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(E) Wartime prejudices should be ...
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  08/1/2002 | Letters to the Editors | Unrated
(E) Wartime prejudices should be ...


Wartime prejudices should be placed not into the history, but into the past 

Zagreb daily Vjesnik, July 31, 2002, op-ed page 13.

Why Did the Croatian Army Withdraw from Posavina in 1992?

By: V.M. Raguz

"Go see the Germans and the Americans right away. Ask our friends to make demarches to Tudjman to withdraw the Croatian Army from Posavina." Haris Silajdzic, then the foreign minister of BiH, was speaking, if I recall correctly, from the United Arab Emirates, to his ambassador to the UN, Muhamed Sacirbey, on one line, and me, on the other. "I discussed this with Izetbegovic, and he is on board," Silajdzic added.

We quickly made calls to the US and German permanent missions, and scheduled a meeting for the same day with the German ambassador, Count Detlaf zu Ranzau. American ambassador Edward Perkins could not see us because of earlier travel plans, but referred us to his deputy, Alexander Watson, later ambassador to Brazil. Watson proposed to see us the following day.

To be sure, this was just one of series of events that commenced ten years ago in late June, involving many more diplomats in Europe and the US, all with one objective in mind: to persuade Franjo Tudjman to withdraw the Croatian Army (HV) from the strategic corridor of Posavina.

As the 10th anniversary of the fall of Posavina will be marked during this summer and fall, it will be done with the firm conviction that the events that culminated in losses of Derventa, Modrica and Odzak by mid-July, when the HV 3rd Brigade was recalled to its barracks in Osijek, only to be sent back too late to assist Bosanski Brod in early October, was nothing more but a calculated land deal between Tudjman and Milosevic.

But convictions arising from traumatic wartime events like this one are often wrong. My experience tells that such convictions about Posavina are in fact wholly misplaced, and that the withdrawal was nothing more than a result of the contemporaneous policy logic of the western powers. People like Tudjman, and for that matter, Silajdzic and Izetbegovic, acted according to the mainstream thinking of the time that appeared both reasonable and promising.

The logic went something like this: You Croats and Muslims work with us, while we put pressure on Belgrade, and you can be sure that we will have a peace deal to your liking. Posavina is now an area of major fighting, and the Serbs are simply too strong. To add, they are moving in special JNA units. Do not do anything to provoke them, because thousands of civilians will suffer. The HV should retreat, and we will make sure the Serbs exercise restraint as well. A peace deal, fair to you, will be ready by the time London Conference convenes in August. Reasonable?

To be fair to the West, if we are to recall the Vance-Owen map, the Posavina region was delivered as promised, even if only on paper.

But at the time, who was to doubt the ability of the big powers to implement what they proposed. The mighty UK was taking over the Presidency of the European Community from exhausted Portugal that July. The Americans were there as well, with Cyrus Vance and his deputy Herbert Okun, as representatives of the UN Secretary-General Butros Butros-Ghali. They were focusing their energies on setting up the UNPROFOR mission in Croatia, and also counting on stability in BiH.

Count zu Ranzau received us that afternoon is his modernistic office on the 22nd floor of a rather typical Manhattan building on the Third Avenue and 40th Street. Sacirbey first apologized for not paying a courtesy call to his German counterpart, a diplomatic custom for a new ambassador. He was representing BiH in New York for more than a month by then, and Germany was a crucial supporter of BiH's recognition. Ranzau seemed unbothered by the oversight, and made the transition to the subject matter very easy: "I am very pleased that you came. Tell me how can we help you."

"We came to see you upon instructions from my foreign minister," began Sacirbey, as diplomatic representations often begin, and then went into the specifics. "We know that you have more influence with Zagreb than anyone else, and we ask you to approach them on an issue important to us," began the request. Ranzau's first secretary, Boris Ruge, sitting to his left, was busy taking notes for the cable he would later write to Bonn. I was doing the same, with the exception that I did not have to write a cable. Our communications with Sarajevo early on were virtually nonexistent. If we had a connection once a week, we were lucky. Thus every call during the first months remains with me as it happened yesterday. 

Ranzau listened, sometimes nodding in agreement to Sacirbey's reasons for the pullout and his understanding of the policy plans for the region. At the end, he simply asked: "What does President Izetbegovic think of this." As instructed, Sacirbey answered that he is supportive. The meeting ended with another common but operative diplomatic phrase. "I will inform my government immediately." I spoke to Ranzau in 1999, retired in his native Baden-Baden. He remembered the meeting vividly.

The US deputy Watson received us late Friday afternoon without a note taker. This meeting was less formal, given that the two had already met, and it was Watson's last appointment of the day. Nevertheless, Watson listened attentively, and promised to inform Washington, but noted, in view of the weekend, BiH should not expect a response from the State Department until the following week. The US was not yet fully engrossed in the events in the region as the Europeans were.

Herbert Okun is of the same opinion. He told me recently that he and Cyrus Vance were not the key policy people in the region during the Posavina crisis. The EC Presidency had the primacy, during the first six months of 1992 via Portugal, and the second six months via the UK. London, and its foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, Okun thought, was poised to make a difference in the Balkans. Intermediation of Lord Carrington was not enough. The UK wanted to hold a major conference in London at the outset of their Presidency, stop the fighting at all cost, and establish principles for a future regional peace settlement.

In order to stop the fighting, London had to have agreement from the two sides. No doubt they went to both Belgrade and Zagreb, to urge restraint, and to make promises and threats. But given that Zagreb was the weaker side at the time, London had more leverage over Tudjman than Milosevic. One additional lever was Sarajevo. Certainly it was neither Silajdzic or Izetbegovic's idea to force out the HV. One reason being, in the summer of 1992, the Army of BiH was not operative.

One might wonder why Sarajevo was asked to become involved in the first place. Unlike the diplomatic novels, or spy movies, the wishes of big powers are seldom transmitted in one single demarche, but almost always as a lobbying effort involving many relevant parties. And Sarajevo was relevant indeed. As Silajdzic noted, it had powerful friends.

Some months later, at the meeting with the editors of the New York Times, Izetbegovic was asked whether the Posavina scenario, and the earlier Boban-Karadzic meeting in Graz, was evidence of the Tudjman-Milosevic deal to carve up BiH. Despite insistence from Abe Rosenthal, well know for his anti-Croat commentaries, Izetbegovic repeatedly stuck to his cord saying that while there is a lot of talk in this direction, there is no evidence. In fact, Izetbegovic knew that the evidence points to the contrary.

The importance of understanding the events that led to the HV withdrawal from Posavina goes beyond the events themselves, because of the Rosenthalian logic that later became institutionalized about all developments that followed the loss of the corridor. From then on, Belgrade and Zagreb became responsible for just about everything. Equally. And the big carve-up was on. At the ICTY, for instance, this is undisputed modus operendi.

But as these series of events show, as well as my later experiences in the Security Council, peace negotiations in Geneva, New York and Washington, and a later assignment in Brussels, the events in the region were dictated primarily by the interests of the western powers, and after that, in the following order: by the Serb side, as the militarily strongest player and a client of Russia; by the Muslim side as the primary victim enjoying the sympathies of the Islamic East and the secular West; and, only then, by the interests of the bumbling and seemingly irrelevant Croats.

Interestingly, the Croats did impose themselves as a relevant party for a short period of time in 1995. The clandestine US support for the operation Storm did not come because it would benefit Croatia, however. Different issues were at play.

Firstly, a moralist faction in the State Department wanted the Muslim community in BiH saved and satisfied at all cost, and Croats were to be their proxies, or the "junk yard dogs," as dubbed in Richard Holbrooke's "To End a War." Secondly, as noted by the White House staffer Ivo Daalder in "Getting to Dayton," the pragmatist National Security Council saw the BiH crisis as an election year obstacle for Bill Clinton that needed to be resolved before that November. There was probably a third reason: the Pentagon wanted to minimize the standby resources it was committing to an area of minor strategic importance, comparing to the Middle East and Asia theaters. Consequently, it could have used a partial disengagement from the Balkans via balance of power that only the HV could establish. 

The results of the Dayton peace agreement, and the way it has been implemented since then also shows that the four principal parties retained the original pecking order.

While no one would dispute the principle that Washington and the European capitals would tend to have most influence on the events in the region, given the resources they committed there, most still prefer to use the perennial, if nonexistent, Milosevic-Tudjman deal to explain everything that occurred there in the last decade. The Milosevic-Tudjman paradigm is certainly easier to apply intellectually, then the complicated matrix of interests involving four key parties, spanning over four years of armed conflict. To others it serves as a vehicle to shift the blame, or to score domestic "armchair quarterback" or "told you so" political points.

This convenient paradigm has certainly captured the imaginations of the café society, policy pundits and historians alike. Thus our recent history sounds more like a broken record about monsterous Milosevic, that he was, and devious Tudjman, that he was not, than a serious attempt to understand our past, and reconcile with its excesses and mistakes. But we would be much better off by discarding the charged convictions of the Rosenthals of the world, and start wondering about the evidence, as Izetbegovic did in that meeting in New York. The evidence is all around us. We should only care to look, and place our wartime biases where they belong, not into history, but into the past. It should start with the Posavina debacle, even if ten years later.

V. M. Raguz was adviser to BiH ambassador M. Sacirbey in 1992-93, for a period in 1993 to M. Boban, and later to Croatian ambassadors M. Nobilo and I. Simonovic. In 1998 he was named BiH ambassador to the E.U. and NATO, a post he resigned in 2000 to return to banking. He works and lives in Vienna, and occasionally contributes to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal Europe and other media.

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