Among the Croatian Left and also in the West, there is a widespread idea that the Croatian Homeland War was a civil war (see: Index, and other far-Left media, as well as foreign Left-leaning media such as BBC and CNN). Faktograf, a Left-leaning fact checker, stated that the war was a civil war until 8th October 1991, something that is supported by the Croatian Constitutional Court. The Right on the other hand rejects such assertions, seeing them as an attack against the legacy of the war.
So what is the truth?
Civil war is a war between citizens of the same state. However, the 1974 Constitution allowed the republics the right to leave the Federation:
Narodi Jugoslavije, polazeći od prava svakog naroda na samoopredeljenje, uključujući i pravo na otcepljenje (…)
Peoples of Yugoslavia, starting from the right of every nation to self-determination, including the right to separation (…)
Acting based on its rights according to the 1974. Constitution, Croatia officially declared independence on 25th June 1991., although the decision only became legally valid on 8th November 1991. due to pressure from the international community which was trying to preserve Yugoslavia. From that moment onwards, Croatia was an independent state, and any action by Serbia was a foreign aggression, not a civil war within Yugoslavia.
Second aspect of war, and the reason why it is often considered a civil war, is rebellion by Croatian Serbs against the Croatian government. At a first glance, it indeed does look like a civil war: Serbs were legally citizens of the Republic of Croatia, and rebelled against the government.
But this explanation misses several factors which invalidate the classification of the war in Croatia as a civil war. Most important factor is that the rebel Serbs had both direct and indirect support of the Belgrade. Croatian Serbs had in fact been used, for decades at that point, to keep Croatia in submission. Serb officers of the Yugoslav National Army were settled in Croatia, married there, and served as essentially overseers. And once it became clear that Croatia is moving towards secession, that Yugoslavia cannot survive, it was official Belgrade that began a campaign of stoking anti-Croatian sentiment among Croatian Serbs, with the ultimate goal of using YNA and the Croatian Serbs to eventually create the Greater Serbia. Goal of the war was conquest of Croatian territory and its annexation to Serbia, with Croatian Serbs serving as a tool of the Belgrade’s imperial project.
Serb rebellion began on 25th July 1990., with a Declaration of Autonomy of Serbs. Serbs also began arming themselves, and forming village guards. Croatian police attempted to disarm them on 17th August 1990., sending armored transport and helicopters. These were stopped by the cooperative efforts of armed Serbs and the Yugoslav Air Force. The entire rebellion was coordinated by Serbian National Security Service, and so in June 1990. two agents of this service (Franko Simatović “Frenki” and Radovan Stojičić “Badža”) had arrived to Knin. Murders began soon after, and in early August JNA had began to openly support the Serb rebellion.
From the above account, it can be seen that the Serb rebellion, from the very beginning, had the character of a hybrid war waged by Serbia and against Croatia, and that this character had been present from the very beginning. Serb rebellion had been supported and maybe even prepared by Serbia’s intelligence service, and rebels had been receiving support and protection by the “Yugoslav” (really Serbia’s) military from the beginning of their rebellion. Serbian Orthodox Church, with seat in Belgrade, was also actively supporting the rebellion.
Goals of the rebellion were also not those of a civil war. Rebel Serbs did not want to take over the government or change their status within Croatia. What they wanted was to secede from Croatia in order to politically unite with Serbia, and this was both supported and encouraged by the Belgrade. In fact, Serb rebellion in Croatia would have been outright impossible without Serbia’s logistical support – if Serbia had not armed, financed and provided fuel for the Croatian Serbs, there would have been no rebellion. YNA was the main driver behind the Serb rebellion even when it did not fight itself. Thus, rather than a civil war, Homeland War was an outright aggression by Serbia through usage of the “fifth column” – a hybrid war.
Legally speaking, there was a civil war. It lasted from 25th July 1990. until 8th October 1991. In practice it is unclear whether even this period should be classified as a civil war, as it only started after Croatia declared a decision to secede and had all characteristics of the hybrid war or special military operation. This period was in fact used by Serbia to arm and prepare the Croatian Serbs for an open rebellion Whatever the case, war gained a characteristic of the hybrid war with open Serbian aggression beginning with 8th October 1991., when Croatia was no longer – practically or legally – part of Yugoslavia. From this point onward, there can be no talk of the civil war. Fact that majority of Croatian Serbs had rebelled against Croatia, and some of them remained legally citizens of Croatia, does not make the war automatically a civil war, as the circumstances of the rebellion must also be assessed. And the fact that it had been stoked and supported by Belgrade means that the civil war was merely a part of the greater operation, making the war in Croatia a clear example of the hybrid war.
Conclusion: war in Croatia was a hybrid war lasting from 25th July 1990. until 31st December 1995. From 25th July 1990. until 8th October 1991. the war was a hybrid war with predominant characteristics of the civil war, and from 8th October 1991. until 31st December 1995. it was a hybrid war with predominant characteristics of the international aggression.
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