Karađorđevo and the territorial-ethnic division of Bosnia and Herzegovina


It has been difficult up until today to convey in the Croatian public that Croats and Serbs were at war in Croatia, and at the same time supposedly collaborated in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The legitimation of the “Homeland War“ was endangered. Thus, it is no wonder that nationalist ideologists in Croatia strictly reject agreements between Tuđman and Serbia. But, the atmosphere of that time in Croatia and Serbia is documented in the press.

War damage - Mostar

Karađorđevo and the territorial-ethnic division of Bosnia and Herzegovina

            Shortly after Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman had a tête-à-tête on March 25 1991 in the small town of Karađorđevo in Northern Serbia, a fierce controversy began immediately regarding the interpretation of the results. The two politicians present then as part of the delegations of both sides, Stipe Mesić and Ante Marković, later revealed that the meeting also concerned the ethnic-territorial division of the multi-ethnic state Bosnia and Herzegovina between Croatia and Serbia.

            Stipe Mesić was a founding member of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the last President of the Presidency of Yugoslavia, thus not just anybody, and after Tuđman’s death he also won the Presidential Elections in Croatia in 2000 and lead the country for two terms. The reformer and economics expert Ante Marković was the last prime minister of Yugoslavia. However, both were personally not present during the tête-à-tête between Tuđman and Milošević. Furthermore, there are no written records on an understanding between Tuđman and Milošević. Mesić only declared that Tuđman told him after the conversation that “Croatia would be as big as it had never been before in history.“ Both Tuđman and Milošević in later statements denied the assertion that they had come to an arrangement about the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Notwithstanding, the assumption that the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina was initiated in Karađorđevo is perfectly plausible. “You have to see what later happened in practice,“ Stipe Mesić said in May 1994 to the author. At the time, he resigned from his offices in the HDZ party and the state in protest against the war policy of Croatia in Bosnia and Herzegovina, together with then chief of the Secret Service Josip Manolić. The proof lies in the following military and political events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mesić said at that time.

The Croatian public denies Karađorđevo

            It has been difficult up until today to convey in the Croatian public that Croats and Serbs were at war in Croatia, and at the same time supposedly collaborated in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The legitimation of the “Homeland War“ was endangered. Thus, it is no wonder that nationalist ideologists in Croatia strictly reject agreements between Tuđman and Serbia. But, the atmosphere of that time in Croatia and Serbia is documented in the press. It was discussed completely openly in Croatia that Bosnia and Herzegovina was a small Yugoslavia and thus did not have any right to exist (this was then continuously critically discussed in the satirical magazine Feral Tribune in Split). In Serbia, the discussion was more open after Dayton. What contributed to this are the biographies of leading military figures, which have been published since.

            Especially the Croatian public has its difficulties with Mesić’s statements. Because, to begin with, the war in Croatia broke out. The attacks of Serbian troops on Croatia in the summer following Croatia’s declaration of independence on June 25 1991, few months after the conversations in Karađorđevo, not only had the goal to secure traditionally Serbian settlement zones in Croatia (the region surrounding Knin, Eastern and Western Slavonia), they went far beyond that. Almost 30 percent of Croatia was occupied by troops under Serbian command in the fall of 1991, Serbian nationalists wanted to go even further, Greater Serbia should even include Dalmatia and whole Slavonia, up to the line Biograd-Karlovac-Virovitica. Irregulat troops committed crimes against the Croatian population, the territory occupied by the Serbs was ethnically cleansed from the Croats, meaning that the Croatian population from these territories was forcefully displaced. Thousands of Croats were killed. In the beginning, Croatia was still too weak in the military sense to be able to withstand the Serbian offensive. It could only succeed to keep front lines from October 1991, because many volunteers reinforced the Croatian police forces and territorial units and a Croatian army could be formed quickly from these units.

            For the population in Croatia, up until today the experience has remained that Serbia attacked and partially destroyed Croatia, that the Croats are victims of a Serbian aggression. Anti-Serbian sentiments have played a huge role in Croatia up until today. The tables were turned by the ceasefire in early January 1992 and the almost simultaneous diplomatic recognition of the country by the EC of that time (except Greece) and the USA. UN troops (UNCRO) were installed in areas occupied by the Serbs. The front lines in Croatia remained frozen until August 1995, and the “government of national unity“ managed in three years to build a powerful armee. In August 1995 Croatian troops performed a counterattack as part of the military campaign “Storm“ (Oluja) and now they expelled the Serbian troops and also the majority of the Serbian population from the areas occupied by the Serbs. Hundreds of Serbs lost their lives. The victory in the “Homeland War“ has remained constituent for the Croatian national consciousness until today.

The splitting of the Croats in BiH

            The military structure-building in the Western Herzegovina began in 1991. But, while the fighting was already going on in Croatia, it had still remained quiet in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite the defeats against the Serbian troops in Croatia, Tuđman refined his strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At a conference on December 27 1991 in Zagreb, where the party leadership of both Republics participated, Tuđman managed to prevail against opposition primarily from the President of the HDZ-BiH, Stjepan Kljuić, and liberal powers in the Croatian party. Kljuić advocated the defence of the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina against a possible Serbian aggression and acknowledged the Muslim President Alija Izetbegović as the legitimate President of the country. Tuđman, on the other hand, promoted the radical nationalist wing under Mate Boban, who acted as the President of the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia from November 18 1991 (Hrvatska zajednica Herceg-Bosna) – the union of 30 Croatian dominated municipalities. (On August 28 1993 he finally became the President of the “Croatian Republic Herzeg-Bosnia“).

            Thus, Tuđman was already implementing his policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 1991, when the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina still had not begun. Stjepan Kljuić, who originates from Sarajevo, resigned from his position in February 1992. Thereby it became clear that the Croatian leadership under Mate Boban was ready only to enter tactical alliances with the central government, but in no way to principally defend the entire state Bosnia and Herzegovina.

            Admittedly, Muslims and Croats still voted together for the independence of the country from Yugoslavia in late February of 1992, and the Croatian Defence Council (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane – HVO), officially founded on April 8 1992, fended off attacks of Serbian troops against Croatian settlement zones. In Mostar, the HVO and the government troops, the Armija BiH, still fought successfully together regionally against the Serbian troops in May 1992. The buildup of the HVO was coordinated with Croatia and directed by Zagreb. This is indicated by the fact that in  1991 a Western Herzegovinian became the Croatian Minster of Defence with Gojko Šušak. The former pizza baker from Toronto distinguished himself in exile by collecting financial contributions for defending the country. He was an important hinge between the Croats from Western Herzegovinia and Zagreb. But there was still resistance among the Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovinia against Tuđman’s policy. Many Croats from the Posavina (the region dominated by Croats and bordering with Slavonia in the North-East), who were approximately equally strong like the Western Herzegovinians with 200.000 people, and many representatives of the Croats from Central Bosnia opposed Tuđman openly. Many fought in a second Croat dominated troop, the Croatian Defence Forces (Hrvatske obrambene snage – HOS). This troop close to the “Party of Rights“ had already defended Vukovar, its leadership under Dobrislav Paraga, which accused Tuđman of stabbing the defence of Vukovar in the back, was arrested in December 1991.

            However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the HOS continued its existence under legendary commander Blaž Kraljević. Kraljević acknowledged Alija Izetbegović as the supreme commander and opened his troops also to Non-Croats. Many Muslims from Central Bosnia entered the HOS, also in the Herzegovina, so that 30 percent of the troops were Muslims. The HOS organised the defence of the cities of Tuzla and Zenica in the beginning, fought at the Posavina front and advanced up to Trebinje in the South-East in the summer of 1992. Kraljević became a threat to Tuđman’s policy. He was lured into a trap on August 9 1992 by members of the HVO and shot with almost a dozen of his commanders on the way to a commander meeting with the leadership of the HVO in Čitluk. The HOS-troops were integrated into the HVO during the following months (partly forcibly). With the (contract) assassination of Kraljević, a major obstacle to the implementation of  Tuđman’s strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina was removed. The extremist Mate Boban now had the power over the Croats in BiH.

Coordination of the war in BiH

            It has likewise been a problem for many left liberal Croatian intellectuals up until today to properly arrange the events in BiH. On the one side, to define the war in Croatia rightly as a defensive war, and on the other, to admit that extremist Croats in BiH had pursued the ethnic-territorial division of the country with all manifestations of ethic cleansing, is difficult even for them.

            When in late 2017 the leadership of the Croatian extremists under Jadranko Prlić was sentenced to long prison sentences by the UN Tribunal for War Crimes in Den Haag, many refused to believe in the guilt of the defendants, especially the ordinary people. Even from the ranks of the Social Democrats (SDP) and other leftist groups, the ruling was criticised. The hour of commemoration for the convicted war criminals in the Croatian Parliament (Sabor) and the candles lit in churches and windows have prompted wondering in Europe and cast a shadow over the leadership of the EU member state. However, nothing else was done, Brusseles could not even bring itself to issue an official rebuke.

            But to understand Tuđman would not be so difficult, if one would assume that the former  partisan general really had discussed the ethnic-territorial division of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Milošević in Karađorđevo. Tuđman and Milošević were opponents, enemies even, but with regard to Bosnia they basically were in agreement: The multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina had to be destroyed. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the antithesis to nationalism, to the nationalistic constitution of state and society. The Croatian and Serbian nationalism were likewise seeking (and still are) to annex the Serbian and Croatian areas to their respective mother country. The fate of the Bosniaks (Muslims) and other minorities of Bosnia did not trouble the two national leaders.

            The chain of indications of a concrete cooperation is long: it began already in May 1992, when the delegations of Bosnian Serbs and Croats lead by Radovan Karadzić and Mate Boban met in Graz and marked out their spheres of interest in BiH. Subsequently, there supposedly were dozens of meetings inside commissions. There was a lot to talk about. There was not always agreement with regard to the borders of the respective territorial claims. But the discussions remained secret.

            In the Serbian and the Croatian media landscape alike, it was furthermore temporarily still spoken relatively openly about the so-called Banovina Border from 1938 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had presented a compromise between Serbs and Croats then in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In international peace plans like the Vance-Owen plan, with regard to the Herzegovina the Banovina border was even included, if one looks at the areas in Central Bosnia.

            For Boban and Karadzić, the mountain range between Travnik and Sarajevo along the Lašva and Bosna valley was supposed to become the border between the two spheres of influence. The region Kupres was controversial, i. e. the control of the Kupres mountain pass connecting the Croatian areas of Central Bosnia with the coast, the control over Mostar and the Croatian Posavina were controversial in the beginning as well. The Serbs wanted to control the Croatian-Muslim areas of the Posavina in the northeast of Bosnia, because the connection of the Serbian zones surrounding Knin and Western Bosnia to Serbia was secured over these areas (strategically most important: Brčko). Tuđman complied with that and commanded the Croatian HVO troops in the fall of 1992 to leave the Posavina, to give up the region surrounding Derventa and Bosanksi Brod. Only Orašje and Odžak have remained – up until today – under Croatian control.

            An additional indication of the existence of an agreement between Milošević and Tuđman were the clashes between the HVO and the Armija BiH in Prozor already in early summer of 1992, then the giving up of Jajce by the HVO in November 1992. The Serbian forces occupied the city almost without a fight, more than 25.000 inhabitants had to flee to Travnik over the mountain Vlašić. The betrayal of the HVO in Jajce has remained a deep wound for the Bosniaks (Muslims).

            In May 1993, the attack of the HVO on the Bosniaks in Mostar happened, which spread to the whole country in June. What followed was the attack on Travnik and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim settlements in the areas of Central Bosnia claimed by the Croats in the summer of 1993 (the massacre in Ahmići – Vitez, Stupni Do – Vareš, the ethnic cleansing of Čapljina and Stolac). Thousands of combat-capable Muslim men, in the most cases former fellow soldiers and members of the HOS and HVO, were interned and abused in the camps Dretelj, Gabela and Heliodrom near Mostar. However, in return there were also attacks on Croats in the Neretva valley, in Jablanica and in villages close to the Sutjeska monastary near Kakanj by the Armija BiH .

The revison of Karađorđevo

            In the fall of 1993, the Armija BiH began its counter offensive, the Croats were pushed back: Vitez was besieged, Kreševo, Fojnica were captured, the Neretva valley came under the control of the Armija BiH.

            After the destruction of the bridge Stari Most in Mostar in November 1993, the efforts of the Bosniaks and the Armija BiH doubled. The HVO had to retreat in many places, the Central Bosnian Croatian settlement zones Vitez, Kiseljak and Busovača were enclosed by the Armija BiH and thus became Croatian enclaves. The HVO was facing a defeat.

            The interests of the Bosniak (Muslim) majority of the population had been disregarded by both sides. The Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina were supposed to be displaced by the criminal policy of ethnic cleansing or herded together in a small area in Central Bosnia. But none of the two sides was counting with the will for resistence of the “free territories” dominated by Bosniaks and  still remaining multi-ethnic, and the resistance of Sarajevo. Members of other ethnic groups also fought in the Armija BiH against the “fascism,“ like legendary general and vice-commander of the Armija BiH, Jovan Divjak, originally from Serbia, expressed it. In 1994 the Bosnian troops also managed to reconquer territories and strategically important spots from the Serbs – like the Vlašić mountain and the Kupres mountain pass.

            Simultaneously, the USA and also Germany attempted to convince Tuđman to switch sides again. The USA promised military assistance for the recapturing of territories occupied by the Serbs  in Croatia. A first sign of a change of course was the dismissal of Mate Boban in the end of December 1993. On March 18 1994, the Washington Agreement became effective. To the great chagrin of the Croatian extremists and the Serbs, who on their part accused Tuđman of betrayal of the Karađorđevo agreement. Tuđman sacrificed the advanced ambitions of the Mostar leadership and consented to the foundation of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The territories controlled by the Armija BiH and the HVO were reunited. The war inside the war was over, the para-state Herzeg-Bosnia was dissolved.

            After a meeting between Tuđman and Izetbegović on July 17 1995, finally joint military actions were started. On August 4, operation “Oluja” (Storm) began, the now trained and modern equipped Croatian armee defeated the Serbian troops in Croatia with a blitz campaign and recaptured the territories occupied by the Serbs in only three days. The Serbian civilian population fled in long treks to Western Bosnia and Serbia.

            On September 8, the now reunited armed forces of the HVO and the Armija BiH began the recapturing of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the military campaign “West Wind” (Maestral). The Serbian positions dissolved relatively fast here as well. However, behind the scenes the Western powers (contact groups from the USA, France, Great Britain, Germany and Italy) had agreed in principle to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina territorially: 49 percent for the Serbs, 51 percent for the Bosniak-Croat Federation. On September 15, the NATO threatened with bomb attacks on the advancing Bosnian and Croatian troops near Prijedor, because the Bosnian troops were on the point of reconquering the largest part of Bosnia. This division was finally formalised in the Dayton Agreement. The war ended with a division of the country, whereby ethnic-nationalist criteria were accepted by the international community.

Karađorđevo is relevant again

            However, the leadership of Herzeg-Bosnia, i. e. the national party of the West-Herzegovina Croats HDZ-BIH has never overcome the dissolution of Herzeg-Bosnia. And it attempted, even after the foundation of the Federation, to keep its positions and to expand them further. It came in handy to them that the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided in 10 cantons, whereby three of the cantons still remained completely under Croatian control. But they also attempted in the mixed cantons to untie the municipalities dominated by Croats from the Federation of BiH. The media, the newspapers, radio-stations, local television stations, still show a clear Croatioan-nationalist orientation.

            With the support of Croatia, in these territories the curricula of the schools and universities were brought into line with the ones in Croatia and it was attempted to implement the ethnic divisions down to the last detail. The (partially artificially constructed) Croatian language was established in the Croatian territories. The “schools with two exits“ are an axample for that, Croatian children were supposed to remain among their own kind. Croatian students today likewise do not feel to be part of the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but as part of the Croatian nation. Mostar as a city was divided, there are two administrations, two universities, two “languages,“ two football clubs etc. The pension systems (war veterans), the health care system, as well as the administration, remained coupled to the developments in Croatia after the war.

            In addition to that, Croatia succeeded with the Washington Agreement and the Dayton Agreement in 1995 in front of the international community and the Office of the High Representative to push through the dual citizenship for the Croats in BiH. Bosnian Croats have a Croatian passport and are thus, since the accession of Croatia to the EU in 2013, also EU-citizens. Thus, for Bosnian Croats there is no pressure to lead the country BiH as a whole to Europe. This provides a political lever for the political leadership of the HDZ-BiH (Croatian Democratic Union) to block the way of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Europe. Since on the other side the Serbs got the “Republika Srpska” in Dayton and their leaderships wants to await until Serbia joins the EU, for nationalists on both sides there is no pressure to fullfil the standards and conditions of the EU for the admission of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

            For several years, a completely open coaliting of the Serbian and Croatian nationalists in BiH has emerged once more. The HDZ-BiH lead by Dragan Čović demands a Third Entity, thus a new Herzeg-Bosnia, and the Serbs lead by Milorad Dodik are consolidating the Republika Srpska more and more as an independent structure. Both sides are revealing that they not only do not wish to promote the cohesion of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but wish to block, and even destroy it in the long run. The old war goal, wishing to annex the territories controlled by them to the respective mother country, has never been abandoned.

            Thus, Karađorđevo has become relevant again. Only in the areas predominantly inhabited by Bosniaks, the population and the largest part of the political actors hold on to a joint Bosnia and Herzegovina and wish to strive for the accession of the country into the EU promised by Brusseles. However, the Muslim national party SDA is attempting, for its own advantage, to make compomises with nationalists from the other sides, which by no means are always beneficial for the respective population.

            Unfortunately, almost 25 years after Dayton Brussels and the capitals do not demonstrate sincere commitment to counter the enemies and blockers of the EU perspective by a persistent and powerful policy. The presence and activities of the international community have sunken to a very low level in the last years. A strategy to free Bosnia and Herzegovina from the shackles of the Dayton Agreement and to build a normal democratic state can no longer be discerned.

            Brusseles no longer has a foreign policy strategy with regard to the Western Balkans. Hundreds of thousands of professionals from throughout the Western Balkans set out disappointedly towards Western Europe. The already ailing health care and social systems will sooner or later collapse completely. The promise of Thessaloniki from 2003 to integrate the Western Balkans into the EU, of which only Croatia has profited, is questioned more and more in the EU member countries. After the change of power in the USA and the last developments in some of the EU member countries (Brexit, Hungary, Poland), the political will is lacking to change the status quo in such a manner that the population might develop some hope for a betterment of its position again.

            Apparently, the EU is satisfied that there is still relative peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Preserving the status quo seems to be the goal of the EU policy. While the European vision of integration has almost died out, the way was paved for nationalist, even fascist powers, to enable them to change the power structures in their countries more and more to their favour. It is underestimated in the democratic states of the western EU that the nationalists have patience and embed their goals in a long-term strategy (compare the schools with two exists, national curricula, the comprehensive national propaganda in the media and even the social sciences). Thereby, they are even able to pull out temporarily for tactical reasons and make compromises. However, it is not their goal to preserve the status quo. The logic of the nationalist policy immanently contains the possibility to throw the lever on occassion, create tensions and even accept armed conflicts, in order to reach the long-term goals.

            Already, the deal about an exchange of territories in Kosovo and South Serbia discussed by the Presidents of Kosovo and Serbia, Hashim Thaci und Aleksandar Vučić, is associated openly in Belgrade with Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to the idea, most probably even supported by the USA, but primarily by Russia, North Kosovo inhabited predominantly by Serbs should become part of Serbia, and in return, the area surrounding Preševo inhabited predominantly by Albanians should become part of Kosovo.

            So far, the change of borders has been taboo in international policy, especially in Europe. The promise of the EU to welcome the states of the Western Balkans in the European Union in the long run was founded on the position to pacify the ethnic conflicts in the region with this perspective. The states were supposed to evolve as democratic states under the rule of law, which can be tailored to Europe. A short time ago, a discussion of changing borders based on ethnic criteria still was taboo. In Brusseles and especially in Berlin, the responsible politicians, experts and representatives of civil society took the view that changing borders in Kosovo would open Pandora’s box.

            Therebey, all those voices primarily looked at Bosnia and Herzegovina and Eastern Ukraine. A precedent in Kosovo would heat the ambitions of Serbia to remove Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. But according to growing information, today Serbian lobby groups are active in Brusseles and the capitals of Europe and in the USA, in order to market the perspective of a border change as a realistic “peace project.“ It seems that they are being heard to some extent: The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn seem to be switching to this course.

            This development is confirming the thesis that the Serbian nationalism has a lot of staying power and specifies its demands flexibly according to the international situation. With the new American President the US foreign policy is no longer predictable, positions which until now have been steadfast are now being undermined. And the European Union is divided. Only Berlin and some other states, which do not wish to accept any changes of borders in their own interest (Spain, Slovakia, Romania), have upheld the previous position.

            Belgrade’s patience shows itself in the public discourse, Serbia would recognise Kosovo diplomatically, but therefore Europe would need to be prepared to agree to a division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This discourse makes it apparent once more that the long-term goal of nationalist powers in Serbia, to destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state and incorporate parts of the country, is put on the agenda publically again.

            In addition, there are the public appearances of radical right-wing groups, like the Chetnik movement from Ravna Gora, which openly threatened that “the Drina would turn red with blood” in mid March 2019 in the Bosnian town of Višegrad (thereby referring to the massacres of the Bosniak population in 1943 and 1993). The biggest issue is not the behaviour of these groups, but the apology of it by Serbian representatives such as Milorad Dodik and by the silence of the government in Belgrade. That the influence of the Chetnik movement resonates with right wing extremists in the whole world is illuminated by the attack in New Zealand. The main perpetrator  listened to misanthropic hate-filled Chetnik songs to get in the mood for his murderous deed.

            The radical right is gaining ground in Croatia as well. Croatia is likewise attempting to use the confusion of Western politics and has been advocating the national goals in Bosnia and Herzegovina very openly for months – even at the diplomatic level. The Croatian right and the government wish to establish the third entity and to thereby keep their territorial demands.

Thus, the grip on Bosnia tightens once more. In the public and the parliaments of the member states, the Serbian and the Croatian side are moreover utilising the growing islamophobic tendencies in Europe in order to discredit the Muslim-Bosniak majority of the population in Bosnia. So far, in view of the threatening situation, it has only reacted in a restrained manner. No one wishes to get caught in a larger conflict. But the course is apparently being set in that direction.

Translated into English by Ivana Nevesinjac