An important anniversary is remembered in Croatia on January 15, 2017.
Following painful upheaval, constitutional alterations and changes in the political system in 1990, the Socialist Republic of Croatia entered into a new era and transformed into the Independent Republic of Croatia. The tiny Adriatic country suddenly thrown into an international spotlight, echoing transformations undergone in countries further east as the flames of Socialism in Europe began to die.
Croatia formally declared independence in June 1991 and the complicated dissolution of its association with SFRY/J (Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija) began. The dissolution saw a three month moratorium on the decision introduced when the European Community (EC) urged it, during which time the Croatian War of Independence began.
By October of the same year, the Croatian Parliament had cut all ties with a reeling Yugoslavia and Croatian independence was internationally recognised in the January of 1992. Croatia was granted diplomatic recognition by both the United Nations (UN) and the European Economic Community (EEC) and shortly after, Croatia was accepted into the United Nations.
The independence of Croatia was the result of a great many years of disturbance, disruption and dissatisfaction.
Following the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Germany and his occupation of a great many European nations, the end of the Second World War came, the massive change of the movement of politics in Europe saw Croatia become a Socialist federal unit of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a massive one-party state.
The years following the end of the Second World War were not always happy ones, and decades later, a national secessionist protest movement known as the Croatian Spring (Hrvatsko Proljece) was forcibly oppressed by the Yugoslav leadership at the turn of the 1970’s, inadvertently fuelling further the determination of ideologies which were opposed to Federalism and Yugoslavia. By the beginning of the 1980’s, the so-called Yugoslav revolutionary Josip Broz Tito had died an unglamourous gangrene related death in a hospital in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Political and social circumstances in Yugoslavia began to unravel and deteriorate, not helped by growing tension in Montenegro, Kosovo and Vojvodina. With both Croatia and Slovenia constantly pressing for distance, greater autonomy and even complete independence from the ever weakening Federal state, the seeds of nationalism were firmly planted in the minds of the ruling League of Communists.
By the time the fanatical Slobodan Milosevic took power in Serbia, things had become dire and general enthusiasm was visibly waning. His ideology infused speeches strongly advocated the continuation of the Yugoslav state, where all power was to be centralised in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Following the adoption of controversial amendments to the Serbian constitution which allowed the Serbian government to re-assert power over Kosovo and Vojvodina, the crisis in a now panicking Yugoslavia grew deeper. Milosevic made remarks regarding ”battles and quarrels” in a speech delivered on the 28th of June 1989, saying that even though no armed battles were taking place, the possibility could not be ruled out entirely. Things grew yet worse and tension reached new heights when the notoriously irrational Vojislav Seselj consorted publicly with a World War 2 Chetnik leader, Momcilo Dujic.
By mid 1989, transition from the classic and failing one-party system began, with political parties other than the Communist Party being permitted to exist for the very first time. In Croatia, numerous new parties were founded, including the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica) which was headed by Franjo Tudjman. In January 1990, the Communist Party fragmented significantly along national lines, with Croatia becoming louder and louder in its demands for an ever looser federation. The Croat and Slovene delegations never shifted from their approach and their growing disdain for the state of the federation, while the Serbs opposed their views entirely.
Serbia soon felt confident again, upon finishing the anti-bureaucratic revolution in Montenegro, Kosovo and Vojvodina and securing four out of eight federal presidency votes. Owing to successfully gaining the votes, Serbia was free to significantly influence any decisions at a federal level, allowing unfavourable decisions to be frustrated or blocked and rendering the governing body powerless. The situation naturally caused an enormous amount of problems from other frustrated republics and lead to demands for reformation of the federation.
The Serb Democratic Party was founded by Jovan Raskovic in February 1990 in Knin. His program stated that the regional division of Croatia was outdated and that the idea doesn’t correspond with the interests of Serbians. His position echoed Slobodan Milosevic’s beliefs that internal Yugoslavian borders should be redrawn to allow Serbs the right to live in a single country. One particularly outspoken member of the Serb Democratic Party was Milan Babic, who at his later trial testified that media campaigns from Belgrade were claiming that Serbian citizens in Croatia were in danger and actively being threatened with genocide, before attempting to justify his stances by saying he had fallen for the propaganda. In March 1990, 50,000 Serbs gathered at Petrova Gora, a rally shouting anti-Tudjman remarks, proclaiming their support for Slobodan Milosevic and chanting ”Ovo je Srbija!” (This is Serbia!).
By the end of April and the beginning of May in 1990, multi-party elections were held throughout Croatia, resulting in a win for Franjo Tudjman. By the end of May, Tudjman announced his plans for a new constitution which he claimed would alter very many things, he included a plan for Yugoslavia to be reformed into a confederation of sovereign nations. Later, nationalist Serbs in Croatia boycotted the government and took control of Serb inhabited areas, creating road blocks and starting to campaign for the territories to gain autonomous status and ultimately full independence from Croatia. After Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica rose to power, a purge of information about Serbs employed in public administration began, with most of the focus being on institutions like the police and law enforcement. The Serbs employed in Croatia held a disproportionate amount of official posts and statuses, with more Serbs than Croats being appointed as officials, eventually creating the perception that the Serbs were the proponents and guardians of the oppressive Communist regime.
This purge was viewed as unacceptable and spurred Slobodan Milosevic to distort facts and claim that any form of an independent Croatian nation would result, in his own words, as ”another Ustasa state”. Milosevic’s control of Belgrade’s media allowed him to twist any news coming out of Croatia and he jumped at the chance to accuse a handshake between Franjo Tudjman and the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as a ”plot to impose the Fourth Reich”. The crisis intensified and relations grew yet worse when the Serb-populated areas, still determined in their quest for autonomy, attempted to form an enclave called ”Serbian Krajina” which they intended to separate from Croatia should Croatia threaten or make any attempt to separate from Yugoslavia.
By the end of 1990, on the 21st of December 1990, the Christmas Constitution, which adopted a liberal democracy was passed. The constitution clearly referred to Croatia as the national state of the Croatian nation and said that Serbs were guaranteed equality with Croatian nationals, but the issue lay with the fact that the status of the Serbs had been altered, and they were now referred to as a minority (manjina). The constitutional change was met with outrage from Serbian politicians as, even though that was not entirely the case – it was believed to have taken away, or significantly altered the rights granted to Serbian nationals under the previous Socialist constitution. The Christmas Constitution went on to fuel yet more tension and extremism among Serbs.
In February 1991, Croatia declared its Constitution as supreme to that of Yugoslavia and Parliament began on a formal resolution on the process of disassociation (razdruzenje) from Yugoslavia, provoking over 200 incidents involving arms between the rebel Serbs and the Croatian police taking place between August 1990 and April 1991.
On the 19th of May, 1991, amid angry calls from local Serb authorities, the Croatian referendum on independence was held. The referendum resulted in a majority vote for independence from Yugoslavia, with a turnout of 83.56%. On the 25th of June 1991, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, terminating its status as a constituent republic. More unrest followed the final declaration, with the European Economic Community and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe warning both Croatia and Slovenia that the two nations couldn’t be recognised as independent states for fear of the breakout of war in Yugoslavia.
By mid 1991, despite grave warnings to Serbia from powerful European politicians of the time, including British PM Margaret Thatcher, the war had already started. The JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) earned international condemnation resulting in further social and economic isolation of Serbia following its abhorrent behaviour towards Croatia.
Slovenia recognised Croatia as an independent state on the 26th of June 1991, the same day it declared its own independence, but just a few days later on the 29th of June 1991, in a joint effort to cool rising tensions, both Slovenian and Croatian authorities agreed upon a three month moratorium on the independence declaration.
The Brijuni Agreement was formally signed on the 7th of July by the European Community Ministerial Troika, the Serbian, Yugoslav, Slovenian and the Croatian authorities. In fact, Lithuania was the only country to recognise Croatia the following month on the 30th of July. On the eve of the expiration of the three month moratorium (October the 7th) the Yugoslav Air Force attacked the main government building in Zagreb (Banski dvori).
On the following day, October the 8th 1991, the moratorium expired. Due to fears that the Yugoslav Air Force might attack the Parliament building, the session of the Croatian Parliament was held in the INA building (Pavao Subic Avenue, Zagreb). The decision was reached unanimously in the Parliament, and all remaining ties with Yugoslavia were completely severed.
When it comes to recognition of Croatian independence, Germany advocated quick recognition in order to end ongoing violence in Serb inhabited regions. On the 10th of October, just two days following the Croatian Parliament’s confirmation of the declaration of independence, the European Economic Community postponed the decision to recognise Croatia for two months. As the war still waged in Croatia past the expiration of the two month deadline, Germany, strongly supported by Denmark and Italy, said its decision to recognise Croatian independence was the country’s duty. Beginning in November 1991, the Commission stated that Yugoslavia was very much in the process of dissolution, and that unless freely agreed upon, internal boundaries of the Yugoslav republics couldn’t be altered. A United Nations resolution requesting that no country takes unilateral actions that could potentially worsen the situation in Yugoslavia had previously been drafted in an attempt to prevent German recognition.
On the 17th of December, the European Economic Community agreed to grant Croatia diplomatic recognition on the 15th of January of the following year. Latvia and Ukraine were the first to recognise Croatian independence by the second week in December, followed closely by the first Western European states to do so, Iceland and the ever eager Germany on the 19th of the same month. The European Economic Community finally decided to grant diplomatic recognition to Croatia on the 15th of January 1992, with the United Nations doing the same several months later in May.
Following the recognition of Croatia as an independent nation, conflict between Croatia and Serbia reached its ugly peak and the war escalated beyond expectations, with massacres and the barbaric sieges of Vukovar, Skabrnja and Dubrovnik taking place at the hands of the JNA, as well as brutal fighting and loss of life elsewhere. Bloodshed and hatred of the kind had not seen in Europe since Hitler’s rule. By the end of 1991, Yugoslavia collapsed and ceased to exist as a state, with its formal dissolution taking place in April of 1992.
The Croatian War of Independence effectively drew to a close in August 1995 with Croatian victory. Modern day borders of the country became established when Serb occupied areas in eastern Slavonia were returned to Croatia in November of the same year.
While there are still divisions and tensions surrounding the former Yugoslavia to this day, for most, Croatia is a sunny paradise with a crystal blue sea and stunning nature, for some it is a mountaineers dream and a foodie’s fantasy, for others, it is a small country on the Adriatic which sits quietly in its relatively newfound and cherished peace. On this day of all days, lets take a moment to remember what Croatia had to go through to become any of those things, and remember the sacrifices it made to be able to be able to become so dear to the hearts of so many people.