Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995 – part five

TransConflict is pleased to present part five of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995”, which “aims at describing causes, features, and consequences of ethnic cleansing as a policy in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war.”

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Conflict Background


By Marie-Janine Calic

The Early Phase of the War in Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1992–1993

In light of these events, the general situation of neighboring Bosnia-Hercegovina began to deteriorate. According to the 1991 census, Bosnia-Hercegovina’s population of 4,355,000 was composed of 43.7 percent Muslims, 31.2 percent Serbs, 17.3 percent Croats, and 5.5 percent Yugoslavs. Many parts of the republic were ethnically mixed, especially in urban areas. In the first multiparty elections of November 1990 in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the three major national parties (the Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action, SDA; the Serb-dominated Serbian Democratic Party, SDS; and the Croat-dominated Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ) had won the majority of the seats in the bicameral National Assembly. The election results more or less reflected the ethnic composition of Bosnia’s population. The three parties agreed to form a coalition government and to share power, but they became deadlocked over the future constitutional structure of Bosnia-Hercegovina and its political status.

The Serb and Croat leaderships, having in mind the unification of their nationals with their mother countries, supported plans for the “cantonization” of the republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina into three or more ethnically defined regions, each of which would be dominated by either the Bosniaks, Serbs, or Croats. The Bosniak leadership, on the other hand, sought to preserve Bosnia-Hercegovina as a unified, multiethnic, and unitary state. The Bosniak population was scattered across nearly the whole of Bosnia, with a large proportion concentrated in towns. The Serbs and Croats were more compactly settled in certain areas of Bosnia. It would have been difficult for Bosniaks to have carved out an ethnically defined federal state, which was being proposed by the Serb and Croat leaderships.

The dissolution of Yugoslavia forced Bosnia to confront the question of independence. The SDS spoke for most Serbs in wanting Bosnia-Hercegovina to remain in Yugoslavia because that would keep all of Bosnia’s Serbs—and those Croatian Serbs living in the wholly contiguous RSK—together in a common state. By the summer of 1991, the SDA and HDZ began to favor independence, although many Croats envisioned this as an interim step toward eventual union with Croatia. The Bosnian Serb leadership had taken steps toward forming regional autonomous areas with quasi-state powers, which they declared in September 1991 as Serbian autonomous areas. The crisis came to a head on 14 October 1991, when the Croat and Bosniak members of the parliament declared Bosnia’s sovereignty and independence, whereas the Serb representatives voiced their opposition to independence.

On 24 October 1991 the SDS deputies, who had left the Bosnian parliament, held a constituent meeting of an Assembly of the Serbian People in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and made the “decision for the Serbian People in Bosnia-Hercegovina to remain in the joint state of Yugoslavia.” The SDS then held a plebiscite (9–10 November) in which Bosnian Serbs overwhelmingly voted in favor of remaining in Yugoslavia. Eleven days later, the assembly duly proclaimed as part of the territory of the federal Yugoslav state all municipalities, local communities, and populated places in which over 50 percent of the people of Serbian nationality had voted to remain in that state during the plebiscite, as well as those places where citizens of other nationalities had expressed themselves in favor of remaining in Yugoslavia. On 9 January 1992, the assembly proclaimed the Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia-Hercegovina (SRBH), which formally declared its independence three months later (7 April). By August the name had been changed to Republika Srpska (RS), and it was declared a part of the federal state of Yugoslavia.

Whereas the SDS had been content to coexist with Bosniaks and Croats within a Yugoslav state that united all Serbs, they were now prepared to implement contingency plans for separation by force. And in this they could count on support from Belgrade. A number of key political and military leaders—including Serbia’s member of the federal presidency, Borisav Jović, and JNA Admiral Branko Mamula—have acknowledged that plans were already in place in summer 1991 for fashioning new western and northern frontiers that encompassed Croatia’s and Bosnia’s Serb populations.[30] Indeed, by February 1992, the SDS already enjoyed effective control over roughly 60 percent of Bosnia, emboldening Karadžić to proclaim that it had “developed a reasonable program for full control” over those areas that they intended to keep within Yugoslavia. On 28 March the Bosnian Serb Assembly meeting in Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn was presentedwith an ethnic map of Bosnia that suggested that the Bosnian Serb leadership
had a clear vision of the future.[31]

‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995′ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.

Previous parts of the chapter ‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995’ are available through the following links:


30) Smail Čekić, Aggression against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo: Institut za istraživanje zločina protiv čovječnosti i medjunarodnog prava, 2005), 363, 420, 446, and 552, also cites the Serbian daily Vreme and Croatia’s federal President Stjepan Mesić and Prime Minister Ante Marković. Čekić also refers to Borisav Jović, Poslednji Dani SFRJ (The Last Days of SFRY), 2nd ed. (Kragujevac: Prizma, 1996), 152, 159–62, 367.

31) Čekić, Aggression against Bosnia, 562, 629–31.

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  1. Pingback : Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995 – part fifteen - TransConflict

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