This interpretation is advanced by most of the Western journalists and academics who have written about the war and even by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which claims to have “contributed to an indisputable historical record, combating denial and helping communities come to terms with their recent history.”
Central to the conventional wisdom on the Muslim-Croat conflict is that it resulted from the expansionist behaviour of the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. The ICTY is quite explicit about this. In the judgement against Dario Kordic, a Bosnian Croat leader jailed for war crimes, it states that Tudjman “harboured territorial ambitions in respect of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that was part of his dream of a Greater Croatia, including Western Herzegovina and Central Bosnia.”
This interpretation has led the ICTY to treat the Bosnian Croats much more harshly than the Muslims. But an examination of the evidence the ICTY has dealt with in relation to the Croat-Muslim conflict suggests that the truth is much more interesting and complicated than the simplistic explanation advanced by the court and its supporters.
A central pillar of the ‘Greater Croatia’ explanation for the Muslim-Croat conflict is that ‘Herceg-Bosna’, the entity the Bosnian Croats set up in 1991, mirroring similar moves by Bosnian Serbs, was established with the aim that it would secede from Bosnia and join Croatia.
The Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna (HZHB) declared its existence on 18 November 1991. It encompassed 30 municipalities in south-west and central Bosnia-Herzegovina and was described as ‘the freely expressed will of the Croatian people’ which ‘represents a political, cultural, economic and territorial entity.’
Prior to this declaration, on 12 November, a joint meeting of the ‘Crisis Staffs’ of the Herzegovina and Travnik Regional Communities, with the latter chaired by Dario Kordic, was held. As the Kordic judgement states, ‘the two communities decided that the Croatian people in Bosnia and Herzegovina should institute a policy to bring about “our age-old dream, a common Croatian State” and should call for a proclamation of a Croatian Banovina in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the “initial phase leading towards the final solution of the Croatian question and the creation of a sovereign Croatia within its ethnic and historical … borders.”’
However, in its founding document, HZHB also proclaimed: ‘The Community shall respect the democratically elected government of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina as long as Bosnia-Herzegovina remains an independent state in relation to former or any future Yugoslavia.’
HZHB was not the only Croat entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina to emerge at this time. Six days before HZHB declared its existence, on November 12 at a meeting in Bosanski Brod, northern Bosnia, the regional board of the Croatian Democratic Party (which had won most of the Croat vote in the Bosnian election of the previous year) founded the ‘Croatian Community of Bosanska Posavina’ (HZBP).
The declaration said the community was being formed ‘because of the complex political and general situation and the immediate threat of war and aggression against the Croatian people.’
At the time the Croatian war of 1991 was still raging, with some of the fiercest fighting taking place not far away on the other side of the Sava, the river on which Bosanski Brod sits. In Bosnia, areas with predominantly Serb populations had organised themselves into ‘Serbian Autonomous Regions.’
Like the HZHB, the HZBP gave itself a clear geographical delineation, comprising eight municipalities in the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It said its aim was to ‘unify all political activities in the defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina and to strengthen the Croatian population in it.’
The territories over which the HZHB and HZBP laid claim were never actually set in stone and in 1992 after the outbreak of war in Bosnia, the HZHB expanded. On 20 August, the Croatian Community of Usora, an area in northern Bosnia under Croat control, joined the HZHB.
The following day, nearby Croat-controlled Zepce (which like Usora was not one of the 30 municipalities originally claimed by the HZHB) also issued a declaration joining the HZHB and on 29 September, Croat-controlled Orasje, soon to become the only remnant of the areas laid claim to by the HZBP not under Serb control, joined the HZHB.
While the Zepce Croats came into conflict with the Muslims during the 1993-1994 Muslim-Croat hostilities, the HVO (the Bosnian Croat forces) in Usora and Orasje remained on the side of the Bosnian government throughout the Bosnian war.
So Herceg-Bosna was not just a Croatian-concocted poison that seeped into Central Bosnia from Western Hercegovina, the bastion of Croat nationalism. It was embraced by Croats across the country, including in those areas where they are said to have fought loyally on the side of the Bosnian government. Even in Tuzla, the city in Bosnia that best fostered peaceful inter-ethnic relations, Croats established the “Croatian Community of Soli”, reflecting tensions between them and the Bosnian Muslims. Though Croats in these areas set up their own “communities”, these had no chance of linking up territorially with the original municipalities of “Herceg-Bosna” or “Bosanska Posavina”, suggesting that Croat “separatism” did not necessarily mean linking up with Croatia.
Cooperation between Croats and Muslims in areas where they did not come into conflict is often highlighted by proponents of the Greater Croatia thesis, because it creates the impression that Croats were divided between those who were artificially infected with Tudjman’s expansionism and those who remained loyal to the Bosnian government.
In truth though, there were deep tensions between the Croats and Muslims in the areas where the HVO and ARBiH did not go to war, tensions that could easily have led to military conflict.
In Tuzla, the supposed bastion of multi-ethnic harmony, the 115th Brigade of the HVO was disbanded by the Bosnian government at the end of 1993. The leader of the brigade Zvonko Juric, said that this decision had to be accepted because confronting the mostly Muslim Bosnian Army (ARBiH ) was not feasible as there were “minimum chances to achieve any military success.” Had the Croats in the region been a stronger military and demographic position, conflict might well have erupted between the two groups in this area.
In another area held up as an example of Croat-Muslim cooperation, Olovo, the HVO did indeed fight alongside the ARBiH against the Serbs in the first stages of the war. But the Olovo HVO was also disbanded at the end of 1993, after relations with the Muslims, who predominated in the municipality, deteriorated sharply. Zdravko Dujmovic, the leader of the HVO there, said that senior HVO members who had helped him organise the defence of Olovo had been made to dig trenches following this deterioration. After the HVO was disbanded in Olovo, Dujmovic left to serve with the Croat authorities in Kiseljak, one of the municipalities that had been engulfed in the Croat-Muslim conflict in Central Bosnia.
In Brcko, where the HVO fought alongside the ARBiH in fierce battles against the Serbs, tensions emerged over the Croats’ attempts to establish their own municipality; as in Tuzla it was most likely the Croats’ weak demographic and military position that prevented war between the two groups.
In Bihac, another area where Croat loyalty to the Bosnian government is highlighted, Croats were also heavily outnumbered by Muslims so it would have been suicidal and pointless for them to attempt to carve out their own territory. Nevertheless, their commander Vlado Santic disappeared in mysterious circumstances that may have arisen from Muslim mistrust at his relationship with Franjo Tudjman. It is also interesting to note that, according to Brendan O’ Shea, author of ‘Crisis at Bihac: Bosnia’s Bloody Battlefield’, of fewer than 1,000 HVO troops operating in the Bihac region, nearly 100 were in the area controlled by Fikret Abdic, the breakaway Muslim leader who organised a rebellion against the Bosnian government.
In Usora, Croats were said to be dismayed at the cooperation between their ethnic kin in nearby Zepce and the Serbs against the Muslims. This may be so, but the ARBiH also expressed concerns in February 1994 that the HVO Brigade in Usora were“frequently in contact with the aggressor’s side.” That this was the case is clear from an HVO document dated 9 August 1993 that shows that the 110th Usora Brigade made contacts with the Serbs to discuss joining them and the HVO 111th Brigade in Zepce in the fight against the Muslims. In another document, the HVO commander in Usora describes the problems the HVO and Croat civilians experienced due to being “sandwiched” between the “Chetniks” (Serbs) and the Muslims. Usora became a separate municipality after the war, in line with local Croat opinion.
What all this suggests is that the breakdown in relations between Muslims and Croats was not the result of Tudjman’s “dream” of “Greater Croatia”, but a gradual separation that occurred wherever significant populations of Muslims and Croats lived side-by-side. Thus there were tensions not just in the Herzegovinian and Central Bosnian heartland of Herceg-Bosna, but in other areas that associated with it.
The heart of Herceg-Bosna: Herzegovina
Western Herzegovina is often described as the heartland of Bosnian Croat nationalism, unrepresentative of the more moderate outlook of the majority of Bosnian Croats, who are from elsewhere in the country. This may be so, but evidence examined by the ICTY suggests that the war between Croats and Muslims in the region was not so much a battle between Croat separatism and multi-ethnic Bosnia as a struggle for territory between two ethnic groups.
Since it was the Croats, mindful of the war in Croatia in 1991, who were best prepared for the Serb onslaught in Bosnia in 1992, it was the HVO, with assistance from the Croatian Army, rather than the ARBiH, who pushed the Serbs out of Herzegovina’s capital Mostar in June of that year. Only later in the year did the ARBiH establish the 4th Corps in the region.
The commonly-accepted interpretation of the outbreak of Croat-Muslim fighting in Herzegovina is that it arose from an HVO demand that the ARBiH surrender to the command of HVO forces in areas that had been designated as Croat provinces by the Vance-Owen Peace Plan agreed in January 1993. Another interpretation, backed up by evidence seen by the ICTY, is that it was a conflict between two ethnic groups who were both seeking to gain control over as much territory as they could.
A document from 20 February 1993, signed by the ARBiH 4th Corps commander Arif Pasalic, describes Muslim objectives in the region. It is worth quoting at some length.
“Our basic objective is to create a coherent, cohesive and unified political and military whole, consisting of legal authorities, Muslim organisations and the BH Army. We have no doubt that the Neretva River valley, which includes municipalities with an absolute or relative Muslim majority, is of strategic importance and as such the key to opening up horizons for not only Muslims in Herzegovina but in the whole of Bosnia and key to the fate of the Republic of BH as our sole state and homeland.”
It goes on to talk of the need to create “a unified Muslim political and national front with a single body and soul, with regard to which the defensive capacity as embodied by the 4th BH Army Corps shall represent a factor of security and provide a firm political position.”
At this time many Muslims were still serving in the HVO, a situation that the ARBiH thought could be useful to Muslim aims. Thus a document from 18 April 1993 describes the need to “draft an information plan for the Muslims in HVO units in the municipalities of Capljina and Stolac.” Stolac was a Muslim-relative majority municipality south of Mostar, while neighbouring Capljina had an absolute Croat majority.
On 2 May, another document signed by Pasalic orders Muslim soldiers in the HVO to capture the town of Stolac and the village of Tasovcici and bridge in Capljina .
Nevertheless many Muslims remained in the HVO until June; an HVO document from that month says that Muslims still comprised 16.19% of the army. But on 30 June, according to the Bosnian Croat position, the ARBiH launched a full-scale assault against the HVO to the north and south of Mostar with the aid of Muslim HVO soldiers, resulting in their arrest and isolation. The HVO became a purely Croat army and Bosnia’s war became one of three sides.
The common interpretation of the Croat-Muslim civil war is that the Croats – at the behest of Franjo Tudjman – betrayed their Bosnian Muslim allies and embarked on a “rebellion” against multi-ethnic Bosnia. The Croats argue that it was they who were stabbed in the back by rebellious Muslims. Both of these interpretations have merit but both are simplistic. The truth is that, having voted along ethnic lines in Bosnia’s first free elections in 1990, it was unlikely that the Croats and Muslims would be able to sustain their alliance once the Serbs refused to accept Bosnia’s independence in 1992.