Excavations in Krapina have revealed that the area has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age. Although the results of the excavations are in the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb, you can get a general picture of Neanderthal life in the outdoor ‘prehistoric park’ at Krapina. Eastern Slavonia was the base for what became known as the Vucedol culture, which reached Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic before moving southward to the Adriatic islands.
The Illyrians, an Indo-European people, began migrating into the region around 1000 BC. Although Greeks set up trading posts on the eastern Adriatic coast in the 6th century BC, their influence was kept in check by the warlike Illyrians. Invading Celts pushed the Illyrians further south in the 4th century BC, towards what is today Albania. Later, the Romans pushed their way into the region and, in 168 BC, they finally conquered Genthius, the last Illyrian king.
The initial Roman province of Illyricum was gradually enlarged during a series of wars that brought much of the Dalmatian coast within their control. By 11 BC, Rome conquered much of the interior, which was inhabited by the Pannonian tribe, extending the empire’s reach to the middle and lower Danube. The realm was reorganised into Dalmatia (the former Illyricum), and Upper and Lower Pannonia, which covered much of the interior of modern Croatia.
The Romans ruled the area for five centuries, making Salona (now Solin) their administrative headquarters. Their network of roads, linking the coast with the Aegean and Black Seas and with the Danube, facilitated trade, making the region a nice money-maker for the Romans. In addition to Salona, other important Roman towns included Jadera (Zadar), Parentium (Poreč), Polensium (Pula) and, later, Spalato (Split).
When the Roman Empire began to crack in the late 3rd century AD, two strong Dalmatian emperors emerged. Emperor Diocletian was born in Salona in AD 236 and became emperor in AD 285. While establishing strong central control, he divided Dalmatia into Dalmatia Salonitana, with its capital at Salona, and Dalmatia Praevalitana, with its capital at Scodra (Schkoder in modern Albania). By placing the two regions in separate dioceses he sowed the seeds for the later division into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. In AD 305, Diocletian retired to his palace in Split, today the greatest Roman remnant in Eastern Europe. The ruins of the Roman capital of Salona (now Solin; p200) are evocative, but the amphitheatre of Pula gives a stirring impression of Roman glory. The last Roman leader to rule a united empire was Theodosius (the Great), who adeptly managed to stave off serious threats from the northern Visigoths. On Theodosius’ death in AD 395, the empire was formally divided into eastern and western realms. What is now Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina were assigned to the Western Roman Empire, while present-day Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia went to what was to become the Byzantine Empire. Visigoth, Hun and Lombard invasions marked the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century.
While the Roman Empire was disintegrating, the Croats and other Slavic tribes were tending fields and raising livestock in a swampy terrain that roughly covered the area of modern Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. It appears that early in the 7th century they moved south across the Danube and joined the Avars (Eurasian nomads) in their attacks on Byzantine Dalmatia. Salona and Epidaurus were ravaged, their inhabitants taking refuge in Spalato (Split) and Ragusa (Dubrovnik) respectively. Sometimes the Croat and Slavic tribes joined the Avars in their attacks on Byzantium and other times they were persuaded by Byzantium to attack the Avars.
By the middle of the 7th century the Croat tribe had begun to settle in Pannonia and Dalmatia, mingling with earlier Slav settlers on the Pannonian plains and forming communities around the Dalmatian towns of Jadera (Zadar), Aeona (Nin) and Tragurium (Trogir). During the course of the 8th century the Dalmatian and Pannonian Croats organised themselves around powerful clans, one of which was called Hrvat (Croat), a name that the clan gave to its territory in central Dalmatia, Bijela Hrvatska (White Croatia).
Charlemagne’s Frankish army seized Dalmatia in AD 800, which led to the Christianisation of the Croat rulers in a series of mass baptisms. After Charlemagne’s death in AD 814, the Pannonian Croats revolted unsuccessfully against Frankish rule without the support of the Dalmatian Croats, whose major coastal cities remained under the influence of the Byzantine Empire throughout the 9th century. Even as Dalmatia accepted the political domination of Byzantium, the spread of Christianity encouraged cultural ties with Rome, which proved to be the unifying factor in forging a national identity.
The first ruler to unite Pannonia and Dalmatia was Tomislav, who was crowned in AD 925 and recognised by the pope as king. His territory included virtually all of modern Croatia as well as part of Bosnia and the coast of Montenegro.
By the mid-10th century, the country’s fragile unity was threatened by power struggles in its ruling class. Venice took advantage of the disarray to launch an invasion of Dalmatia at the turn of the 11th century that established its first foothold on the coast.
Krešimir IV (1058–74) regained control over Dalmatia with the help of the papacy, but the kingdom once again descended into anarchy upon his death. The next king, Zvonimir (1075–89), also cemented his authority with the help of the pope, but the independent land he forged did not survive his death.
Hungary’s King Ladislav invaded northern Croatia in 1091 but his plans to conquer Dalmatia were thwarted by a Byzantine attack on Hungary, which kept Dalmatia under Byzantine control. Although Ladislav’s successor, King Koloman, managed to persuade the Dalmatian nobility to accept his rule in exchange for self-government, his victory was somewhat limited by the increasing control that Venice was exerting over the Dalmatian coast.
Upon Koloman’s death in 1116, Venice launched new assaults on Biograd, Zadar, and the islands of Lošinj, Pag, Rab and Krk. Venice laid siege to Zadar for 10 years but managed to capture it only after the doge of Venice paid 13th-century crusaders handsomely to attack and sack the town before proceeding on to Constantinople. Venetian rule of the Croatian coast lasted nearly 700 years and many of the coastal and island towns from Rovinj and Rab in the north to Korčula and Hvar in the south still show a marked Venetian influence.
The 13th century also brought new troubles in the form of a Mongol invasion that pushed King Bela IV of Hungary down to Trogir. Dalmatian cities warred with each other and Venice again took advantage of the confusion to consolidate its hold on Zadar. The death of King Bela in 1270 led to another power struggle among the Croatian nobility, which allowed Venice to add Šibenik and Trogir to its possessions.
King Ludovik I of Hungary (1342–82) re-established control over the country and even persuaded Venice to relinquish Dalmatia. But the Hungarian victory was short-lived. New conflicts emerged upon Ludovik’s death and the Croatian nobility rallied around Ladislas of Naples who was crowned King in Zadar in 1403. Short of funds, Ladislas then sold Zadar to Venice in 1409 for a paltry 100,000 ducats and renounced his rights to Dalmatia. In the early 15th century, Venice solidified its grip on the Dalmatian coastline from Zadar to Dubrovnik and remained in control until the Napoleonic invasion of 1797.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire brought new threats to 16th-century Croatia. The defeat of the Serbs in 1389 at Kosovo opened the door to Bosnia, which did not last long after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Sensing nasty weather from the east, the Croatian nobility desperately appealed to foreign powers for help but to no avail. The Ottomans continued their relentless advance, virtually wiping out the cream of Croatian leadership at the 1493 Battle of Krbavsko Polje. Despite the sudden unity of the remaining noble families, one city after another fell to the Ottoman sultans. The important bishopric at Zagreb heavily fortified the cathedral in Kaptol, which remained untouched, but the gateway town of Knin fell in 1521. Towns were burned, churches and monasteries sacked, and tens of thousands of citizens were either killed or dragged off into slavery.
Neither Hungary nor Austria was able to protect Croatia against the Ottoman onslaught and the Croats continued to lose territory. By the end of the century only a narrow strip of territory around Zagreb, Karlovac and Varaždin was under Habsburg control. The Adriatic coast was threatened by the Turks but never captured and Ragusa (Dubrovnik) maintained its independence throughout the turmoil.
To form a buffer against the Turks the Austrians maintained a string of forts south of Zagreb called the Vojna Krajina (Military Frontier). Initially open to anyone who wanted to live on the marshy land, the Habsburgs invited Vlachs to settle the land in the 16th century. At the time, most Vlachs belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which irritated the Croatian Sabor (Parliament); however, they were much more irritated by the arrangement allowing the settlers to escape the harsh feudal system that the Hungarians had instituted in the country. Despite repeated efforts by the Croatian nobility to either turn them into serfs or get rid of them completely, the Serbian peasants stayed on their land until they were expelled in 1995.
It wasn’t until the Ottoman rout at the siege of Vienna in 1683 that Croatia and much of Europe finally freed themselves from the Turkish threat. In the Treaty of Sremski Karlovci (1699), the Turks renounced all claims to Hungary and Croatia. During the 18th century, Croat and Serb immigrants flooded into Slavonia joined by Hungarians, Slovaks, Albanian Catholics and Jews. Under the rule of Maria Theresa of Austria, the region returned to stability.
Venetian rule in Dalmatia and Istria was a ruthless record of nearly unbroken economic exploitation. Early in their rule, the Venetians ordered the destruction of Dalmatian mulberry trees in order to kill the silk trade for no other apparent reason than to keep the region poor and dependent. Other trees also suffered as the Venetians systematically denuded the landscape in order to provide wood for their ships. Olive oil, figs, wine, fish and salt were in effect confiscated, since merchants were forced to sell only to Venetians and only at the price the Venetians were willing to pay. Dalmatian fishermen were unable to salt their fish for preservation because salt was kept unreasonably expensive by a state monopoly. Shipbuilding was effectively banned since Venice tolerated no competition with its own ships. No roads or schools were built, and no investment was made in local industry. All manufactured articles had to be imported and, by the latter half of the 18th century, even agricultural products had to be imported to keep the population – barely surviving on roots and grass – from starving to death. In addition to Venice’s iron-fisted economic policies, the population was also subject to malaria and plague epidemics that ravaged the region.
Habsburg support for the restoration of the French monarchy led to Napoleon’s invasion of Austria’s Italian states in 1796. After conquering Venice in 1797 he agreed to transfer Dalmatia to Austria in the Treaty of Campo Formio in exchange for other concessions. Croatian hopes that Dalmatia would be united with Slavonia were soon dashed as the Habsburgs made it clear that the two territories would retain separate administrations.
Austrian control of Dalmatia only lasted until Napoleon’s 1805 victory over Austrian and Prussian forces at Austerlitz forced Austria to cede the Dalmatian coast to France. Ragusa (Dubrovnik) quickly surrendered to French forces. Napoleon renamed his conquest the ‘Illyrian provinces’ and moved with characteristic swiftness to reform the crumbling territory. A tree-planting programme was established to reforest the barren hills. Since almost the entire population was illiterate, the new government set up primary schools, high schools and a college at Zadar. Roads and hospitals were built and new crops introduced. A programme was instituted to drain the marshes that were breeding malarial mosquitoes. Yet the French regime remained unpopular, partly because the anticlerical French were staunchly opposed by the clergy and partly because the population was heavily taxed to pay for the reforms.
The fall of the Napoleonic empire after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign led to the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which recognised Austria’s claims to Dalmatia and placed the rest of Croatia under the jurisdiction of Austria’s Hungarian province. For the Dalmatians, the new regime meant a return to the status quo since the Austrians restored the former Italian elite to power. For the northern Croats the agreement meant submission to Hungary’s insistent desire to impose the Hungarian language and culture on the population.
One of the effects of Hungarian heavy-handedness was to create the first stirrings of a national identity among the southern Slavic people. The sense of a shared identity first found expression in an ‘Illyrian’ movement in the 1830s that centred on the revival of the Croatian language. Traditionally, upper-class Dalmatians spoke Italian, and northern Croats spoke German or Hungarian. The establishment of the first ‘Illyrian’ newspaper in 1834, written in Zagreb dialect, prompted the Croatian Sabor to call for the teaching of the Slavic language in schools and even for the unification of Dalmatia with Slavonia. Despite Hungarian threats, in 1847 the Sabor voted to make ‘Illyrian’ the national language.
The increasing desire for more autonomy and the eventual unification of Dalmatia and Slavonia led the Croats to intervene on the side of the Habsburgs against a Hungarian revolutionary movement that sought to free the country from Austrian rule. The Croatian Sabor informed Austria that it would send the Croatian commander Josip Jelačić to fight the Hungarian rebels in return for the cancellation of Hungary’s jurisdiction over Croatia, among other demands. Unfortunately, Jelačić’s military campaign was unsuccessful. Russian intervention quelled the Hungarian rebellion and Austria firmly rejected any further demands for autonomy from its Slavic subjects.
Disillusionment spread after 1848, and was amplified by the birth of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867. The monarchy placed Croatia and Slavonia within the Hungarian administration, while Dalmatia remained within Austria. Whatever limited form of self-government the Croats enjoyed under the Habsburgs disappeared along with 55% of their revenues earmarked for the imperial treasury.
The river of discontent running through late-19th-century Croatia forked into two streams that dominated the political landscape for the next century. The old ‘Illyrian’ movement became the National Party, dominated by the brilliant Bishop Josif Juraf Strossmayer. Strossmayer believed that the differences between Serbs and Croats were magnified by the manipulations of the Habsburgs and the Hungarians, and that only through Jugoslavenstvo (south-Slavic unity) could the aspirations of both peoples be realised. Strossmayer supported the Serbian independence struggle in Serbia but favoured a Yugoslav entity within the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than complete independence.
By contrast, the Party of Rights, led by the militantly anti-Serb Ante Starčević, envisioned an independent Croatia made up of Slavonia, Dalmatia, the Krajina, Slovenia, Istria, and part of Bosnia and Hercegovina. At the time, the Eastern Orthodox Church was encouraging the Serbs to form a national identity based upon their religion. Until the 19th century, Orthodox inhabitants of Croatia identified themselves as Vlachs, Morlachs, Serbs, Orthodox or even Greeks, but with the help of Starčević’s attacks, the sense of a separate Serbian Orthodox identity within Croatia developed.
Under the theory of ‘divide and rule’, the Hungarian-appointed ban (viceroy or governor) of Croatia blatantly favoured the Serbs and the Orthodox Church, but his strategy backfired. The first organised resistance formed in Dalmatia. Croat representatives in Rijeka and Serb representatives in Zadar joined together in 1905 to demand the unification of Dalmatia and Slavonia with a formal guarantee of Serbian equality as a nation. The spirit of unity mushroomed, and by 1906 Croat-Serb coalitions had taken over local government in Dalmatia and Slavonia, forming a serious threat to the Hungarian power structure.
With the outbreak of WWI, Croatia’s future was again up for grabs. Sensing that they would once again be pawns to the Great Powers, a Croatian delegation, the ‘Yugoslav Committee’, convinced the Serbian government to agree to the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy that would rule over the two countries. The Yugoslav Committee became the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and they quickly negotiated the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to be based in Belgrade. Although many Croats were unsure about Serbian intentions, they were very sure about Italian intentions since Italy lost no time in seizing Pula, Rijeka and Zadar in November 1918.
Problems with the kingdom began almost immediately. Currency reforms benefited Serbs at the expense of the Croats. A treaty between Yugoslavia and Italy gave Istria, Zadar and a number of islands to Italy. The new constitution abolished Croatia’s Sabor and centralised power in Belgrade while new electoral districts under-represented the Croats.
Opposition to the new regime was led by the Croat Stjepan Radić, who remained favourable to the idea of Yugoslavia but wished to transform it into a federal democracy. His alliance with the Serb Svetpzar Pribićevic proved profoundly threatening to the regime and Radić was assassinated in 1928. Exploiting fears of civil war, on 6 January 1929 King Aleksandar in Belgrade proclaimed a royal dictatorship, abolished political parties and suspended parliamentary government, thus ending any hope of democratic change.
One day after the proclamation, a Bosnian Croat, Ante Pavelić, set up the Ustaše Croatian Liberation Movement in Zagreb with the stated aim of establishing an independent state by force if necessary. Fearing arrest, he fled to Sofia in Bulgaria and made contact with anti-Serbian Macedonian revolutionaries before fleeing to Italy. There, he established training camps for his organisation under Mussolini’s benevolent eye. After organising various disturbances, in 1934 he and the Macedonians succeeded in assassinating King Aleksandar in Marseilles while he was on a state visit. Italy responded by closing down the training camps and imprisoning Pavelić and many of his followers. When Germany invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941 the exiled Ustaše were quickly installed by the Germans, with the support of the Italians who hoped to see their own territorial aims in Dalmatia realised.
Within days the Independent State of Croatia (NDH; Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), headed by Pavelić, issued a range of decrees designed to persecute and eliminate the regime’s ‘enemies’ who were mainly Jews, Roma and Serbs. Over 80% of the Jewish population was rounded up and packed off to extermination camps between 1941 and 1945. Serbs fared no better. The Ustaše programme called for ‘one-third of Serbs killed, one-third expelled and one-third converted to Catholicism’, a programme that was carried out with a brutality that appalled even the Nazis. Villages conducted their own personal pogroms against Serbs and extermination camps were set up, most notoriously at Jasenovac (south of Zagreb), which also liquidated Jews, Roma and political prisoners. The exact number of Serb victims is uncertain and controversial, with Croatian historians tending to minimise the figures and Serbian historians tending to maximise them. The number of Serb deaths ranged from 60, 000 to 600, 000, but the most reliable estimates settle somewhere between 80, 000 to 120, 000, including victims of village pogroms. Whatever the number, it’s clear that the NDH and its supporters made a diligent effort to eliminate the entire Serb population.
Not all Croats supported these policies. The Ustaše regime drew most of its support from the Lika region southwest of Zagreb and western Hercegovina, but Pavelić’s agreement to cede a good part of Dalmatia to Italy was highly unpopular to say the least and the Ustaše had almost no support in that region.
Armed resistance to the regime took the form of Serbian ‘Chetnik’ formations led by General Draza Mihailovic, which began as an antifascist rebellion but soon degenerated into massacres of Croats in eastern Croatia and Bosnia.
The most effective antifascist struggle was conducted by National Liberation Partisan units and their leader, Josip Broz, known as Tito. With their roots in the outlawed Yugoslavian Communist Party, the Partisans attracted long-suffering Yugoslav intellectuals, Croats disgusted with Chetnik massacres, Serbs disgusted with Ustaše massacres, and antifascists of all kinds. The Partisans gained wide popular support with their early programme, which, although vague, appeared to envision a postwar Yugoslavia that would be based on a loose federation.
Although the Allies initially backed the Serbian Chetniks, it became apparent that the Partisans were waging a far more focused and determined fight against the Nazis. With the diplomatic and military support of Churchill and other Allied powers, the Partisans controlled much of Croatia by 1943. The Partisans established functioning local governments in the territory they seized, which later eased their transition to power. On 20 October 1944 Tito entered Belgrade with the Red Army and was made prime minister. When Germany surrendered in 1945, Pavelić and the Ustaše fled and the Partisans entered Zagreb.
The remnants of the NDH army, desperate to avoid falling into the hands of the Partisans, attempted to cross into Austria at Bleiburg. A small British contingent met the 50, 000 troops and promised to intern them outside Yugoslavia in exchange for their surrender. It was a trick. The troops were forced into trains that headed back into Yugoslavia where the Partisans awaited them. The ensuing massacre claimed the lives of at least 30, 000 men (although the exact number is in doubt) and left a permanent stain on the Yugoslav government.
Tito’s attempt to retain control of the Italian city of Trieste and parts of southern Austria faltered in the face of Allied opposition, but Dalmatia and most of Istria were made a permanent part of postwar Yugoslavia. The good news was that Tito was determined to create a state in which no ethnic group dominated the political landscape. Croatia became one of six republics – along with Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Slovenia – in a tightly configured federation. The bad news was that Tito effected this delicate balance by creating a one-party state and rigorously stamping out all opposition whether nationalist, royalist or religious. The government’s hostility to organised religion, particularly the Catholic Church, stemmed from its perception that the Church was complicit in the murderous nationalism that surfaced during WWII.
During the 1960s, the concentration of power in Belgrade became an increasingly testy issue as it became apparent that money from the more prosperous republics of Slovenia and Croatia was being distributed to the poorer republics of Montenegro and Bosnia and Hercegovina. The problem seemed particularly blatant in Croatia, which saw money from its prosperous tourist business on the Adriatic coast flow into Belgrade. At the same time, Serbs in Croatia were over-represented in the government, armed forces and police, partly because state-service offered an opportunity for a chronically disadvantaged population.
In Croatia the unrest reached a crescendo in the ‘Croatian Spring’ of 1971. Led by reformers within the Communist Party of Croatia, intellectuals and students first called for greater economic autonomy and then constitutional reform to loosen Croatia’s ties to Yugoslavia. Tito’s eventual crackdown was ferocious. Leaders of the movement were ‘purged’ – either jailed or expelled from the party. Careers were abruptly terminated; some dissidents chose exile and emigrated to the USA. Serbs viewed the movement as the Ustaše reborn, and jailed reformers blamed the Serbs for their troubles. The stage was set for the rise of nationalism and the war that followed Tito’s death in 1980, even though his 1974 constitution afforded the republics more autonomy.
Tito’s habit of borrowing from abroad to flood the country with cheap consumer goods produced an economic crisis after his death. The country was unable to service the interest on its loans and inflation soared. The authority of the central government sank along with the economy, and long-suppressed mistrust among Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups resurfaced.
In 1989 severe repression of the Albanian majority in Serbia’s Kosovo province sparked renewed fears of Serbian hegemony and heralded the end of the Yugoslav Federation. With political changes sweeping Eastern Europe, many Croats felt the time had come to end more than four decades of Communist rule and attain complete autonomy. In the Croatian elections of April 1990, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ; Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica) secured 40% of the vote, to the 30% won by the Communist Party, which retained the loyalty of the Serbian community as well as voters in Istria and Rijeka. On 22 December 1990, a new Croatian constitution was promulgated, changing the status of Serbs in Croatia from that of a ‘constituent nation’ to a national minority.
The constitution’s failure to guarantee minority rights, and mass dismissals of Serbs from the public service, stimulated the 600, 000-strong ethnic Serb community within Croatia to demand autonomy. In early 1991, Serb extremists within Croatia staged provocations designed to force federal military intervention. A May 1991 referendum (boycotted by the Serbs) produced a 93% vote in favour of independence, but when Croatia declared independence on 25 June 1991, the Serbian enclave of Krajina proclaimed its independence from Croatia.
Under pressure from the EC (now EU), Croatia declared a three-month moratorium on its independence, but heavy fighting broke out in Krajina, Baranja (the area north of the Drava River opposite Osijek) and Slavonia. The 180,000-member, 2000-tank Yugoslav People’s Army, dominated by Serbian Communists, began to intervene on its own authority in support of Serbian irregulars under the pretext of halting ethnic violence.
When the Croatian government ordered a blockade of 32 federal military installations in the republic, the Yugoslav navy blockaded the Adriatic coast and laid siege to the strategic town of Vukovar on the Danube. During the summer of 1991, a quarter of Croatia fell to Serbian militias and the Serb-led Yugoslav People’s Army.
In early October 1991, the federal army and Montenegrin militia moved against Dubrovnik to protest the ongoing blockade of their garrisons in Croatia, and on 7 October the presidential palace in Zagreb was hit by rockets fired by Yugoslav air-force jets in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on President Tudjman. When the three-month moratorium on independence ended, Croatia declared full independence.
On 19 November, heroic Vukovar finally fell when the army culminated a bloody three-month siege by concentrating 600 tanks and 30,000 soldiers there. During six months of fighting in Croatia 10,000 people died, hundreds of thousands fled and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.
To fulfil a condition for EC recognition, in December the Croatian Sabor belatedly amended its constitution to protect minority groups and human rights.
Beginning on 3 January 1992, a UN-brokered cease-fire generally held. The federal army was allowed to withdraw from its bases inside Croatia and tensions diminished.
In January 1992, the EC, succumbing to strong pressure from Germany, recognised Croatia. This was followed three months later by US recognition and in May 1992 Croatia was admitted to the UN.
The UN peace plan in Krajina was supposed to have led to the disarming of local Serb paramilitary formations, the repatriation of refugees and the return of the region to Croatia. Instead, it only froze the existing situation and offered no permanent solution.
In January 1993, the Croatian army suddenly launched an offensive in southern Krajina, pushing the Serbs back as much as 24km in some areas and recapturing strategic points such as the site of the destroyed Maslenica bridge, Zemunik airport near Zadar and the Perućac hydroelectric dam in the hills between Split and Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Krajina Serbs vowed never to accept rule from Zagreb and in June 1993 they voted overwhelmingly to join the Bosnian Serbs (and eventually Greater Serbia).
The self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Serbian Krajina’ held elections in December 1993, which no international body recognised as legitimate or fair. Meanwhile, continued ‘ethnic cleansing’ left only about 900 Croats in Krajina out of an original population of 44,000. In March 1994, the Krajina Serbs signed a comprehensive cease-fire that substantially reduced the violence in the region and established demilitarised ‘zones of separation’ between the parties.
While world attention turned to the grim events unfolding in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Croatian government quietly began procuring arms from abroad. On 1 May 1995, the Croatian army and police entered occupied western Slavonia, east of Zagreb, and seized control of the region within days. The Krajina Serbs responded by shelling Zagreb in an attack that left seven people dead and 130 wounded. As the Croatian military consolidated its hold in western Slavonia, some 15, 000 Serbs fled the region despite assurances from the Croatian government that they were safe from retribution.
Belgrade’s silence throughout this campaign showed that the Krajina Serbs had lost the support of their Serbian sponsors, encouraging Croats to forge ahead. On 4 August the military launched a massive assault on the rebel Serb capital of Knin, pummelling it with shells, mortars and bombs. Outnumbered by two to one, the Serb army fled towards northern Bosnia, along with 150, 000 civilians whose roots in the Krajina stretched back centuries. The military operation ended in days, but was followed by months of terror. Widespread looting and burning of Serb villages, and attacks upon the few remaining elderly Serbs, seemed designed to ensure the permanence of this huge population shift. Allegations of atrocities caught the attention of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague. Of the two Croatian generals charged with committing crimes against the Serb population, General Gotovina is awaiting trial and General Norac was convicted and sentenced by a Croatian court for killing Serbian civilians at Gospic.
The Dayton Accords signed in Paris in December 1995 recognised Croatia’s traditional borders and provided for the return of eastern Slavonia, which was effected in January 1998. The transition proceeded relatively smoothly with less violence than was expected, but the two populations still regard each other over a chasm of suspicion and hostility. The Serbs and Croats associate with each other as little as possible and clever political manoeuvring has largely barred Serbs from assuming a meaningful role in municipal government.
Although stability has returned to the country, a key provision of the agreement was the promise by the Croatian government to facilitate the return of Serbian refugees, a promise that is far from being fulfilled. Although the central government in Zagreb has made the return of refugees a priority in accordance with the demands of the international community, its efforts have often been subverted by local authorities intent on maintaining the ethnic purity of their regions. In many cases, Croat refugees from Bosnia and Hercegovina have occupied houses abandoned by their Serb owners. Serbs intending to reclaim their property face a forbidding array of legal impediments in establishing a claim to their former dwellings plus substantial obstacles in finding employment in what are now economically precarious regions. To date, only about half have returned.