Civil War: Croatia (1991-1992 and 1995)

Candace Archer. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The war in Croatia was one of the four civil wars that occurred in the territory that comprised the former Yugoslavia. Along with the Slovenian, the Bosnian, and the Kosovo wars, the war in Croatia was one of the most publicized civil wars of the post-Cold War period and became an example of one of the most serious humanitarian crises that Europe has ever seen. Croatia now exists as an independent state, but in the process of creating this state hundreds of thousands were displaced, thousands were killed, UN peacekeepers were called upon, and human rights violations horrified the world.

This article focuses on the Croatian war, which began with the June 1991 announcement of Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. Hostilities raged briefly in 1991, were quieted within a few months, and then emerged again in 1995. Over the last ten years, Croatia has been trying to rebound economically, to deal with war crimes committed during the civil war, and to gain entry into the European Union.

Country Background

The Croatian war must be understood in the context of the breakup of the country of Yugoslavia. Croatia did not exist as a sovereign state prior to 1991. It was a republic in Yugoslavia, and like many republics, it had a history as a distinct land with an ethnically strong identity. Occupying the east coast of the Adriatic Sea, the state of Yugoslavia was an attempt to unite the southern Slavs into a multiethnic country. The idea of uniting the different Slavic populations, including Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, and Slovenes, had been around for centuries, but so had the competing idea that each of these groups should have its own sovereign state. The tension between uniting these ethnic groups and allowing them independence has been a driving force in the history of the Balkan Peninsula and was central to the Croatian conflict.

Historically, the territory comprised by Yugoslavia was at the intersection of two empires. The Austrian Hapsburgs ruled the north from about the twelfth century onward, whereas the Ottomans ruled the south from the fifteenth century. During this time, nationalist and independence movements were common responses to the foreign rule and competition over land. The First and Second Balkan Wars, fought in 1912-1913, and the famed assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 by Serbian extremists opposed to Austrian rule are prime examples of the kinds of nationalist and territorial conflicts that have been persistent in the region. Croatia, located in the northern and western portions of Yugoslavia, existed as an autonomous republic within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was conquered by the Ottomans, and then fell under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the mid-1860s onward.

When both of the predominant ruling empires were defeated at the end of World War I, the idea of uniting the southern Slavs was reborn. The first alliance of national groups was formed in 1918. In 1929, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the first Yugoslav state, was formed. Both of these political units had to deal with the underlying hostility and rivalry between the Serbs and Croats. Croats were constantly concerned about the expansion of Serbian power and their control over territory, and Serbs were equally doubtful of Croats. The political structure of Yugoslavia attempted to deal with these problems by building a federal structure that would constitutionally minimize ethnic divisions between the groups (Bennett 1995, 36). Unfortunately, these divisions were hard to overcome.

The kingdom was conquered and dismantled by Nazi Germany in 1941. During the remainder of World War II, the fighting between German supporters and opponents was just part of the story; nationalist, monarchist and resistance groups all emerged and fought for control. Old hostilities were part and parcel of the fighting, and atrocities committed by one ethnic group against another would be remembered and used politically in the future. Perhaps the most infamous example of such hostilities was the death camps in Jasenovac. The Ustasha, a World War II-era Croat nationalist organization, controlled these camps. Between 1941 and 1945, an estimated 60,000-70,000 Serbs, Gypsies, and Jews were brutally killed in an attempt at “ethnic purification” (Cviic 1996, 203; Rogel 1998, 12). Most Croats were neither involved in the movement nor part of the operation of the death camps, but instead were targets of the Ustasha. This incident would become politically salient in the conflict in Croatia.

Toward the end of the war, a resistance group that embraced communism, led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, emerged as the most successful anti-Axis force, received Allied support, and began to establish government representatives in liberated territories (Rogel 1998, 12). This group established the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in 1945. The SFRY was a socialist, one-party state with a constitution very similar to the structure of the Soviet Union. The constitution recognized six republics—Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia—and two autonomous units, Vojvodina and Kosovo. The boundaries of Croatia were based on historic boundaries with slight modifications, but they were not drawn to include only ethnic Croats in the territory. The republics were designed purposefully to suggest a sense of equality among all the nations in Yugoslavia, not to give ethnic groups their own land (Pavković 2000, 48-52). The federal structure created equal administrative autonomy for groups. Tito further created unity through his popularity and the one-party Communist governmental system (Bennett 1995, 51-62).

The history of the region suggests two enduring dynamics within the land that constituted Yugoslavia. First, the dynamic of unification—to unite the southern Slavs into a viable multiethnic state—was the goal of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the SFRY. Second, for centuries the belief has existed among the ethnic groups of Slavs, particularly Croatians, that they should have self-determination and sovereignty over the territory in which their ethnic group resided.

Tito successfully managed these dynamics during his rule, and Yugoslavia experienced both political and economic stability. After World War II, the SFRY followed a Soviet-style development plan that emphasized collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of industry, and central administration of the economy (Rogel 1998, 14). In 1948, after Tito’s split with Stalin, Yugoslavia received a significant amount of Western aid and better access to Western capital markets, which helped spur economic development. The early economic development of Yugoslavia was positive, and the country experienced rapid economic expansion, but indicators began to decline in the 1960s, and by the time of the oil shocks in the 1970s, the economy was in recession (Bojičić 1996, 30-35). Croatia was one of the more economically stable and prosperous republics. It had higher-than-national-average incomes, higher skill levels, and more industrialization. It was second only to Slovenia in economic development (Flakierski 1989).

In Croatia, nationalist sentiments abounded throughout Tito’s rule. In the late 1960s, Croats led the movement to reinstitute official use and recognition of four regional languages, including Croat. Tito targeted this movement as nationalist and separatist and purged many Croats from the Communist Party. This increased the Croats’ resentment of the Yugoslavian state as a whole (Cviic 1996, 203-204).

In 1974, Tito commissioned a new constitution with the goal of designing a political structure that would allow the country to function when he died. The constitution devolved more power to the federal units, including military power, and created a system where each of the republics shared presidential power on a rotating basis. The goal was to create equality among the republics to reduce the possibility of conflict; however, this structure weakened the federal government while strengthening the power of the republics. Bennett argues that in the constitution, “all Yugoslavia’s republics were sovereign and independent… able to pursue their own, often conflicting, policies” (1995, 74). The only truly national institution was the armed forces: the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA).

When Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia was struggling politically and economically. Disparity between the republics in terms of wealth and industrialization were evident. Croatia was one of the more successful republics, but the overall Yugoslav economy was highly fragmented, and nationally the economic picture was grim. Yugoslavia had more than $20 billion in foreign debt and had high rates of unemployment; growth had slowed, and the standard of living had declined. The government’s inability to service the debt led to International Monetary Fund intervention through stabilization and structural adjustment programs.

The problems in the economy were mirrored in the political system. After Tito’s death, there was no unifying force in the country (save the JNA). Although the collective presidency successfully allowed each republic representation, the republics became less connected to a Yugoslavian state. The 1974 constitution had created functionally independent republics that were economically self-sufficient, had their own defense forces, schools, media and universities, and could exist without the national government (Ćuruvija and Torov 1995, 75). Nationalist movements, which had been thwarted and purged by Tito, grew in popularity throughout the republics. Croatia experienced a renewal of nationalist sentiment and gained more autonomy in this period.

Conflict Background

Many of the political and economic trends discussed above should serve as an introduction to the conflict as well as to the country of Croatia. The instability, the ethnic hostilities, its power as a republic, and the overarching attempt to create a viable multiethnic Yugoslav state are all part of the background to an understanding of why this war erupted. In addition, the global circumstances—particularly the end of the Cold War, accompanied by the global and domestic decline of communism in the late 1980s—contributed to the story.

The end of the Cold War created a problem in legitimacy for the Communist Party in Yugoslavia. With the one-party system in jeopardy, Tito’s unified multiethnic Yugoslavia was subject to nationalist pressure that would tear it apart. Nationalist sentiments emerged all over Yugoslavia. In Serbia, the main story was the rise to power of a charismatic political leader from the Communist Party, Slobodan Milosevic. Although Milosevic was a Communist, it was his claims of Serb political dominance and his vision of a Greater Serbia that propelled him to power. Milosevic purged the Communist Party of non-Serbs and began to build an alliance with the national Yugoslav People’s Army while creating his own Serb paramilitary units. The JNA was to be an instrument of the party, designed as a force to hold the federation together. But when faced with the state’s breakup into ethnic groups, the JNA had little ability to reunite the country. Slowly, the JNA became aligned with the Serbs and with Milosevic because both shared the vision of a single, united Yugoslavia. The difference was that the JNA saw it united under communism and Milosevic saw it united through Serb nationalism.

The rise of Serbian nationalism and dominance was a threat to Croatia, and the fear of Serb dominance was expressed clearly in the 1990 Croatian elections. These were the first multiparty elections in Croatia. Politically, both anticommunist and Croat nationalist parties had strong showings. The Croatian republic was particularly threatened by Serb nationalism because it was not an ethnically homogenous republic. Although Croats constituted more than three-quarters of the population, about 12 percent of the population was Serbian. Serbian politicians calling for the unification of Serb territory into a Greater Serbia threatened the Croats, and these politicians used the Ustasha-controlled death camps as a point to rally Serbs against Croats. Conversely, Croats feared the rhetoric of the Serbs, and this helped propel the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica [HDZ]) to victory. This party was constructed around Croat nationalism, and its leader, Franjo Tudjman, used this tactic to gain his election (Bennett 1995, 123).

The election of Tudjman alienated the Serbian population that lived along the Bosnian border in an area that Serbs began calling Krajina. Skirmishes between the Croat forces and the Serbs began in 1990 after a Serbian boycott of the newly elected Tudjman government escalated into Serbian seizure of the city of Knin. This move effectively severed the railways and roadways between Dubrovnik and Zagreb, two major Croatian cities at opposite ends of the country. Serbs wanted their autonomy from Croatia because they were afraid of another wave of ethnic hostilities, and the HDZ wanted to keep the republic territorially intact. Throughout 1990, acts of terrorism, such as shooting incidents and bombings, occurred throughout Croatia (Bennett 1995, 136). While all of this was going on, the republic of Slovenia decided to break with Yugoslavia and declare itself a sovereign state. On the same day, Croatia, too, announced its independence.

On June 25, 1991, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Belgrade’s response to the Slovenian declaration of independence was brief hostilities, which were settled within a few weeks with few deaths and an unimpressive response from the JNA. This gave hope to the Croats because they anticipated a similarly weak response. The Croatian situation was different, however, because it pitted Croat nationalism against the Serbian idea of the Greater Serbian state. Both Croat and Serb forces began to arm themselves. The Serbs received support from the JNA, and the Croats imported arms from abroad (Bartlett 2003, 38).

The actual start date of the war is not precise. After the 1990 election, Serbs took control of the town of Knin, disrupting communication and transportation lines in Croatia. Skirmishes around Knin were low-level but helped escalate the situation. The uprisings in eastern Croatia in 1991 were more significant. The pattern was similar in many uprisings. The fighting was mostly between Croatian police forces and Serbian militias. The militias were backed by the JNA, but the JNA was not directly involved in the fighting except to intervene between the parties, effectively halting Croatian offensives. The goal of the Croatian forces at this time was to quell the rebellion of the Serb territories that wanted to break away, and to reunite the territory under Croatian control. The uprisings became more frequent in 1991, and although there were attempts to negotiate cease-fires, by July 1991 the attempts were abandoned.

At this point, the conflict changed. Between August and December 1991, the JNA became more directly involved in the fighting. Their goal was to retain Yugoslav control over strategically important areas and to regain Yugoslav forces and armaments that were subject to Croat control. The JNA was a well-equipped force, and in this time period it won many victories, including significant battles in the heavily Serb-populated cities of Vukovar and Osijek, both in eastern Croatia. The JNA blockaded Adriatic port cities and removed JNA vessels docked there. Finally, the JNA launched an offensive on Dubrovnik, which was an important city strategically for the operations of the Yugoslav navy. From July through December 1991, the fighting was serious. An estimated 7,000-10,000 were killed, 26,000-30,000 wounded, and nearly three-quarters of a million (Serbs and Croats) displaced from their homes (Cviic 1996; Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Rogel 1998). Tragic human rights violations were committed by both Serbs and Croats, and each side used policies of ethnic cleansing to remove, humiliate, or kill people of the other ethnic group. Although the statistics reflect the atrocities of the war, they do not reflect the trauma that each ethnic group experienced at the hands of the other.

The Croat forces were not nearly as well equipped as the JNA, nor were they backed by a stronger force, as were various Serbian groups supported by the JNA. With each battle, the underprepared Croatian forces lost territory to the JNA and Serbs. By December 1991, about one-third of the original Croatian republic was under JNA control or, effectively, Serb control.

The European Community (EC) tried to broker a peaceful settlement in Croatia during the summer of 1991. The attempt was largely unsuccessful, and fighting became more significant that fall. The United Nations placed an arms embargo on all Yugoslavian republics in September and became more involved in the peace process in the fall, when it took over the talks from the EC. By January 1992, a UN cease-fire was signed that established a UN peacekeeping force in Croatia called the United Nations Protective Force (UNPROFOR). The UN sent in 14,000 peacekeepers to maintain the truce. The details of the cease-fire maintained the status quo, which meant that 30 percent of the former Croatian republic would be controlled by Serbs and the Republic of Serbian Krajina. The territory declared itself to be the sovereign Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK).

The UN peacekeeping forces basically allowed the Croatian government to regroup without having to worry about being attacked by the more powerful, better-equipped Yugoslav army. For three years, Serbs and Croats had an uneasy peace. Several cease-fires, in 1993 and 1994, were negotiated and ultimately broken. In all cases, the desire of the Croats to regain what they had lost in the 1992 territorial settlement was the issue driving hostilities. Moreover, the humanitarian crisis worsened. Croats who had homes in the Serbian Krajina were targeted by the Serbs, as were Serbs who were left in Croatia. Those displaced by the fighting were not allowed to return, and those who had remained faced the looting or burning of their homes. In addition to the displacement of people, human rights violations were widely reported.

By 1995, the Croatian forces had regrouped, reorganized, and rearmed with help and training from the West and the United States. In May, the Croatian forces launched an attack called Operation Flash. This attack was focused on liberating the south central portion of the former Croatian territory, which had been the Serb Krajina since 1992. This attack overwhelmed the Serb resistance, and within forty-eight hours the territory was back under Croatian control. Serb forces attacked Zagreb with rockets in response, but this had little military effect (Bartlett 2003, 69). In August, the Croatian military launched an even more spectacular offensive, called Operation Storm, in Knin and approximately thirty other locations. In this offensive, nearly 200,000 Croat troops attacked Serb Krajina territory in the southern and central portions of Croatia. The issue was settled quickly, and Croat forces regained the territory within a few days. A mass exodus of Serbs from the Krajina followed. Partially forced by the Croat troops, partially ordered by the Serb government, 120,000-180,000 people were forced to leave their homes. In the course of a few months in 1995, the Croats had regained the territory lost in 1992.

Since the events of 1995, many connections have been drawn between the success of the Croat forces and help by the West, especially the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The United States helped in the Croatian military buildup and the training of the Croatian army through military contractors and by supplying weapons in opposition to the UN embargo (Bartlett 2003, 68). NATO assisted in the process by directing air strikes on Knin and other areas that would face attack prior to the 1995 offensives (Pavković 2000, 154). Speculation also exists regarding possible secret deals between Tudjman, Milosevic, and the West, which would have allowed the easy retaking of Krajina, in exchange for alleviating the UN sanctions against Yugoslavia (Bartlett 2003, 69-71; Cviic 1996, 209; Pavković 2000, 153-154). The possibility of a connection between the Croats and NATO is supported by the fact that Croatian forces continued to attack Serb targets, albeit in Bosnia, after the retaking of Krajina.

In 1995, a new set of agreements to end the Croatian and Bosnian War were negotiated. The Dayton Agreement was signed in November 1995. In it, a final cease-fire was negotiated, the terms of which stipulated that Croatia and the Serb-controlled Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Bosnia would acknowledge each other’s existence, would stop supporting military operations across borders, and would work to repatriate displaced persons. Having completed its task of reclaiming Croatian territory and gaining independence, the Croatian government had no reasons for aggression. It signed the treaty and has respected its cease-fire provisions since then.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000.
Notes: *Represents Polity score for Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
War: Former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia vs. Croatia; Croatia vs. Serb resistance
Dates: 1991-1992 and 1995
Casualties: 40,000
Regime type prior to war: Autocratic. Polity -9; score ranges from -10 (authoritarian) to 10 (democracy)*
Regime type after war: Democratic. Polity 7; score ranges from -10 (authoritarian) to 10 (democracy)
GDP per capita year war began: US $4,282 (1991)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $5,003 (2000)
Insurgents: Serbian militias supported by JNA
Issue: Ethnic conflict; Nationalist movement for independent state
Rebel funding: Krajina Serbs supported by Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbian-controlled Yugoslavia)
Role of geography: Croatia’s shape and long coastal region allowed portions to be cut off from the center of the country.
Role of resources: None
Immediate outcome: 1992: independence for Croatia but one-third of territory taken by Serb forces
1995: reconquest of territory by Croatia
Outcome after 5 years: Stable peace, elections, and association with EU
Role of UN: 14,000 peacekeeping forces (UNPROFOR); negotiated cease-fires, division of territory in 1992 and final Dayton Agreement settlement in 1995; war crimes tribunal
Role of regional organization: EC attempts peace talks in 1992; NATO air strikes to loosen Serb-held targets
Refugees: Approximately 700,000
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in Croatia

The Insurgents

The simple label insurgents or rebels can be difficult to assign in almost any war, but is particularly hard in the case of the Croatian war because it depends on who one considers to have been the “legitimate” government when the crisis began. Was it the Croatian government in Zagreb or the Yugoslav, predominantly Serb, government in Belgrade? The process to remove Croatia from the Yugoslav federation was democratic, with republic-wide elections that put nationalist Croats into power. This was followed by a referendum on independence from Yugoslavia prior to the announcement of Croatian sovereignty.

The initial conflicts of the war were attempts to stop Croatian succession and to extricate Yugoslav military equipment from Croatian control. This story is complicated by the hostile attacks by ethnic Serbs concerned about their role in a Croatian state, the assistance given by the JNA to ethnic Serbs, and the claim of Serbian Krajina as an autonomous region and then a state. The story is further complicated by Operation Flash and Operation Storm in 1995, in which the Croat national forces fought to regain territory from what they believed to be insurgents. Therefore, there are two levels of rebellion: The first level is the Croats against the Yugoslavian federation, a secessionist movement; the second is the rebellion of the Serbs against the rule of a democratically elected Croatian government. Both rebellions are considered in the following paragraphs.

At the beginning of the conflict in 1990 and 1991, the main issue was Croatian withdrawal from the Yugoslav federation. If one looks at the conflict as a Yugoslavian civil war, then the Croat forces opposing the JNA restoration of Yugoslavia were rebel forces. The problem with this interpretation is that most of the Croat battles for independence came through the political system, and although national rhetoric was designed to alienate Serbs, the process of alienation occurred through legislation, not through military action. Although Serbia declared itself an independent state, the actual rebellion came from the Serb population in Croatia.

The first skirmishes of the war were between Croat police forces attempting to keep peace in the newly formed republic and loosely formed Serb militias protesting the loss of rights. This dynamic changed in 1991, when the forces in conflict were the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Serb militias and paramilitaries on one side and the Croatian army and paramilitary groups on the other. In the final part of the conflict in 1995, the forces in conflict were the Croatian army and the remaining Serb forces, which had been weakened and abandoned by the JNA (Pavković 2000, 142-147). An interesting relationship between the Serb resistance forces and the JNA developed, which strengthened the Serb resistance significantly and proved the connection between the political goals of the Milosevic government and the fight in Croatia. A brief discussion about the transformation of the JNA from a national force to a Serb force is necessary.

The JNA was created in 1941 as the National Liberation Army. This army was controlled by the Communist Party but designed to be a popular force to unite Nazi resistance from all national, political, and religious identities (Sikavica 1995, 124). In the years following World War II, the JNA remained closely tied to the Communist Party; it functioned as both the armed forces of Yugoslavia and the military wing of the party, and was under the tight control of President Tito. The JNA was a multiethnic force that had bases, military armaments, and soldiers stationed in each republic. In addition to the national army, each republic had a territorial defense force that was supplied and paid for by the individual republics but loosely connected to the JNA. These defense forces were not as multiethnic as the JNA and represented the population of the republic within which they were located.

Globally, as communism began to decline and the Communist Party lost support within Yugoslavia, the role of the JNA became uncertain, particularly in the republics that had elected noncommunist leaders. Although the JNA had a significant military presence in each republic, the mission of that force was put into question. Should the JNA serve as a defense force for the republic or for the federation?

In 1990, the Yugoslav government began to note that the territorial defense forces, particularly in Croatia, were being armed and controlled by the nationalist movements. To stop this, the JNA exerted more control over the units by replacing local officers with JNA officers and by disbanding armed forces that were not under the control of the Yugoslavian government (Sikavica 1995, 131-132). Fearing nationalist control of the JNA weaponry and forces, throughout 1990 the Croatian territorial defense forces were disarmed quietly and weakened by the removal of weaponry and personnel (Cviic 1996, 206). At the same time, the JNA was losing its independence, becoming the military force of Serbia and being co-opted by Milosevic.

In 1990, when Tudjman came into power, the Croatian territorial defense force was in disarray, but local and republic police units were still armed, and it was these units that were sent in to address the initial Serb uprisings. The Serb forces were at first local militias, but early in the conflict it was apparent that these militias were receiving assistance from the JNA. At first, that assistance came through the JNA interposing itself between the Serb militants and the Croat police force, but by the fall of 1991 the JNA had become more directly involved in the fight.

The Croatian military forces were at a serious disadvantage early in the conflict. This was a manageable problem when most of the conflicts involved some sort of minor violence to which police units could respond, but it became more of a problem when the war began to escalate and the JNA used more heavy armaments and equipment. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the HDZ had started to expand its military in response to the removal of JNA weaponry and the weakening of the territorial defense force. The core of the military expansion was the creation of the United Popular Guard (ZNG), the official Croatian army, but the UN arms embargo made it difficult for the ZNG to arm, especially to the same degree as the JNA. The ZNG was thus forced to use weaponry that had been captured from the JNA.

The Serbs were supplied and funded mostly through the JNA and through the government in Belgrade. Thus, although this was a conflict in Croatia, it was still tied to the idea of a Greater Serbia held by Milosevic. The Croats were able to use their economic strength as a republic to begin their process of independence. UN economic sanctions and the arms embargo made it more difficult for the Croats to continue their campaign, but by 1993 there was evidence that the United States had begun to covertly arm the Croatian army and provide training support (Bartlett 2003, 68-70). This support was particularly important during the offensives in 1995.

Other irregular forces also emerged on both the Croatian and the Serbian sides of the fight. While fighting for different sides, the nature of the irregular forces was similar—they were generally paramilitary units comprised of fanatics and criminals (Sikavica 1995, 138-39). Serb irregular forces were not comprised of Croatian Serbs but had ties to Serbs in Belgrade. Two well-known Serb forces were the Cetniks and Arkanovic, both of which became infamous for genocidal violence in Croatia and other parts of the country. The Croatian irregulars were equally distasteful. The best-known of this group was the military arm of the Croatian Party of Rights (Hrvatska Stranka Prava), called the Croatian Liberation Force (HOS). This force was approximately 15,000 strong and contained both foreign mercenaries and criminals. It is assumed that all the paramilitary and irregular forces fought “beyond the control of their governments,” but there are certainly suggestions that the governments in Belgrade and Zagreb had some knowledge of what these forces were doing, even if they couldn’t control them. Overall, these irregular forces certainly contributed to the brutality of the war.


Geography played an important role in the Croatian conflict for two reasons. First, the shape of the Croatian republic allowed portions of it to be cut off from the main part of the country. The first Serb uprisings in Knin were in the long, protruding coastal portion of the country, and the Serbs were able to control a large portion of territory because of the capture of a centrally located city in that region. Croatia was a C-shaped republic with a long coastline far from the capital city of Zagreb. By controlling Knin, the Serbs were able to disrupt rail and road traffic between the center and peripheral regions of the country.

The second reason geography played into this conflict had to do with the physical location of ethnic Croat and ethnic Serb populations. As some Serb populations lived along Croatia’s borders with Serbia, it was easier for them to remain attached to the Yugoslav government in Belgrade. This also allowed Belgrade to more easily supply these regions and to want these regions incorporated into Yugoslavia, for it would extend the territory of that state.


The Croatian tactics for fighting their war included two different sets of issues. The original fighting was designed to expel the JNA as easily as possible and to quell the rebellions of Serbs. The Serb tactics leaned more toward guerrilla warfare, with protests, bombings and blockades. The first line of defense against this was the Croatian police forces, which were the best-prepared Croatian force when the fighting broke out.

After 1991 and the entry of the JNA on the side of the Serbs, the tactics became based more on traditional warfare, with heavy armaments and artillery used to attack Croatian cities. Croatia responded to this by continuing to use the sundry groups of police and the newly created Croatian Army.

The final set of tactics was the Croatian government’s use of the 1992 cease-fire to arm, to regroup, and to secure international support for the offensive that was launched in 1995. The entry of UN peacekeeping forces protected the Croatian forces and gave them time to regroup without worrying about attacks from the JNA. This tactic ultimately created a successful outcome in the 1995 offensives, in which the Croats overran Serb-controlled areas within a few days.

It is also important to note the more brutal tactics of the paramilitary forces, such as the Croatian Liberation Force, the Cetniks, and the Arkanovic. These forces, which were composed of ultranationalists and criminals, were responsible for most of the serious atrocities committed during the war, including the targeting of civilian populations, mass slaughter, rapes, and forced displacement of the population. These were not official tactics of either side, but they certainly influenced our perceptions of the war.

Causes of the War

The causes of the Croatian war are complicated. The war has been attributed to hundreds of years of ethnic hatred that erupted into a brutal ethnic conflict. This is an oversimplification at best and historically inaccurate at worst. Clearly, old ethnic rivalries have played a part in the history of the entire region, but these rivalries were neither primordial nor a result of hundreds of years of hatred. Rather, they were based more on political issues, such as self-determination and control of territory. Thus, two reasons for this war have been linked: ethnicity and control of territory. In addition, the timing of the Croatian war is significant in that it happened during the decline of communism within Yugoslavia and globally. This contributing factor helped create a unique situation in which nationalist movements could be easily politicized and manipulated in the cause of gaining territory and self-determination.

Although Serbs constituted only about 12 percent of the Croatian population, for the most part the Croat and Serb populations lived harmoniously in the post-World War II era. In cities such as Zagreb the populations were integrated with few cries of ethnic discrimination. Although Croats did at times express nationalist tendencies, they were not outwardly hostile to other ethnicities. Tito’s death and a power struggle at the national level caused things to change dramatically. With the decline of the one-party system, nationalism became a politically useful tool to gain votes. This tactic was used effectively by Serbs such as Milosevic and by Croats such as Tudjman. In addition, nationalism provided an alternate vision to the Communists, who had fallen out of favor by 1990.

The politicization of ethnic and nationalist conflict rested on the revival and retelling of atrocities committed by both ethnic groups in the past, which had the effect of creating fear and distrust between the Croats and Serbs. Historical examples such as the Jasenovac death camps allowed politicians to use such labels as Ustasha to demonize the opposition, even if the labels did not accurately represent the candidate. But the rhetoric of nationalism hid a more likely and deeper historic tendency demonstrated in the region: the desire for territorial autonomy. The political goals of controlling territory and gaining sovereignty have been part of the region for centuries, both in reaction to the rule of empires and in opposition to the goal of unifying southern Slavs (Bozic-Roberson 2004; Powers 1996). Thus, nationalism masked the very practical political goal of control over territory.

Tito effectively moderated the desire for political independence in the SFRY by using his personal abilities as well as creating autonomy for the republics. But his Yugoslavia was tied together by the Communist one-party system. It is not surprising, then, that the republics began to talk of self-determination when communism began to crumble. It is also logical that the republics with the greatest economic advantages, Slovenia and Croatia, were the first to hold referenda on independence and succeed. The recognition by the EC, other states, and eventually the UN reinforced the belief that these territories were entitled to self-determination and sovereignty.

By seeing the Croatian conflict as more than just the revival of ethnic hatreds, we get a more accurate, fuller picture of the reasons for the conflict and, more important, the timing of the conflict. Also, by rejecting the assumption that the ethnic hatred was ingrained or primordial, some of the more important historical and political reasons for the conflict can be added to our explanation (Harvey 2000).


The Dayton Agreement in 1995 effectively ended the hostilities in Croatia. Since then, Croatia has grown economically, has successfully conducted democratic elections, and is pursuing better relationships with the European Union (EU). But all is not perfect. The unfortunate reality of the settlement is that the war expelled hundreds of thousands of Croatian Serbs who have not been fully or easily repatriated to Croatia, nor have they received reparations for their losses. In addition, the Croatian government continues to face criticism due to its half-hearted pursuit of war criminals and its lackluster cooperation with the UN tribunal.

Conflict Status

In 1992, the UN cease-fires negotiated to end the Croatian war did little to stop the hostilities. Between 1992 and the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, fighting emerged between Croats and Serb Krajina several times as the Croats attempted to get back the territory lost in the settlement. The Dayton Agreement of 1995 was different. The cease-fire provision of the Dayton Agreement has held, and there has been no government-sponsored military action within Croatia since the treaty was signed.

If a victory is to be claimed in this war, one must argue that Croatia’s ability to end the war with basically the same territory that it claimed under the SFRY constitution makes it victorious. The goal of creating an independent, sovereign Croatian state has been realized, although at a significant human cost, most of which was paid by civilians.

The Croatian government pledged to four broad peace requirements in the Dayton Agreement. First, it pledged to end hostilities. Second, it pledged to recognize and respect the territorial integrity of both the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), which is essentially the Serb-dominated remnant of the Yugoslav state, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Third, it pledged to respect the human rights of Serbs within Croatia and to allow the repatriation of all expelled peoples along with compensation for losses. Fourth, it pledged to cooperate with the prosecution of war criminals through the UN tribunal for Yugoslavia.

Croatia has made some progress on all these issues but has done better in ending the hostilities than in resolving postconflict issues. The cease-fire and respect for territorial integrity of neighboring states have been upheld, although some border issues still exist between Croatia and Slovenia. The repatriation of displaced persons has been harder to accomplish, and many human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have criticized the Croatian government for not doing enough on this issue. A majority of displaced ethnic Croats have been successfully repatriated, but ethnic Serbs have not been. In Croatia’s membership negotiations with the European Union (EU), the EU has also been critical of Croatia’s postwar efforts, but it has pledged to help Croatia repatriate displaced persons.

Croatia has also been widely criticized by human rights organizations and the EU for not cooperating with the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The issue has been that Croatia has not pursued, captured, or extradited several wanted war criminals. In March 2005, the EU postponed Croatia’s membership talks until this issue was further addressed and Croatia cooperated more fully with the tribunal. In October 2005, the EU resumed membership negotiations, although it is unclear what changed in Croatia’s policy to alter the EU’s position. At best, the Croatian government has a spotty record of pursuing and extraditing suspected war criminals. Although hostilities have not been an issue since 1995, refugee and human rights concerns remain.

Duration Tactics

The war in Croatia was not a continuous fight. Instead, it was fought off and on, with periods of intense hostility as well as periods of low-level skirmishes and relative calm. This pattern may be the reason the conflict continued for several years and why it is sometimes seen as two different wars. The most important issues regarding the duration of the war revolve around the peace settlement at the beginning of 1992 and the final settlement in 1995. The timing of these agreements suggests that they were made when the Croatian government felt it had little to gain by continuing to fight. In addition, the length of the conflict was tied to other conflicts in the region, particularly the Bosnian war. As problems erupted in neighboring areas, it made peaceful resolution in Croatia more difficult, and the war dragged on.

Prior to the 1992 agreement, the Croatian forces were being soundly beaten by the JNA. Croatia had lost a significant amount of territory, and its forces were disorganized and poorly equipped. When the UN brokered a peace settlement in early 1992, the Croatian government had more to lose by continuing to fight than by agreeing to the peace. But this agreement did not stop the Croat forces from attempting to regain lost territory at moments when they believed their military capacity and ability for victory increased or when they believed that outside conflicts were inspiring the Serbian Krajina. This is why the Croat forces broke the 1992 cease-fire as well others negotiated in 1993 and 1994. When Croatia finally agreed to the Dayton Agreement in 1995, the country had reached its goal of regaining the lands it had lost in 1992.

The lower intensity of fighting between 1992 and the reemergence of hostilities in the form of Operations Flash and Storm in 1995, created an excellent tactical strategy for Croatia. The UN peacekeepers contributed to this strategy because the UN managed lower-level skirmishes in the most heavily populated Serb areas instead of Croat forces. Delaying the fighting and accepting a suboptimal territorial settlement allowed Croatian forces to get weapons, training, and Western support to prepare for more significant fights and regain the Serb Krajina. Early battles of the war were fought using Croatian police forces that were neither well equipped nor well trained. By delaying the fighting, the Croatian Army could mature and become more successful. The comparison between the coordinated attacks on thirty targets during Operation Storm and original fighting in the war, which can be characterized as management of sporadic widespread violent incidents, suggests that the army used this time successfully.

The Bosnian war, which occurred almost simultaneously, also played a part in the eventual Croatian victory. Because Serb forces had to deal with several conflicts at once, their military and priorities were split, and the independence of Serbs in the Croatian Krajina became a lower priority. Thus, by delaying the final battles until 1995, the Croatian forces gave themselves the best tactical advantage for winning, as the enemy was preoccupied elsewhere, and Croatian forces were better prepared.

External Military Intervention

Two international organizations intervened militarily in the Croatian conflict: the United Nations and NATO. Both organizations conducted military operations in Croatia that affected the outcome of the conflict. The most substantial intervention was the use of UN peacekeepers. The 1992 UN-negotiated cease-fire agreement provided for 14,000 UN peacekeeping forces to be sent into Croatia. These forces were named the UN Protection Force. The UN created three United Nations Protected Areas (UNPAs) in Croatia: Eastern Slovonia, Western Slovonia, and North Krajina. These UNPAs were demilitarized and were allowed to function with local control but under UN supervision. The demilitarization of the UNPAs meant the removal or disarming of the JNA, so the Croatian government was also less threatened, as the forces they had been fighting were removed or reduced (Pavković 2000, 152).

The goal of this intervention was to create areas, particularly ones with high Serb populations, in which people could be assured of safety from armed attack. UNPROFOR was to administer these regions and keep them free of hostility. UNPROFOR’s mission was to ensure the nondiscriminatory protection of human rights. It monitored local authority, acted as military observer, collected and confiscated weapons, and administered the return of displaced persons. From 1992 to 1995, UNPROFOR’s mandate was expanded to include more regions of Croatia as well as the monitoring of persons entering the UNPAs. Of course, the use of UNPROFOR was also expanded outside Croatia.

The UN forces’ mandate included demilitarizing the areas, protecting the peace, and monitoring the situation, but not choosing sides or taking part in any fighting. It was only under these conditions that Serbs and Croats agreed to the presence of UN peacekeepers. Because the forces were not designed or ordered to engage in conflict when conflict erupted, they were often unable to do anything about it. Thus, when the Croatian government attacked or captured portions of territory that were part of the protected areas, UNPROFOR was inactive. In fact, the demilitarization and removal of the JNA from the UNPAs made the eventual Croatian conquest of these areas easier.

The other significant military intervention in Croatia came from NATO. The role of NATO was far more important in the Bosnian war, but there were some effects on Croatia. The most significant was the assistance that NATO gave the Croat forces when they were planning the 1995 offensives against Serb Krajina. NATO artillery reportedly attacked areas that were important for Serb communication and command control. This advantaged the Croatian forces, who retook the land easily (Pavković 2000, 153-154).

Conflict Management Efforts

In addition to providing military intervention, the international community was heavily involved in negotiation and attempted peace settlements in the region. Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian leaders attended many meetings and pledged support to many diplomatic efforts that in the end were abandoned. The European Community and the UN were the main actors in promoting conflict management through diplomacy.

In 1990, prior to the outbreak of serious hostilities, the European Community—as the organization was known before 1992—was already concerned about security in SFRY. Predictions about the potential violence that would accompany the breakup of the SFRY indicated that it could affect the security of Europe as a whole. When Croatia declared its independence in 1991, the EC was the first actor to respond to the situation. It did so by offering to mediate between Yugoslavia and Croatia. But it became clear by summer of 1991 that the problem had already escalated beyond the point where mediation could help. The EC discussed sending forces, but this proposal never amounted to anything (Woodward 1996, 166). Throughout the fall of 1991, the EC worked to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table and negotiated over a dozen cease-fires, all of which were broken.

Diplomatically, recognition of the new state of Croatia was another important intervention that did not yield the desired effect. The Germans became a vocal player in the EC by pushing for the official recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. The belief was that recognizing Croatia as a sovereign state would stop JNA aggression and thereby end hostilities. In previous statements, the EC had committed itself to trying to hold together Yugoslavia, but the EC reversed its position in the hope that early, immediate recognition would deter the aggressors. Unfortunately, much evidence supports the thesis that early recognition contributed to the conflict instead of resolving it.

The UN tried to manage the conflict through a series of General Assembly and Security Council resolutions, the most important of which placed an arms embargo on the territory of the SFRY in September 1991. This embargo hurt the ability of the Croatian government to procure weapons and helped the Serb forces, as the JNA was already a well-supplied army. At the end of 1991, the peace negotiations started by the EC were handed over to the United Nations, and the Secretary General appointed Cyrus Vance special envoy to work on a peace plan for the former Yugoslavia. The UN created UNPAs and UNPROFOR in January of 1992 to manage the conflict.

The 1992 cease-fire was not the end of the conflict, and several cease-fires would be negotiated before the final Dayton Agreement was concluded in 1995, but throughout the process the UN and EC remained engaged and searched for a diplomatic solution. In the end, the Dayton Agreement was the official truce that ended the Croatian war.


This overview of the Croatian war captures the political and military events but spends less time emphasizing the human toll of the war. Any recounting of the story must bring us back to the horrors that cannot be expressed simply by understanding the events. Neighbors became enemies and took up arms against each other. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes and possessions and were chased from their land. Thousands were beaten, raped, wounded, and killed. Dozens of mass graves have been located. War crimes associated with Croatia are still being investigated and prosecuted by the United Nations. More than just a civil war, this conflict represented one of the most horrific human tragedies that Europe has ever experienced.

Perhaps the historic dynamics of the region should have warned the international community that such a conflict was possible. Opposing desires—for the unity of Slavs on the one hand, and for each group, including Croats, to have its own territory and independence, on the other—have defined the region for centuries. Although Croatia has emerged from the conflict an economically growing, politically stable state that is working to expand its relationship with the EU, it is also a state with a violent civil war in its past that it must address as it continues to move forward.