Croatia: Open Sesame – Peaceful Reintegration Of Eastern Slavonia

Franjo Tudjman in liberated Vukovar 8 June 1997

Franjo Tudjman in liberated Vukovar 8 June 1997

In January of 1998, the area known as Eastern Slavonia was restored to full Croatian authority after an arduous two-year process. The successful conclusion to the peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia represents a major achievement for Croatia, US diplomacy, and the UN member states who contributed troops to the reintegration efforts.

During these two years, Croatia’s first President, dr Franjo Tudjman, said in liberated Vukovar on 8 June 1997:
The victor who does not know how to forgive sows new seeds of war and evil. And the Croatian people do not want that, just as they did not want all the suffering that has happened. Let the coexistence of Croats with the Serbian and other ethnic minority communities live on … and the one and only eternal Croatia!

On January 15, 2013 we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of this mammoth effort to achieve sustainable peace in this area of Croatian territory. At about the same time as these celebrations, the Croatian government has announced (beginning of January 2013) that it will speed up measures to introduce Cyrillic writing (Serbian) alongside Latin writing (Croatian) on public signs in Vukovar because, they say, there are just over 1/3 of the population of Serbs there. Whether there really are 1/3 of Serbs there or not is a question that must be asked given that Croatian past census processes leave much to be desired when it comes to separating the number of people actually residing at an address from those who have merely registered themselves as living at an address but actually live elsewhere, indeed, in many case in another country! The government’s announcement regarding introducing Cyrillic writing in Vukovar has stirred a great deal of uneasiness, controversy, protest and even questioning by some the very Constitutional law, which according to them does not seem to be on par with the European standards when it comes to minorities and what the right to freedom of minority language use actually means. This is a topic that’s gaining more and more momentum by the day, in Croatia – and is sure to ruffle many current Cock-a-doodle-doo coalition government feathers and involve lots of political debates. I do hope though, that the Croatian government of today does know what ethnic minority right to freely use its own language means: it does not mean that public signs must be bi-lingual, or tri-lingual etc. There’s everything to be said for true sovereignty – including that in many countries of the free world one can hear multitudes of languages spoken or written in the streets, among the free crowds, but the street signs are written in only one language – the official one of that country. The times will show on many issues of multiethnic community whether the Peaceful Reintegration of Eastern Slavonia where significant accent was placed upon coexistence of multiple ethnic groups – one of which was a murderous aggressor against the others – was an Open Sesame, a successful, way of achieving true success in the goal of creating multiethnic communities, all of which in essence should comply with the laws of sovereign Croatia. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

At this time when the Croatian government is, with its announcement to introduce Cyrillic writing on public signs in Vukovar, stirring much of the still-grieving Croatian public to bitterness, it is most opportune to remind it how dr Franjo Tudjman’s leadership achieved peace in an area where peace was nowhere in sight, and bloodshed and aggression everywhere. Hence, the following article:

Peaceful Reintegration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium

By: Vesna Skare-Ozbolt

Peaceful reintegration of the Podunavlje region was the most successful peace project of the United Nations and the Croatian government. In spite of numerous obstacles which both the representatives of the UN and the Croatian government faced during the implementation of peaceful reintegration, on  15 January 1998 the Podunavlje region was returned into the constitutional and legal system of the Republic of Croatia without a single bullet being shot.

After the representatives of the Croatian government, of local Serb leaders and of government of Socialistic Republic of Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia and Montenegro) signed the Erdut agreement on 12 November 1995 and the Security Council adopted resolution 1037(1996) thus creating the United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) the process of return of the Podunavlje region under Croatian authority had begun. Although the phrase „peaceful reintegration „was accepted in the then political discourse, for those who lived and worked in the occupied region as well as for those actively engaged by the Croatian government in its implementation, peaceful reintegration was all but peaceful:

working often at gun point, along with constant obstructions and blackmailing by the local Serbs authorities was a tough reality.

Many Croats still regret that the region was not liberated by military action; therefore it is worth reminding why President Dr. Franjo Tudjman opted for negotiations.

As per the assessment of strategic experts the military action planned under the name „The Vukovar Pigeon“, the Podunavlje region could have been freed in several days even if Serbia’s weakened army would have entered the battle; namely, they were engaged in preserving the captured territory in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the mobilization rate was low. But, when Tudjman was informed that the potential human loss was calculated at 1500 – and that was conservative assessment – he decided to avoid war at any cost, justifying his decision with just a few words: „ to me, every life counts, be it Croatian or Serbian.“ International community knew that the Croatian forces were ready, waiting for their Supreme Commander’s signal, they were also aware that the outcome of the Dayton negotiations depended on Tudjman only. And President Tudjman was aware that any military action undertaken by the HV (Croatian Army) would jeopardize the American peaceful initiative and Dayton success. And he did not want to risk the ending of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On his side, Slobodan Milosevic, realizing that he had lost the battle on the negotiation table, sent a message to the local Serb government in Podunavlje to start negotiations with the Croatian authorities.

In January 1996 some 150,000 people lived in the region, of which 85 % Serbs and barely 8 % Croats. Already, given the success of the military operation „Storm“, the local Serb authorities in the Podunavlje region were completely disoriented, the Serbian media published titles such as “Dairy of Crime: Pavelic started, Tudjman finished” in order to stir panic among local Serbs, the discontent of thousands Croatian refugees who lived in poor conditions in sports halls and devastated hotels at the Adriatic coast was growing, and Croatian public, revolted by the inefficiency of the UN demanded their departure. In such circumstances, peaceful reintegration seemed to be an impossible mission.

During the two years, the Croatian negotiators held hundreds of meetings with local Serb authorities as well as with local Serb citizens. It was really not easy to put up with primitivism and provocations by some of the local Serb leaders. What gave us strength to persevere were contacts with ordinary local Serbs as many were telling us that they did not think as their leaders did, that they only wanted peace, but were afraid to stand up loudly in order to avoid problems. In spite of constant threats and pressure by their leaders, it was the ordinary Serbs who gradually made first steps towards coexistence as they were becoming aware that for the normalization of relations the process of reintegration into Republic of Croatia was inevitable.

Peaceful reintegration produced many positive results:

•    A new refugee crisis was avoided and the attempt of the local Serb authorities to present to the international community a voluntary departure of Serb families as a „tacit exodus“, which would then be qualified (by them) as „ethnic cleansing“ perpetrated by Croats, did not succeed;
•    Demilitarization, disarmament and demobilization of military and paramilitary forces and weapons buy-back programme were carried out;
•    The return of those who wished to return to their homes was completed with the return process accelerated after the completion of the mission;
•    Law on Convalidation adopted in 1997 confirmed certain legal affairs and acts of the so-called Republic of Krajina which were not deemed legal before;
•    Agreement on the Normalization of Relations between Croatia and Yugoslavia was signed on 23 August 1996;
•    Local elections were held on 13 and 14 April 1997, simultaneously with elections throughout Croatia and from that day the Podunavlje region was fully integrated in the Croatian legal system;
•    In line with the Croatian Constitution representatives of Serb minority were elected in local, regional and national government bodies.

Perhaps the most of the controversies raised among the Croat public was the adoption of Law on Amnesty (in 1992 and 1996) by which all those who committed criminal acts in connection with armed conflict, except for war crimes, were granted amnesty. No doubt, a certain number of potential criminals from that region escaped criminal prosecution, largely due to insufficient documentation or their unavailability. This is something that is most painful for Croats living in the region. However, as there is no statute of limitation for war crimes and investigations are ongoing.

Peaceful reintegration was completed successfully, partly due to President Tudjman’s  insistence that an American official head the mission, as he deemed that they are sufficiently „pragmatic and efficient.“ The American general Jacques Paul Klein, appointed as UNTAES Transitional Administrator, was exactly of that breed: determined, realistic and not very keen of diplomacy, so much so that at his first meeting with local Serbs leaders he addressed them with these words: „You rebelled, played your cards and lost. Now, if you won’t help me, I’ll leave and let the Croats finish the job. There is no third option!

While peaceful reintegration was not adequately valorised in Croatia, the UN officials and the international community evaluated it as “a positive precedent for restoration of peace throughout the former Yugoslavia but also for future missions in the world”.  Croatia is the first country ever to end the war, practically from the very ending of military actions, in a peaceful way, thus paving the way to achieve a perhaps greater civilization and multicultural potential than many of the EU member states. And last but not least, peaceful reintegration process generated skilful peace mediators which is a worthy human capital for future armed conflicts in the world. Considering all the above, we can say that peaceful reintegration is the most valuable Croatian brand.

“For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”. (Sun Tzu)

Vesna Skare-Ozbolt

Vesna Skare-Ozbolt

About Vesna Škare-Ožbolt: she was a legal advisor of the late President Franjo Tuđman for ten years and the former Minister of Justice of the Republic of Croatia (2003 – 2006). She is also President of Democratic Centre, the party in coalition with HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union).
In the late 1990s she handled the sensitive negotiations leading to a peaceful return of Serb-occupied areas of Eastern Slavonia (including Vukovar) to Croatian sovereigntyShe is the current President of the Democratic Centre Party in Croatia.


Croatia, the War, and the Future’s addendum:

Click this link for Brief Summary on PEACEFUL REINTEGRATION OF



•    About US$1.6 Million of Croatia’s money (at the time when it was struggling to sustain the lives of hundreds of thousands of Croatian and non-Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) had to be forked out to pay for weapons buyback  – that is, purchase the weapons owned privately by Serb rebels!

•    On 3 December 1996, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and close aides visited the UNTAES mandate area. He reaffirmed his desire for Serbs to stay in Croatia with guarantees of human rights and fundamental freedoms and called for the marginalization of extremists on both sides. Most significantly, he adopted the suggestion of the Transitional Administrator to pay old-age pensions to the 20,000 pensioners as a good-will gesture for the 1997 new year period.

•    On 8 August 1996, the signing of the Agreement on Interim Co-Financing of Public Services on the Territory Administered by UNTAES, By The Government Of the Republic Of Croatia provided that Croatia would pay 4,500 000 Kuna (about US$850,660.00) for the regular monthly co-financing of public services in the area administered by UNTAES. These public services include health and social welfare, education, police, administration, operating costs and related administrative expenses.
•    Only Serbs really know how much petrol, gas etc. Arkan’s (Zeljko Raznjatovic – Arkan) Serb para-military occupying forces in Eastern Slavonia had stolen from Deletovci (near Vukovar) oil fields during the five year occupation. Figures say that Serbs took more than 100,000 Tons of crude oil from these fields per year of occupation and carted it off to Pancevo refinery (Serbia).
•    What about the endless wagons of timber Serbs stole from Croatian forests, carting it off to Serbia during the five years of occupying, ethnically cleansing Easter Slavonia!?

And the list goes on …

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