx of Muslim Ottoman rulers and administrators in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the subsequent conversion to Islam of many Christians desiring to preserve their political and economic status. Converts to Islam—notably the Bogomil heretics—were rewarded by their Ottoman masters with land and administrative positions, thereby establishing a pattern of political and economic power relationships that persisted into the nineteenth century as a major cause of strife in areas under Ottoman rule. Although changed and attenuated over time, the pattern was one in which a primarily agricultural population of Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs were dominated politically and economically by Muslim landowners, merchants, and government officials.
The Slavic peoples of the Balkans were caught up in the romantic nationalist movements of the nineteenth century, movements that had as their principal goal the incorporation of culturally and linguistically similar peoples into independent nation states. Led largely by intellectuals, romantic nationalism in the region manifested itself in several forms. There was, in the first instance, a movement for the creation of a South Slav nation state that would incorporate all of the South Slav groups, but there were also more strident variants based on narrower definitions of religious and cultural identity.
Thoroughly dominated by the Germanic Roman Catholic culture of the Hapsburgs, the Slovenes nevertheless retained elements of their Slavic cultural identity that were revived in the mid-nineteenth century. Although they generally favored the concept of South Slav unity, the Slovenes remained committed until 1918 to the idea of Slovene political autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The unity of Roman Catholic Croats was promoted in the mid-nineteenth century by the liberal bishop of Djakovo, Josip Strossmeyer, as part of a broader program that advocated the unification of all the South Slavs. The Croatian Party of Rights—founded in 1880 by Ante Starcevic, who espoused the Croats' complete autonomy and scorned the Serbs and other South Slavic peoples as inferior—espoused a more virulent version of Croat nationalism. Starcevic's strident vision of Croat nationalism was reflected in the Ustasha movement of the 1930s and 1940s and revived again in the early 1990s with an even stronger anti-Serb bias.
The Serbs also dreamed of a "Greater Serbia," one that would gather all of the Orthodox Serbs scattered throughout the Balkans under a single independent government. Although its roots lay in the nineteenth century romantic Serbian cultural nationalism of Vuk Karadzic and the claims for Serbian leadership of the movement for South Slav unity put forward by Ilya Garashanin in the 1840s, the "Greater Serbia" movement soon took on violent and xenophobic overtones. This more virulent and exclusionary form of Serb nationalism was promoted by Kosta Pecanac in the 1920s and 1930s, refined by Stjepan Molsevic and Nikola Kalabic in the early 1940s, and resurrected by Dobrica Cosic and other prominent members of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Belgrade in the late 1980s.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its mixed population of Croats (mainly in Herzegovina), Serbs (mainly in northern and eastern Bosnia), and Muslims (mainly in central Bosnia and in urban areas), failed to develop a unique national cultural identity of its own in the nineteenth century. Instead, both the advocates of "Greater Croatia" and the advocates of "Greater Serbia" coveted it. The latter also yearned to incorporate the substantial Serb population of the Croatian Krajina.
The growing sense of cultural nationalism among the South Slavs was accompanied by efforts to achieve political independence from their Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian overlords. The Croats supported the Austrian Hapsburgs in the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1848 and briefly obtained their independence from Magyar domination. However, the Croats were poorly paid for their efforts, and with the Compromise of 1867 and the creation of the Dual Monarchy, they were returned to Hungarian control. The Serbs were more successful. Beginning with a revolt in 1804, the Serbs—led by the competing houses of Milosh Obrenovich and Alexander Karageorgevich—achieved autonomy in 1830, followed by practical independence from their faltering Ottoman masters. Serbia's and Montenegro's formal independence was recognized on July 13, 1878, in the
Treaty of Berlin, which ended the 1877-78 war between Serbia (aided by Russia) and Turkey. Milan Obrenovich became king of the new Serbian monarchy in March, 1882, and his dynasty was replaced by that of the Karageorgevichs in 1903.
With the decay of Ottoman power in the nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire extended its influence eastward into Bosnia-Herzegovina, for which it competed with Serbia. The Treaty of Berlin recognized the Hapsburg claim in 1878, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was occupied by Austro-Hungarian troops. Bosnia-Herzegovina was formally annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October, 1908, but the Hapsburgs left the exploitive system of Muslim landowners and administrators in place, thereby arousing the nationalist and religious animosity of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats alike. However, it was the Serbian nationalists who led the opposition to Hapsburg domination, the Croats being closer in culture and religion to the Austrian overlords.
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist aided by the Serbian intelligence service, assassinated Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, thereby precipitating the First World War. Following three abortive Austrian attacks on Serbia in 1914, the Austrians, this time with German assistance, soundly defeated the Serbs in 1915. Forced to evacuate their country under fire, the Serbian government and the remnants of the Serbian Army were able to regain the lost ground with substantial aid from the western Allies operating from Salonika in 1916-18.
With the defeat and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the resurgent Serbs annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, and representatives of the Yugoslav peoples declared for the union of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. King Nicholas of Montenegro was deposed in November, 1918, and Montenegro's national assembly declared in favor of union with Serbia. On December 4, 1918, the United Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formally proclaimed under the regency of Serbian prince Alexander Karageorgevich. It soon became clear the Serbs would dominate the new monarchy—giving Croats, Montenegrins, Bosnians, and other minority groups reason to oppose the new state. The constitution was approved by only a slim majority of the delegates to the constitutional convention after the Croats, led by Stjepan Radic and members of his Croatian Peasants Party, and others walked out.3
With the death of King Peter in 1921, Alexander Karageorgevich assumed the throne as King Alexander I. He dissolved the parliament in 1929 and subsequently ruled as a dictator, renaming his realm the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Alexander's harsh rule, coupled with preferential treatment for the Serbs, the dispossession of Bosnian Muslims in favor of Serbian war veterans, and the suppression of political opposition, prompted the creation of groups such as the Ustasha. The latter, a proto-fascist Croat independence movement formed by Ante Pavelic in 1929, drew support from Italy and was linked to similar violence-prone nationalist groups. A Macedonian nationalist linked to the Ustasha subsequently assassinated King Alexander in Marseilles in 1934, and a regency was established to rule on behalf of his eleven-year-old son, Peter.
The creation of an independent South Slav kingdom in 1918 fulfilled the romantic dreams of generations of South Slav nationalist intellectuals but ignored the very real differences among the new kingdom's 12 million inhabitants. Centuries of ethnic and religious hatred, economic and political exploitation, and cultural conflict had left their mark, however. The result was that the Yugoslavian kingdom was beset by internal strife from the beginning. Led by Vladimir Macek after the assassination of Stjepan Radic in 1928, the Croatian Peasants Party finally obtained the concession of Croat autonomy within the Yugoslav kingdom in 1939. That achievement did much to tamp down Croat dissension, but the Serbs resented it, and it provoked demands for similar status by other minority groups.
In March, 1941, the Yugoslav government was forced to sign the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The government's actions provoked a successful coup by Yugoslav army officers on March 27. King Peter was subsequently declared of age, and Prince Paul's regency ended. Although the new Yugoslavian government did not renounce the treaty with the Axis powers, Germany sought to further ensure the protection of its southern flank as it went to the aid of Italy in Greece and mounted its attack against the Soviet Union. Accordingly, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941. Quick to seize upon the divisions in Yugoslavian society, the Axis powers successfully played one group against another, and an armistice favorable to the Axis was signed on April 17, 1941.
Slovenia was divided up among the Axis powers, and Ante Pavelic and the Ustasha, interned by Italy since 1934, were put in charge of the newly created Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska [NDH]). Opposed by Vladmir Macek and the Croat Peasant Party, which controlled the rural areas, Pavelic's fascists annexed Bosnia, ceded a large part of the Dalmatian coast and other areas to Italy, and focused on eliminating their Serbian enemies.
Yugoslavian Muslims also collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis, a fact often suppressed by today's Bosniaks and their supporters. Many Muslims joined the Ustasha, and three divisions of Muslim volunteers served with the German forces, the best known being the 13 th Waffen-SS Mountain Division "Handschar," raised primarily in Bosnia-Herzegovina.4
Although many Croats and Muslims supported the Axis powers, most Serbs favored the anti-Croat and anti-Communist Chetnik forces led by Col. Dragoljub "Draza" Mihailovic, sometime minister of war in the Yugoslavian government in exile. The British supplied Mihailovic's Chetnik guerrilla army until they decided to shift their support to Croatia-born Josip Broz Tito and his Communist partisans. The British view was that Tito's par tisans, most of whom were Croats, were more effective in opposing the Axis occupation forces. Even so, the partisans devoted a good deal of their effort to destroying their Chetnik and Ustasha rivals. Indeed, the fascist Ustasha, the royalist Chetniks, and the Communist partisans murdered, imprisoned, and otherwise oppressed each other with equal zeal and abandon, thereby exacerbating the existing divisions and hatreds. According to one estimate, some 1.8 million Yugoslavs were dead by 1945, about 11 percent of the prewar population.5
The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Given the existing divisions within the Yugoslavian state, the discipline and focus of Tito and his Communist partisans won out, and they emerged as the dominant force after World War II. On November 29, 1945, Tito proclaimed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and quickly moved to suppress ethnic and religious nationalism and enforce socialist unity on his fractious countrymen. The Tito-led government subsequently created six republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina—as constituent parts of the Yugoslav federation. In 1971, Tito recognized the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a distinct ethnic group, and Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution established the autonomous regions of Vojvodina and Kosovo.
Despite Tito's strong efforts to suppress ethnic separatism and internal strife, the conflict between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims simmered just beneath the surface, fueled by the fevered dreams of exclusionist Serbian and Croatian nationalists, the deteriorating economic conditions, and demands for political reform. Speculation was rampant about the possible disintegration of Yugoslavia that was sure to follow Tito's demise. Yet the reality proved to be worse than anyone had feared. With Tito's death in 1980, the long-suppressed nationalism of the SFRY's component elements exploded. Resurgent Serbian nationalism, fanned by the revival of the "Greater Serbia" ideology of Dobrica Cosic and his ilk, was compounded by the machinations of Slobodan Milosevic, who skillfully manipulated the frustrations and anxieties of the Serbs—which were attributable to the fact that Serbia, with 40 percent of the population, had only one-eighth of the republic's voting power.6 Nevertheless, the Serbs generally supported the continuation of central control embodied in the SFRY, as did the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavian National Army (JNA), often described as "the last bastion of Titoism."7 At the same time, the Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, and Muslims, spurred on by nationalist aspirations for independence, were all eager to throw off the Serbian yoke. This centrifugal trend coincided with the ferment of the revolution sweeping the Communists from power in Eastern Europe, but the Yugoslavian elections in early 1990 returned six new presidents for the six constituent republics of the SFRY, only one of whom, Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was not a former Communist. Slobodan Milosevic, an advocate of "Greater Serbia," became president of Serbia, and Franjo Tudjman, an advocate of "Greater Croatia," became president of Croatia.
The SFRY's dissolution began with the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia declaring their independence on June 25, 1991. Both new republics were recognized by the European Union (EU) in January, 1992, and by the United States that April. However, the Serbian-dominated rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) was unwilling to let either state go without a fight.8 Slovenia, distant from Belgrade and without significant minorities, was prepared to defend her independence by force, and after the Serbian-led JNA lost several skirmishes to the well-armed, well-trained, thirty-five-thousand-man Slovenian territorial defense force, the withdrawal of JNA troops was negotiated.9 Slovenia then proceeded to make good its independence and fortunately remained outside the bloody conflict that engulfed first Croatia and then Bosnia-Herzegovina.10
The new Republic of Croatia was less well prepared to resist the Serbian onslaught, particularly in view of its significant Serbian minority population in the eastern Krajina region. In the summer of 1991, the Serbs in Croatia, aided directly by Serbia, the rump FRY, and the JNA, rebelled, seized 30 percent of Croatia's territory by September, 1991, and proclaimed their own independent "Republic of Serbian Krajina."11 The fighting was horrific, and both sides committed atrocities—although the Serbs showed themselves to be masters of massacre, rape, concentration camp operations, and the techniques of ethnic cleansing.
Under pressure from the United Nations, the United States, and the states of the European Union, the JNA agreed to withdraw from Croatia at the end of 1991. Unfortunately, the UN/U.S./EU intervention served mainly to confirm the Serbian rebels' seizure of territory, a situation that was not corrected by the temporary peace agreement brokered by UN envoy Cyrus Vance and signed in February, 1992.12 In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 743, United Nations Protective Force (UNPROFOR) I was deployed to Croatia in March, 1992, to enforce the cease-fire. Four UN-controlled Protected Areas (UNPA)—Sectors North, South, East, and West—were established, heavy weapons were turned over to the UNPROFOR by both sides, and the open conflict subsided. However, the Krajina Serbs continued to engage in the ethnic cleansing of Croats in the areas under their control (the so-called pink areas), and fighting continued between the Krajina Serbs and Croatian forces. In January, 1993, President Tudjman, fed up with the UN peacekeeping forces' ineffectiveness and angered by continued Serbian/FRY interference, launched rearmed Croatian forces on a one-hundred-kilometer front in northern Dalmatia, and the Croatian army regained sovereign control over Sectors North, South, and West.13
Meanwhile, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, independence was proclaimed on March 3, 1992, following a referendum on February 29 supported by Bosnian Muslims and Croats. On April 7, the United States recognized the new Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (RBiH). The Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum on independence, however, and their leader, Radovan Karadzic, immediately demanded national self-determination and the right to join with Serbia. With the overt aid of Serbia, the rump FRY, and the JNA, the Bosnian Serbs quickly formed the Bosnian Serb army and proceeded to seize some 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina's national territory by force of arms accompanied by a terror campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim and Croat populations in the newly proclaimed "Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina."14 By the middle of 1992, the BSA, aided by the JNA, had surrounded Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim and Croat defenders and begun slowly compressing them into a number of slowly shrinking enclaves.
A conference was held in London on August 26 to coordinate UN and European Community (EC) efforts to pressure the Serbs to abandon their support of the aggressive actions of ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In October, UNPROFOR II forces were deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina ostensibly for the purpose of facilitating the delivery of humanitarian relief supplies to the victims of the ongoing conflict between Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat alliance. At the same time the EC deployed a force of unarmed observers, for the most part military officers with intelligence backgrounds, to monitor the situation and, where possible, facilitate cease-fire arrangements. Focused on preventing the breakup of Bosnia-Herzegovina into its three natural constituent parts, the UN, the United States, and the EU supported a series of peace plans for Bosnia-Herzegovina—most notably the Vance-Owen Peace Plan revealed in January, 1993—none of which met the wholehearted approval of all the warring factions. Indeed, only the Bosnian Croats supported all of the peace proposals advanced by the UN and the EU.
From March, 1992, until the end of the year, Alija Izetbegovic's RBiH government in Sarajevo struggled to get organized, form an effective military force, and establish some defense against the Serb onslaught. During that period, it was expedient for the Muslim-dominated central government to cooperate with the Bosnian Croats (who had organized themselves as the Croat Community of Herceg-Bosna) against the common enemy. Such an alliance was all the more desirable in that, with admirable foresight, the Bosnian Croats—forewarned by the earlier JNA attacks on Slovenia and Croatia—had already begun to form a military force, the Croatian Defense Council, to defend their territory from expected Serb/JNA aggression.15 However, by the end of the year, relations between the two allies had begun to deteriorate at an ever-accelerating pace. Radical Muslims in central Bosnia, frustrated by the Serbs but emboldened by the growing strength of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina and reinforced by Muslim refugees from the fighting in the Krajina and eastern Bosnia as well as by fanatical mujahideen from abroad, were planning an open attack on their erstwhile ally, the Bosnian Croats.
Was this article helpful?