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(E) NATO - Croatia has been the greatest single force - by M. Raguz
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  11/13/2002 | Politics | Unrated
(E) NATO - Croatia has been the greatest single force - by M. Raguz


Croatia has been the greatest single force


One year later, the HIR puts the NATO/Balkans piece on its website. Slow recation, but in effect, timely, given the Prague Summit at the end of the month. 

Regards, Miles

Balkans in NATO: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia 
Croatia has been the greatest single force in helping resolve the constant conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and as such, should be rewarded with membership in NATO. NATO will also benefit from the addition of Croatia s powerful army. Recently, Croatia was included in Partnership for Peace (PfP), a preliminary step to NATO membership, but a firmer commitment to allow it to join the organization is necessary. Croatia was instrumental in stopping the 1995 violence in BiH with its Operation Storm, allocation of funds, and acceptance of refugees, but unfortunately, its positive role was overshadowed by the unpopular government of Franjo Tudjman and by several decisions of the Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Meanwhile, BiH is not ready for NATO membership, primarily because of its two-army setup; possible solutions to this dilemma are a unified army (heavily opposed by both sides) or complete demobilization on the model of Costa Rica  this neutrality seems the best alternative for BiH.


The next round of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is due in Fall 2002 at the Prague Summit of the NATO members heads of state. Not surprisingly, the debate over candidates is already in full swing. However, almost all of the debate has focused on the so-called Vilnius Nine Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia named after the Lithuanian capital where their leaders met last year to begin lobbying their cases.

Three European states Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Yugoslavia were not invited to Vilnius. At the time, they had not met the internal stability requirements to participate. Consequently, they are generally overlooked in the present discussions. Since then, however, all three have voted into office new Western-leaning governments, one for the first time, and thus they deserve a closer look either as candidates for NATO membership or as countries where NATO can play an enhanced stabilizing role.

Croatia was recently included in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, the antechamber for eventual NATO candidacy. This is a significant boost for the region s basic security. The advancement of Western security policy in the region should not stop there, however. Croatia should move on to the next stage, not only because it deserves to, but also for the benefit of regional security.

Only two European states now remain without a formal relationship to NATO: BiH and Yugoslavia. BiH presents both a challenge and an opportunity to NATO. With more than 20,000 NATO troops in the country, the Western alliance should seriously consider how it can use those troops and its substantial influence to permanently stabilize BiH, thereby obtaining a long-desired exit for itself. Given the recent political developments in Belgrade, a similar opportunity for advancing Western interests may lie in Yugoslavia as well, for the first time in a decade. 


Croatia s recent inclusion in the PfP program is long overdue. Since we often speak of NATO membership as a reward, the delay here is curious, as perhaps no new state deserves this honor more than Croatia. Since the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, Croatia has done more to benefit Western interests than any other new democracy. The smooth transformation of Zagreb politics from one-party monolith to multi-party government was indeed a welcome harbinger for democratization in the region, but Croatia s positive role in the region predates the January 2000 elections.

To begin, Croatia saved BiH. In the summer of 1995 its military operations, named Operation Storm, ended a carnage Europe had not seen since World War II a humanitarian catastrophe for which the West could not muster an appropriate response. The Western capitals often unfairly take credit for this turnaround; in fact, the peace in BiH came only once the Croatian Army (HV) had established a new balance of power in the region by its summer operations. Everything that followed, from the first exercise of NATO air power to the Dayton-Paris peace agreement, was a filling-in of a diplomatic puzzle.

 All along, the United States and its allies have been looking for a force other than themselves that could check Serbian and Bosnian Serb adventurism and produce a military balance on which realistic settlement could be built. Maybe such a force is now emerging: Croatia, wrote The Washington Post three days before Operation Storm commenced. At the end of the operation the Post added,  The Croatians argue they are not the problem but the solution; they claim to have created a new regional  balance on which  proper peace talks with the Serbs can begin. This line has been enthusiastically adopted by the American government, which is under pressure to show that the quiet political support it extended to Croatia had a legitimate purpose of promoting a negotiation in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke, the main US diplomatic broker in Dayton, makes a rather unflattering reference to the HV in his peace negotiations diary as  junkyard dogs, typical to his style, but he adds that Zagreb had Washington s unsaid support in its endeavors in BiH out of desperation, as the only alternative to the risk-averse West.

One military analyst at the time noted that the turnaround in Bosnia was 80 percent the doing of the HV, 15 percent of the Bosnian Croat militia (the HVO), and 5 percent of the Bosnian Muslim militia (the ABiH). Interestingly, Britain s leading commentator, Martin Wollacott, later concluded in The Washington Times that the Croatian military victories in 1995 changed the fortunes for BiH, while the Western diplomatic initiative that followed only protected the Serbs.


Croatia s positive role that year has been overshadowed by the often confusing and unpopular policies of its past government, led by Franjo Tudjman. However, the recent political changes in Zagreb allow for a reconsideration of Croatia s role without having to refer to its previous leaders style of governing and understanding of democracy.

Croatia s positive role has also been overshadowed by two recent decisions in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY): Blaskic and Kordic, in which Croatia was found to have been involved as an aggressor in BiH in 1993. These decisions, however, are unlikely to stand the test of time, and should be reversed. The ICTY judges disregarded the case law on this issue, which required  command and control of a country s forces in foreign territory. The decision also included a spurious argument that, while Croatia s own forces were neither present nor involved in fighting in central Bosnia, its forces stationed further south in Herzegovina forces that were securing the isolated Croatian cities of Dubrovnik and Split relieved the Bosnian Croat militia from fighting the Bosnian Serb militia, thus allowing these forces to engage the Bosnian Muslim militia in central Bosnia.

In fact, the ICTY does not even have the mandate to decide on the question of international conflict, which is the domain of the International Court of Justice. The decisions in the two cases say more about ICTY than about the conflict in BiH. The ICTY appears to be more focused on creating new international criminal law, often far different from present international and any domestic law, rather than on dispensing justice and promoting truth and reconciliation inBiH.

This type of convoluted but policy-driven common wisdom about Croatia is not new. For instance, the view that Croats joined the Axis en masse in World War II, while the Serbs were the sole members of the Allied Partisan movement in the former Yugoslavia, was promoted for five decades. The objective was to discredit and discourage Croat self-determination, which threatened the stability of the favored communist regime of Tito and its unitary Yugoslavia. However, a reconstructed history of World War II shows that the Croats, and not the Serbs, initiated and provided the top leaders and disproportionate number of soldiers to the anti-fascist movement.

The politicized description of Croatia s role in BiH in 1993 will not endure as long. It should take historians much less time to deconstruct the present fallacy than it took them to disprove the one from World War II. In addition, the International Court of Justice may play a role should Zagreb seek a ruling there. Similarly, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in BiH which is about to emerge will bring forth new evidence removed from emotions and the logic of war.

The truth is that Croatia was indeed involved in BiH, though not out of altruism or expansion. Like most states that act across borders, it was pursuing its own security interests. For Croatia this meant limiting the costly refugee outflow from BiH, and, most importantly, protecting its sliver-like Dalmatian coast. Zagreb s control of the coast ran on average less than 10 miles inland, stretching 250 miles from Dubrovnik to Zadar. These and other key population and economic centers were un-defendable other than from neighboring Herzegovina.

Zagreb thus supported and financed the Croat-majority entity in BiH, called Herceg-Bosna, as an indispensable buffer zone. At the outset this zone was the only form of resistance to Belgrade s gains in BiH. Many point out correctly that if there had been no Herceg-Bosna in 1992, there would be no BiH today. Zagreb allocated about 10 percent of its military budget for the needs of Herceg-Bosna. Moreover, it allowed its ports, airports, and roads to be used for the benefit of the ABiH. Zagreb even served as a broker, with the blessings of Washington, in the arming of Sarajevo by the regime in Tehran.

No less important, Croatia minimized the migration effects on the stability of Europe by keeping one quarter of all BiH refugees in Croatia, while at the same time housing an equal number of its own displaced persons. It spent in excess of US$1 billion dollars for the care of refugees alone. Only Germany and perhaps Sweden spent more.

Four years later, during the Kosovo crisis, Croatia opened its airspace to the NATO alliance no questions asked. It could have demanded a substantial consideration, given its strategic importance for over-flights and the hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourism and shipping revenues due to the air raids. One London investment bank estimated the loss at US$1.5 billion, a sum equal to seven percent of the country s GDP. The Western alliance spent hefty amounts to stabilize the other countries in the region for hard-currency losses due to NATO intervention. However, Croatia camecost-free

Croatia is BiH s principal security partner. Two-thirds of BiH s border is with Croatia. It is the primary transit country for international forces and supplies to this landlocked country, and Croatia s many ports and roads along the Adriatic are BiH s lifelines to the outside world. Bringing NATO to its borders will enhance BiH s attractiveness to investors and stabilize its trade routes. This is true for both of BiH s entities, the Federation and the Republika Srpska. The latter s capital, Banja Luka, is only a two-hour drive from Zagreb, a substantial European trade and communication center that BiH still lacks. From this perspective, the long-term security of BiH and the region would be best served if NATO leaders took the next logical step and included Croatia among the next round of new members. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

While Croatia is now on the road to membership, BiH remains handicapped even for PfP association, primarily because it has more than one army: the Serb army and the Muslim-Croat army. The latter is segregated below the battalion level. For NATO to accept a country with multiple armies would be a precedent that it is not ready to accept. Recently NATO has encouraged the three sides in BiH to form a unified army. The Serb side is not ready to accept this solution, seeing it as a fundamental revision of the Dayton peace agreement. The recent political rebellion of the Croat community and the withdrawal of the Croat component from the Muslim-Croat army, only adds to the complexity of the BiH problem.

The Croat walkout, which was prompted by election-law changes rather than military matters, points to the problems caused by back-door revisions of Dayton that are intended to centralize the state. The Western powers now favor such a policy in general, although it has proven to be destabilizing in the short term. Moreover, the history of BiH tells us that centralization also fails in the long term. Contrary to popular wisdom, decentralization is a much more viable and stabilizing policy for BiH, a position that was argued convincingly by BiH s former defense minister, Miroslav Prce, in the Winter 2001 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

Just as Croats turned away from Sarajevo because of new election laws, the Serbs would also just as quickly turn away from state institutions if any attempt to centralize the BiH armed forces materialized. The Bosnian Serb opposition to this model compels us to look for other solutions.

Alternative Solutions

The formation of three territorial guards with common command authority, combined with the demobilization of heavy weapons, may eventually become acceptable for all three sides. With this solution, a NATO umbrella and sub-regional non-aggression treaties between BiH and its two neighbors, Yugoslavia and Croatia, may be necessary to maintain stability. This should be the first phase of a substantial decrease in military spending in the Balkans.

Other solutions are also on the table, including proposals to demobilize BiH altogether; to restructure the country s security needs along the Costa Rican model; or to reduce the two existing armies into two small professional armies. The last option is either a unified army, which is unacceptable to the Serbs, or two armies, which is unacceptable to NATO and the Croats. 

Many also point out that complete demilitarization is more likely in BiH than a unified army. Complete demilitarization would certainly be most beneficial to BiH taxpayers. They are already overburdened with post-war reconstruction costs, and the experience of the recent war certainly calls into question whether spending for arms has any purpose at all.

More importantly, ordinary BiH citizens, unlike the governing elites, dismiss outright the thought of a unified army. They argue that if it came to war with either Yugoslavia and Croatia, local Serbs and Croats would abandon ship either to fight alongside one of the two, or sit idly by until their own homesteads became endangered. As pointed out in 1999 by Jacques Klein, the UN special envoy for BiH to the Council of Europe, too many BiH citizens still have a problem identifying or associating with BiH. This reality is simply not conducive to crafting ambitious national-defense programs.

As an alternative to a unified or divided army, BiH may be able to adopt the example set by Costa Rica. The Costa Rica model would require complete demobilization, a NATO umbrella, and non-aggression agreements with neighbors. It would be coupled with an expanded police force, border police, and state disaster-relief corps. This solution has worked for Costa Rica for 50 years, and it may offer the best prospects for BiH. 

NATO would be wise to consider how it can use its enormous resources and moral force to move BiH to follow Costa Rica s direction. It is difficult to see how BiH can pursue any other model, given the extraordinary amount of resources it currently wastes on military spending. BiH now spends 40 percent of its budget for defense, compared to Europe s average of around two percent. Clearly, there is no room to maneuver here, nor will the opportunities for international subsidies continue for much longer.

BiH s future lies in a neutrality similar to that of Costa Rica. Moreover, future NATO membership is only theoretical, since the Serb side has the constitutional right of veto on this issue, and it has not expressed interests beyond the PfP association. But NATO can provide BiH with a future, thus enhancing the region s stability by being realistic rather than chimerical. The latter policy will force NATO to remain stationed and active in BiH for decades. The former will stabilize BiH using its own economic resources, free of arms that could be used to ignite passions, and create an early exit opportunity for NATO. 


After facing the might of NATO over Kosovo, it seems improbable that Yugoslavia would want to join the Western alliance at all. The new leader of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, has never addressed this issue directly. However, his public discourse on the subject of NATO intervention suggests that he would want to sue NATO for damages and war crimes before considering a partnership. Belgrade s traditional affiliation with Russia is also a crucial factor. In short, Yugoslavia may prefer neutrality. This is consistent with recent remarks from Kostunica s cabinet. His aides suggested that PfP association would be acceptable, but membership would be out of question.

However, a group of Yugoslav army officers, led by wartime general Momcilo Perisic, have called not only for Yugoslavia s membership in the PfP, but also for early NATO membership. This may be a window of opportunity for the West, if it is willing to offer carrots and exercise patience. However, as Perisic is considered a war criminal in both BiH and Croatia, a more credible partner in Belgrade will be needed. 

One of the carrots that would be welcomed concerns the upgrade of the ICTY. Belgrade is not very happy with the ICTY s work so far, but neither is anyone else in the region. This regional discontent may make it easier for the Western powers to reform the ICTY to the pre-1995 standards of international law. 

Belgrade will look for other incentives as well, in particular regarding reconstruction assistance. Further, it will seek to gain advantages for the Serbs in Kosovo, to continue special relations with the Serb entity in BiH, and an early EU candidacy, which is something that Belgrade would treasure much more than NATO membership.On the military side, the Belgrade elite will most likely prefer to keep an open-door policy to Moscow for historical and religious reasons. The Tito-style strategy of  equi-distance was very profitable for the former Yugoslavia, and the new Yugoslavia is likely to play the same game. But Serbia s  quasi-neutrality (that is, its de facto economic alliance with Brussels coupled with military cooperation with Moscow) need not raise suspicions in the region, especially if Romania and Bulgaria are granted early membership. 

Vilnius 6+2+4 

With the expansion of the European Union and NATO to Eastern Europe as far as the Baltics and the Black Sea, the new Balkan states no longer play the strategic role for the Western powers that the former Yugoslavia enjoyed during the Cold War. Back then, the former Yugoslavia was a territorial and political dividing line between the East and the West, an ideological splinter in the Warsaw Pact, and a staging ground for covert operations. This is no longer the case.

Some argue that the new Yugoslavia will still remain a strategic point of interest for the West, given its close relationship to Moscow. Surely Yugoslavia can be grouped with the  Russia-sensitive sub-group of the Vilnius Nine, along with the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria. But the new Yugoslavia s importance declines as its neighbors to the east, Romania and Bulgaria, become members. 

Croatia belongs in a sub-group with Slovenia. By admitting either country, NATO gains an ideological surrogate whose military preparedness is top-notch, even if their strategic importance is minimal. NATO experts say that relative preparedness of both countries matches that of Spain when it joined in 1982. 

Croatia also comes with important advantages over Slovenia. Expanding NATO membership to Croatia aids the stability of the fragile Balkans. At the minimum, it secures supply lines to BiH. NATO also gets a winning combat-experienced army into its ranks. Policy-makers will probably not overlook the popular support for NATO membership that runs at 70 percent in Croatia, compared to 50 percent in Slovenia. Croatia has done the yeoman s task for the West for at least a decade. It should get the recognition that it is due.

Finally, BiH can probably be grouped with Albania, Macedonia, and Slovakia. All will require costly programs to rationalize or upgrade their armed forces to Western standards; all should be pursued with equal vigor. Even if these countries are of little global strategic value, they are important because without NATO leadership they may fall prey to regressive political and economic forces that are inherently destabilizing. The situation in BiH offers a historic opportunity to transform the present international administration into a viable state, allowing the Allies to draw down and redirect the huge resources they have invested into BiH over the years. 

Vitomir Miles Raguz was Ambassador of BiH to the E.U. and NATO from 1998-2000.
Vitomir Miles Raguz was Ambassador of BiH to the European Union and NATO from 1998 to 2000. 

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