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Erdut lessons: two Croatian scenarios for Donbass on US and Ukraine’s terms

Since the very beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, lots of experts have compared it with the events to divide and destroy Yugoslavia, the so-called Yugoslav wars of 1991-2001. This is how one of our best experts on Ukraine Oleg Nemensky commented on the law on Donbass reintegration adopted in Ukraine on Feb 24, 2018: “The new law does not stipulate any mechanisms of reintegration but only a military option.” That very ‘Croatian scenario’ the Kiev authorities keep referring to as the best way to settle such conflicts. To remind, they mean Operation Storm, the campaign Croatia undertook in 1995 in order to destroy Serbian Krajina. In 2015, Director of Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies Volodymyr Horbulin said that the “Croatian scenario” implied liberation of “occupied territories” with no concessions. On Feb 24, 2018, the Information and Press Department of Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that by adopting the law on Donbass reintegration, Ukraine had confirmed its commitment to settle the Donbass conflict by means of force.

But the last Munich Security Conference discussed one more “Croatian scenario”: deployment of a UN military and police mission in Donbass and establishment of an interim international administration in the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. This means applying in Donbass the model applied in Eastern Slavonia under the Erdut Agreement on Nov 12, 1995.

The interview given by U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker to Yevropeyska Pravda proves that the solution the United States is offering to Russia is very similar to the Erdut scenario. In this light, the law on Donbass reintegration should be regarded as a move to pressure the Kremlin into accepting a solution that would benefit the Americans. The last report that the Americans are going to arm the Ukrainians was an additional leverage and a hint that the only alternative to Erdut is Operation Storm. And now the Russians will have to choose between two “Croatian scenarios.” After the Munich Security Conference, the Americans urged the Russians to withdraw their forces from “Eastern Ukraine” and to agree to the deployment of UN peacekeepers in the region. That urge came from Washington during U.S. Deputy Secretary General John Sullivan to Kiev.

For the first time the “positive Croatian experience” for peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia in 1996-1998 was suggested during the visit of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic to Kiev in Nov 2016. The “Croatian experience” was discussed again in Mar 2017 during the visit of Ukraine’s Minister for Occupied Territories Vadym Chernysh to Croatia and again in May 2017 at a meeting of the Croatian-Ukrainian cooperation group in Zagreb. In Sept 2017, Plenkovic mentioned it at the UN General Assembly.

In this light, we would like to clarify some misinterpreted details of the Erdut Agreement.

First of all, the West recognized Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina against the will of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and consequently contrary to the international law. The only excuse for the external players was that at that time, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was no longer existent and that on Apr 28, 1992, its successor, Serbia, renounced any territorial claims against Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

From the very beginning, the Yugoslav war was aimed not to restore the Yugoslav federation or to suppress the “riot” but to ensure the nationalist interests of the former Yugoslav republics. Serbia’s nationalist interests required extracting Serbian territories from the newly independent Yugoslav republics. As a result, those territories turned into self-proclaimed republics backed up by the Yugoslav army. But instead of uniting the territories into one single Serbian state with one parliament and army, the Serbs created two proto-states, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia.

As a result, both republics faced “international peace processes.” Formally separate for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, they were one single process implemented on the level of Belgrade. Hence, we should not regard the Erdut Agreement separately from the Dayton Agreement. Even more, it was part of the Dayton package. As a result, the Serbs were given half of Bosnia and Herzegovina but had to cede Serbian Krajina to Croatia in exchange. In fact, Erdut was a reward given to Croatia for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Erdut Agreement was signed right after the Dayton meeting of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin was one of those Russian diplomats who pressured Milosevic into accepting the “international community’s” Dayton-Erdut formula. For the Americans, the reward was IFOR, a NATO contingent that occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina. The problem of Eastern Slavonia was solved by the UN.

The Republic of Serbian Krajina was weak and it was the fault of the local authorities and Serbia that it was ceded to Croatia. It failed to become a united state: its three parts – Knin Krajina, Western Slavonia and Eastern Slavonia were just semi-independent autonomies manipulated by Belgrade. Eastern Slavonia was ceded even though it was controlled by the Serbs throughout the war. Knin Krajina and Western Slavonia were protected by the Serbian Army of Krajina, a force formed in 1992 and consolidating the local troops and arms of the Yugoslav army. Those resources were enough for an effective war against Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But the authorities of Serbian Krajina were not consolidated. The local leaders acted like power brokers and it was they who used their own state as a small coin in Serbia’s trading with Croatia and the West. The internal policy of Serbian Krajina was so bad that almost half of the locals had left the region by 1995.

As a result, Serbian Krajina had no more resources for being independent and in 1994 it was offered a Z-4 plan, mediated by the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia and finalized by them in 1995.

The plan gave Serbian Krajina wide autonomy within Croatia with no right to have own foreign, defense and international trade policies but with own flag, emblem, president, parliament, government, courts, police (but not army), the right to use Serbian and the Cyrillic alphabet, the right to have own money, customs and the right to conclude some international agreements.

The citizens of Serbian Krajina had the right to have double citizenship: Croatian and Yugoslav. They also had the right to vote in Croatia and to delegate their representatives to the Croatian parliament, government, courts and other public offices. The Croatian army had no right to enter the territory of Serbian Krajina unless invited by its president. Croatian laws could be applied in Serbian Krajina only of approved by the local authorities. Disputes between Serbian Krajina and Croatia should be settled by the Constitutional Court. As far as the rights of an autonomy are concerned, Z-4 plan is very much like the Minsk agreements.

The only problem was that the plan gave autonomy only to the Knin part of Serbian Krajina, while the other parts – Western Slavonia, Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia – had to be given back to Croatia.

Though seemingly beneficial for Serbian Krajina, the plan was dismissed by its President Milan Martic. It was a mistake and Serbia did nothing to dissuade Martic. Had the Serbs not been the first to dismiss the plan, it would have been dismissed by the Croatians. And in that case, it would have been the Croatians’ fault. But the Serbs did it the first and it was a pretext for the Croatians to solve the problem by means of force and the West did not mind- as winners can’t be judged.

As a result of Croatia’s Operation Flash in May 1995, Serbian Krajina lost Western Slavonia. Knin Krajina did nothing to help the Western Slavonians and it was a sign of future disaster. It looked as if the Serbs were playing a giveaway game. In Aug 1995, the Croatians launched an Operation Storm and seized Knin. That was the end of Serbian Krajina.

As a result, the Serbs lost control over three out of the four sectors monitored by the UNPROFOR peacekeepers. Throughout the war, that force favored the Croatians. And even though during Operation Flash, the French and Dutch contingents opposed the Croatian attackers, in general, the UN peacekeepers had no right to fight either of the sides unless attacked by them. In Western Slavonia, the defenders were the Nepalese and Jordanian contingents, but the Croatians ignored them. So, if this scenario is applied in Donbass, UN peacekeepers may become part of the process to internationalize the conflict. And their presence will not be an obstacle to attacks by either of the parties if those attacks benefit the interests of the United States and its allies. In his “My Life” book, former U.S. President Bill Clinton says that he and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl believed that the diplomatic efforts would not be effective until the Serbs suffered a serious military defeat. And they did that with the help of the Croatians.

The only part left from Serbian Krajina by the autumn 1995 was Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia. But the Croatians could no longer venture operations like Storm or Flash as that region bordered on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and was protected by a strong Yugoslav army. So, they decided to negotiate and launched a process that was the reverse side of Dayton.

The Erdut Agreement was signed in the village of Erdut on Nov 12, 1995, by Croatia and the Serbian authorities of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia. The agreement stipulated termination of the war and an interim period for the return of the regions to Croatia. Present at the talks were U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith and UN mediator, former Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg.

The agreement was signed by quite insignificant personalities: former Croatian Prime Minister Hrvoje Sarinic and representative of Eastern Slavonia Milan Milanovic. Likewise, the Minsk agreements were signed by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

In 1996, based on the Erdut Agreement, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1037 establishing UNTAES (the United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia). That mission was supposed to see to it that the region be demilitarized and peacefully reintegrated into Croatia and also to monitor the activities of the Croatian police and the return of refugees. The resolution also formed a joint council of Serbian municipalities as an alternative to the former authorities of Serbian Krajina. The Slavonian army was disbanded with their weapons given to the Yugoslav army.

The UN mission in Eastern Slavonia consisted of 4,800 soldiers, 400 policemen and 99 military observers (1) and was managed by an interim administrator.

The initial mandate was given for one year. It was later prolonged for one year more and was terminated on Jan 15, 1998, when the former territories of Serbian Krajina were officially integrated into Croatia.

It was a stage-by-stage process.

At the initial stage the region was demilitarized:

- Serbian armed forces were withdrawn;

- local Serbian self-defenders were disarmed;

- citizens having arms were forced to hand them over.

No Croatian troops were deployed in Eastern Slavonia at the initial stage.

At the next stage, interim police forces were formed in the region: the patrols consisted of one Serb, one Croat and one international UN policeman.

The third stage was return of refugees, mostly Croats.

The fourth stage was local elections complying with Croatian laws.

The firth stage was introduction of Croatian Kuna.

The sixth stage was convalidation, partial recognition of documents issued by the authorities of the unrecognized Republic of Serbian Krajina.

The seventh stage was National Confidence Restoration Operation, an initiative stipulating that people who possessed arms but did not committed military crimes should not be persecuted. But it was not an official amnesty. As a result, all the key leaders of Serbian Krajina of 1991-1995 appeared before the judges of The Hague Tribunal: Milan Babic, Milan Martic and Goran Hadzic. Babic was sentenced to 13 years in prison and committed a suicide there. Martic is serving a 35-year term in a jail in Estonia. The trial of Hadzic was stopped because of his fatal disease. Just to compare, two Croatian generals who commanded Operation Storm, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, were also sentenced to 24 and 18 years, respectively, but were later acquitted and set free.

Thus, within just two years, Eastern Slavonia was reintegrated into Croatia. The UN’s peace plan envisaged no special statuses for the region. The Croatians qualified that process as one of the most successful Croatian-U.S. projects of the 1990s. The Erdut process helped Croatia to quickly integrate into the West: in 2009, it joined NATO, in 2013, it was admitted into the European Union.

Today Croatia is a unitary state. As a result of the war and the Erdut “peace process,” the Serbian population of that country shrunk by 2.5 times. In Dec 1998, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman specified the key result of the “reintegration”: “We have solved the Serbian problem: we will no longer have 12% of Serbs or 9% of Yugoslavs as we had in the past, but just 3% and they will no longer be a threat to the Croatian state.” According to a census held in 2011, Serbs accounted for just 4.36% of Croatia’s population.

The key problem of Serbian-Croatian relations is still the return of Serbian refugees to Croatia. Serbs have no autonomy in Croatia. They have just three seats in the Croatian parliament. According to the Croatian Constitution, they are the biggest of the 22 ethnic minorities in Croatia. That is, in Croatia, they are an ethnic minority rather than an indigenous people. The use of European rules in Croatia is a chance for them to learn their native tongue at schools and to use it in their municipalities. But they still suffer violence in everyday life: the Serbian national council reports 331 attacks on Serbs in Croatia in 2016.

And now let’s make appropriate conclusions from this lesson. The Croatian example of peacekeeping has shown that a UN police and administrative mission can actually bring peace to Donbass but only in the way preferable to the United States and the nationalist Ukrainian regime. We can suppose that that mission will do all it can within its mandate, but should the UN establish an interim administration in the “special districts,” the latter will have no guarantees of autonomy or special rights even if the Ukrainian parliament approves a law on them as required by the Minsk agreements. Autonomy can be first approved and then cancelled on the “request” of the local population. As you may know, the devil is in the detail. And the key detail here is local elections, which will be conducted in line with the Ukrainian laws and controlled by an “international administration.” Those “free and fair elections” will be closed for any “separatist” parties and will bring into power a government that will renounce the autonomy imposed by the “occupants” and will opt for the region’s decentralization.

Amnesty will not be a problem either as the leader of the “separatists” will face tribunal in any case. And the international police will help in the matter.

The Kremlin says that the UN can send its mission to Donbass only if both sides agree to it and that Russia is just a guarantor of the Minsk process. For the United States, just a consent is enough for starting appropriate talks in the framework of the Minsk consultations with the UN involved. As regards the Americans, the only thing they can do, according to U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, is grant a mandate to a peacekeeping force so it could ensure full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

But let’s not forget the key lesson of the “Croatian scenario”: a peacekeeping mission in Donbass will be possible only if a compromise is reached. For Croatia and Serbia, Erdut was part of the Dayton package. In this light, we should not trust U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan when he says, “We will never accept trading one region of Ukraine for another. We will never make a deal about Ukraine without Ukraine." The “Croatian experience” has shown that such a deal is possible: the Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia was exchanged for a Serbian autonomy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In English, there is a word missing in other languages - “humbug”. This word means a lie or a trick aimed to deceive somebody by false pretext. That pretext may be quite plausible. Consequently, a gentleman using “humbug” will remain a gentleman as he may always say that what happened was not what he meant initially and may blame circumstances for the result. They in Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris should keep this in mind.

(1) The following states provided servicemen, observers and policemen for UNTAES: Austria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Ghana, Demark, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Ireland, Kenya, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Nepal, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Senegal, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Fiji, Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Sweden.

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