Monday, 11 September 2017

War in the Balkans - My Take Part III

Yugoslavia 1989 showing ethnic distribution
Trust is destroyed. Fear abounds. The Yugoslav Federation gathers in Bucherest to discuss the situation. Croatian, Slovenian and Montenegan presidents propose a solution which would give them autonomy within the federation. Milosevic and the presidents he has secured the support of, notably Kosovo and Bosnia, reject this proposal.  There is a series of meetings seeking to resolve their differences but ultimately they break down. Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro walk out on the talks declaring that the Federated Communist Party of Yugoslavia is henceforth dissolved.Since 1989Yugoslavia has allowed a degree of democracy in that new political parties are permitted. Moderate and pro democracy parties emerge. Elections are held in Slovenia and Croatia and these moderate parties are elected. Croatia and Slovenia announce that they will declare independence. On the day of the announcement Yugoslav airforce jets attack Zagreb targeting the parliament building. The President narrowly escapes his intended fate and the declaration proceeds.

There is a short 10 day war in Slovenia which ends after Milosevic concludes that Slovenia is not of great interest having fewer Serbians in its population. In Croatia conflict breaks out initiated by local Serbian militia and Serbian members of the police force. They take control of the main highway between Zagreb and the south. Their action is immediately supported by Milosivic and the Serbian dominated Yugoslav armed forces. Croatia is hamstrung by a UN agreement which has been brokered, restraining them from accessing or importing military equipment. This is an attempt to allow time for a negotiated settlement but only results in Serbian troops gaining control of about one third of the country.

1991-1995. The war continues with the Croartians slowly gaining the upper hand. Tens of thousands of both Serb and Croats are displaced. Families of mixed heritage (Serb/Croat/Bosnian) who had embraced Tito's vision of an integrated multi ethnic society are riven with conflict, neighbours turn on each other believing the propaganda of their respective leaders.Towns are razed to the ground. Zagreb, Dubrovnic, Split and Zadar are shelled. The UN plays an ineffective role but by mid 1995 Croatia has regained control over all it former territory and hostilities cease.

This period also sees the fall of the Berlin wall (Novmber 1989) and the break-up of the Soviet Union.(December 1991).

And that's only part of the shit-fight. In Bosnia-Herzegovina a war rages (1992-1996) between Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), backed by Serbia and Croatia respectively, each with aspirations to annex part of that state. The conflict becomes is three way with Croatian Serbian and Bosnian forces attacking each other until, with USA urging, Croatian and Bosnian forces unite to fight against Serbia..Massacres, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape as a strategy of both subjugation and social destruction take place. The most tragic element of the conflict is the siege of the capital, Sarajevo, where the city is totally destroyed and isolated for almost three years. 250,000 people die and two million are displaced. Milosovic maintains that he has not ordered any of this, merely spoken passionately of his vision for a Greater Serbia.

In 1995 a peace agreement is negotiated in Dayton Ohio USA and signed in Paris in December of 1995 by the Presidents of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dayton Accord signed 1995 - Paris
1998 ethnic distribution
Milosevic is humiliated. He becomes the President of the surviving Yugoslavia (1998-2000) and continues his mission to create an ethnically pure Serbian state. In 1998 and 1999 Serb nationals in Kosovo take action to secure Serbian dominated territory while Kosovo nationals declare independence and set up an alternative government. The Yugoslav Government, now only Serbia and Montenegro, directly intervenes to impose its control and to suppress Kosovo Albanian resistance. NATO intervenes and controversially takes direct military action against Serbian forces. the conflict ends in mid 1999. Milosovic is defeated in the elections of 2000 and steps down as president.

In 2002 Milosevic is extradited to The Hague to face charges of war crimes and genocide but dies in prison in 2006 of natural causes before his trial is completed. 

Today there is little evidence of the war. It's a topic not discussed openly. There is a small museum devoted to the attack on Zagreb in 1991, but it's in a building with no signage whereas the many other museums in Zagreb trumpet their presence proudly. Kristina tells us she has friends from all ethnic backgrounds but the one "off limits" topic is the war. It's too risky, too raw. It would risk the friendships. I am impressed by Kristina. She is one of the brave ones. She is  prepared to speak honestly about this tragic era.

Balkans 2015
So is this the truth or just another piece of propaganda? Is it too coloured by Kristina's loyalty to Croatia? Am I making presumptions by even committing these impressions to print? I am assuming there are others who have been confused by the complexity of this period and who have been affected by it. The war created a flood of refugees across the globe and sadly those families often took their troubled history with them to their new destination country. Things are pretty quiet in Croatia and the Dalmatian states nowadays. People are more concerned with issues of employment and survival. Croatia has joined the EU but remains the poor cousin and over 150,000 young people leave he country each year searching for a new life in the larger EU family.

I invite you to read a highly regarded book, "The Death of Yugoslavia" also available as a BBC five part documentary of the same name on youtube.

I apologize for any errors of fact and would welcome any feedback.

War in the Balkans - My Take Part II

Tito 1943

The Partisans are anti-facist and united by ideology rather than ethnicity and as a result attract both Croats and Serbs to their cause. In fact so successful and popular is the Partisan movement that it spreads across the length and breadth of Yugoslavia and by the end of WWII its composition has changed radically and is now 9% Croats and 70% Serb.They are a well drilled military force of 800,000.

To complicate matters further there had emerged a movement in Croatia which was composed of Croatian Serbs known as Chetniks, seeking to establish independent control over areas where Serbs are in the majority. They used similar tactics to the Ustace but in the opposite direction, targeting Croats and Bosnians within Croatia.

Still with me? Kristina talked to us for three hours explaining this. My apologies if it's a bit dense. Kristina gave us a couple of short breaks so feel free to make a cup of tea and come back (or not).

The war ends. The Germans leave and Tito and the Partisans (they deserve a capital "P"
by now) gain the upper hand. But remember, Tito was rather enamored of Stalin? Under his leadership the Partisans are just as ruthless as the Ustace. Tito initiates a policy of retaliation targeting members of the Ustace and any suspected collaborators. Up to 100,000 people are massacred, many being children and women fleeing towards Austria to seek safety in the hands of the Allied forces.

1945 - Marshall Tito (who is Croatian born) becomes the leader of the new Communist State of Yugoslavia.

1948 - Stalin attempts to bring this new federation under his wing. Tito rebuffs him and chooses what becomes known as "Soft Communism". He is intent on maintaining unity across the traditional ethnic lines. Each state is allowed a certain degree of automony; ethnic groups are encouraged to move between states, intermarry etc in the hope of breeding an integrated Yugoslav community. Still, he suppresses all opposition ruthlessly while managing to forge alliances with both Western and Eastern bloc countries. He is a genius at diplomacy. He also charms his way into the every Yugoslav's heart. Though Croatian born he rules from Bucharest, the capital of the Serbian state. Over time Croatia, which is relatively wealthy and earns a lot of foreigh revenue, begins to feel a bit hard done by. They contribute a lot to the Yugoslav coffers but perceive that the major beneficiary is Serbia.

1980 - Tito dies with no clear succession plan. The Central Yugoslav Parliament elects to offer each of the Yugoslav State Presidents a rotating role as President. This is intended as a way of maintaining unity but backfires badly. It is unclear who is leading the country, rivalries emerge and the most dangerous of these is the Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic. He is ambitious and aggressively pro Serbian and manages to take control of Serbia, becoming President in 1989 on a promise to "Make Serbia Great Again". He uses Kosovo as his lever. The population of Kosovo is about 75% Albanian. The Serb minority have aspirations to take control deeming the Kosovo territory to be historically Serbian. The Kosovo Serbs foment rallies and when Milosevic visits they stage a violent rally with the specific intent of provoking the Kosovo police. A street battle ensues. The Serbs complain of being beaten and Milosevic promises them: "You will never be beaten again".

Slobodan Milosevic
He seeks permission from the Yugoslav central government to give him special powers to deal with the Kosovo situation. He encourages Serbs to rally in front of parliament in Belgrade. One million people attend chanting his name. He is their saviour. The parliament reluctantly agrees to his demands. It is based on a lie

1991 - Croatia and Slovenia have been observing these events with trepidation. Milosevic is on the rise. Serbian nationalism is rampant - inflammatory speeches are made by Milosevic, often misrepresenting the real situation, Croatian militia are accused of massacres of their Serbian/Croatian brothers and sisters; he reminds the Serbian public of the horrors of the Ustace era.

War in the Balkans - My Take Part I

The Balkans 1908 - Ottoman Empire and the Austro/Hungarian Empire most significant players
Went on a great walk yesterday. A young guide took us through the story of the Croatian place in the Balkan Wars, or "The Homeland Wars" as they refer to it. Cristina/Kristina/Krstina? was born in 1989, two years before the commencement of the conflict but she has a passion for her city and her country and for history. She was more than capable of guiding us through this complex period. This is my attempt to summarise the story as told by her. It's incomplete, probably not 100% reliable but I wanted to share what I know because a) it's so recent, b) so complicated, but perhaps most importantly c) this is an attempt to understand how bitter ethnic and political divisions can play out over time.
Austro Hungarian Empire 1900

Kristina began the story around WWI, saying that we needed to understand the early 20th century Balkan story to grasp the conflict of the 1990s.

Kingdom of Serbia 1918
The Balkans 1913
The end of WWI saw the transition of Croatia (and the region) from the Kingdom of Serbia (dissolved in 1918) to the 'Kingdom of Croatia, Serbia and the Slovenes' with each state having its own presidents and a degree of autonomy. It became known as Yugoslavia - literally the Kingdom of South Slavs. Prior to this the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dominant in the region and the new Kingdom retained an amicable relationship with the Austro-Hungarians.  

Throughout this period the borders of the sub-states were changing every time someone sneezed. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was huge. Maybe one third of the Balkan Peninsula - which is the land that is contained by Hungary and Romania in the north, the Black Sea in the east, the Adriatic in the west and Turkey in the south, and includes Greece (a non Slavic culture). There have been many historic tensions in play though this region for centuries.

Kingdom of Yugoslovia 1918
The Ottoman Empire had been and gone for instance, but a large number of Muslim families who had settled northern Bosnia, a sparsely populated area, remained and had lived there peacefully for hundreds of years. The Orthodox Churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and later a Serbian Orthodox branch) had broken from Rome while Slovenia and Croatia remained Catholic with links to Rome. In addition the Slavic descendant tribes made up most of "Eastern Europe" (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania and a few more). Every country in that region in fact, bar Hungary and Greece. And further there had been those with dreams of a united Slavic Republic, including all those countries, for many years.

Back to WWI and a time when many young Croatians fled, got an education and began to agitate from abroad for change. A young man named Josip Broz was among them. He was handsome, charismatic, intelligent, astute, articulate and fascinated by socialism.

Josip Broz
WWII arrived. And this when it gets complicated. The Balkan States particularly Croatia and Serbia are invaded by Italy and Germany. Croatia does a deal with the axis powers to retain a degree of independence for a few favours including implementing some facist ideals. As part of that there emerges a hard right nationalist movement, the Ustace which holds power and embarks on a campaign of mass killings and imprisonment of Serbs, Romanies and the Muslim community. The Ustace are vicious, unrelenting and target Serbs in particular.They seek a pure Croatian state.

          "This country can only be a Croatian country, and there is no method we would hesitate      to use in order to make it truly Croatian and cleanse it of Serbs, who have for centuries endangered us and who will endanger us again if they are given the opportunity."

— Milovan Žanić, the minister of the NDH Legislative council, on 2 May 1941.

It's a form of the German SS. They create internment camps mirroring Germany, but without the gas chambers. Many prisoners of these camps die of starvation or disease, but most, estimated at 300,000, are murdered.

Meanwhile Josip Broz becomes a devotee of Communism and of Stalinism in particular.  He adopts the nickname Tito (no specific meaning - just sounds good), founds a Croation Communist Party and begins to forge a united resistance as leader of the Croatian Liberation Army (aka the partisans). The partisans/Communist party are local militia determined to fight a guerilla war of liberation against the occupying forces, the Ustace and what they see as the Croatian puppet government.

Friday, 8 September 2017

A Venetian apology

Venetian Republic 19th Century
Trst/Trieste                    Slovenia/Italy

First I must make an apology to the Croatians, Montenegrins, and others living along the Dalmation coast who may have been affected by six hundred years of Venetian dominance.

To set the record straight I will remind you that in a previous post I suggested that the Venetians were more traders than raiders and therefore made less of a negative impact on the communities which they ruled. I have put this to a few locals and while the response has been mixed the general consensus has been that, yes, they were traders but they weren't without fault. neglecting infrastructure beyond what met their own maritime needs, and harvesting every resource available for their profit. In short their legacy was to leave the Dalmation Coast impoverished.

To this I would say, as a loyal descendant of a Venetian family: don't be too harsh; don't be too quick to judge. It was only 600 years after all, and everything occurs in some order. It was clearly next on their "to do" list.

The Venetians were indeed a maritime superpower. They traded the Mediterranean and dominated in terms of  naval and economic power. They brought Catholicism. Croatia is 98% Catholic. Interestingly neighbouring Slovenia, which is closer to the modern Italy and Venice, is today only 60% Roman Catholic. So they built churches. In some cases it seems that was an obsession. In the tiny centre of Perast in Montenagro they built twenty. One for every family? On the other hand they did bring with them a cuisine. Pasta, cured meats, sauces. Croatian traditional food is grilled meat, grilled vegetables and bread. Not much on the menu for the vegetarian I'm afraid.

The rich and powerful were out and about in the area for more than two thousand years. The Romans, the Ottoman Empire, Venetians, Austro-Hungarians. To an Australian that number is mind boggling.

Slovenia was under either Venitian or Austro-Hungarian (400 years) rule for 1000 years of that period. Luckily for them the Austrians valued Trieste as a port and were not much interested in the rest. The Triestians marvel that in all that time the Austrian royal family only visited once. It's not much fun being a minor state. Modern Slovenia has been left with just 43 kilometres of Adriatic coastline after Trieste was returned to Italian control in 1954. The poor Dalmatians, if it wasn't the Venetians or Austrians it was the Romans or the Ottomans making surfs of them.

But the Croatians have had the last laugh. For hundreds of years Italian, or to be more precise Venetian (remember there was no such state as Italy until the 1860s) was the lingua franca of the Dalmatian Coast particularly in Istria. Then along came Napoleon and vanquished the Venetians. Then the Austrians arrived for another 100 years, then WWI and the Italians again, then WWII and the formation of Yugoslavia and finally in 1991 Slavonia and Croatia became independent states. Croatian/Slavonian again became the official (well it had been since time immemorial actually) language, though Istria is officially bi-lingual (Italian and Croatian).

Italian is a strictly phonetic language with every letter sounded by way of pronunciation. So Trieste is pronounced tree-ess-tay (slightly differently in Venetian, which is still spoken in Veneto and Friulia Venezia Giulia - though different dialects in each region). The vowels are important and prounounced individually. So what have the Croatians done? They removed those precious vowels and left only the bare bones.


Take that you Venetians. You gave us vowels. We're throwing them back at you. We don't need them. They're a waste of space. Of course I exaggerate. Vowels are common in the Slavic languages its just that sometimes they disappear.

I can't fathom how that works but Andrea, who studied linguistics as part of her speech pathology training, says they sound the open vowel sounds within the consanent blends or something like that. But that's just a fascinating distraction.

In summary, the history of this region is replete with stories of invasion and ethnic rivalries. I'm beginning to get my head around recent events - the Balkan Wars etc but way too complex to summarise here. If you're interested there is a great BBC documentary on youtube titled "The Death of Yugoslavia."


It's raining here in Zagreb as I write this and the temperature has dropped from 30 to 18. How dare it do that on our last day. We board our flight home tomorrow (Friday) evening. Farewell to Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. It's been a fascinating four weeks.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Plitvick National Park and the Croatian War of Independence.

Plitvick National Park, Croatia. Breathtaking, beautiful, serene, unspoilt, magical. And then there was the war. The struggle to create an independent Croatia was resisted by Croatian Serbs and had its first military conflict in these mountains. Serbian/Croatian militia took control of the park headquarters, seeking to control the route between Zagreb and the south and established it as command HQ. The Croatian police responded (Croatia had no army at the time, still being part of Yugoslavia). The central Yuglosav Government intervened and put their own police force in control. Two men had died. Although the situation appeared to settle it marked the beginning of hostilities between Serbia and Croatia, dubbed "The Homeland War' which stretched from 1991 to 1995 and then extended to become part of the larger conflict involving multiple Slavic states and the break up of Yugoslavia. The number of conflicts between the various parties almost defies description. I get lost. Conflict in the region continued until 2001.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The day Harry got stabbed by a Roman

Jo: I left the boys (Harry and Richard) at the Living Museum and was browsing in a gift shop in the square when I noticed a commotion. A Roman soldier was rushing a young boy towards the public fountain. There was blood.

Richard: We paid our money and went in. At first we were the only
ones in our group and the Roman (well, actually a volunteer dressed as a Roman) began his spiel about Roman weapons. By this time another kid, a German boy, had joined Harry and the Roman repeated his story and described how the Romans used to fight. I turned away for a few moments and next thing I hear this screaming

Harry: It wasn't my fault. He gave us each a Roman dagger.

Richard: A metal one.

Harry: Yeah. And a shield and said we could play at fighting if we wanted. So we did. It wasn't my fault.

Richard: No, of course it wasn't Harry. He shouldn't have said that.

Jo: Suddenly I recognised Harry's voice and rushed over. Blood was streamimg from his eye and this idiot kept saying - it's alright Harry it's only a cut. Harry was freaking out. So was I.

Richard: It wouldn't stop bleeding. They didn't even have a first aid kit. Can you believe it?

Jo: The young volunteer was distraught. Is there a hospital nearby? I asked. I could see it was going to need stitches. Luckily it was near the bridge of his nose between his eyes.

Richard: God! I thought it was his eye at first. And we'd only been in there a few minutes. What a way to start our beach week at Split.

Harry: The other boy was dressed in a kilt. He was a bit strange. I thought he was Scottish but he said he was a Viking. We were just playing. He didn't mean to hurt me.

Richard: The poor kid was really upset.

Jo: And his parents were mortified.

Richard: They were really lovely. Invited us to come and visit them in Germany. They couldn't have been sorrier. Maybe we should go?

Jo: Imagine that. A kid gets cut by a metal sword and they go snd rinse his eye out in the public fountain. It was crazy. Anyway the young volunteer who was doing his best offered to drive us to the hospital.

Richard: So there we were, Harry hysterical but beginning to calm down and us following along behind the Roman soldier through the cobbled lanes of old Split trying to find his friend's car. He had to borrow his friend's car!

Jo: Which turns out to be so small he suggested that one of us stay behind.

Richard: Of course we weren't about to do that.

Jo: And so we crammed in. No seat belts, no nothing. I'm still not sure if the car was registered. And he delivered us to the emergency department and stayed with us while we negotiated our way through the system

Richard: To cut a long story short, they took him (Harry) in. Wouldn't let us in with him, and put two stitches in.

Harry: And they said I can't go swimming for three days. Till 2:30 Friday. Boring!

Richard: The Roman boy stayed with us all that time.

Jo: From 10:30 until 5:00pm.

Richard: He did his best Jo.

Jo: I know, but how did they let that happen? Surely they can see how dangerous that is.

Harry: Can we go back there? They said I could get in free.

Richard: And do the archery?

Harry: I'll be careful.

Harry: Can we?

Harry: Can I have a special dessert tonight, mum?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Slavic Style

Travelling between Montenegro and Croatia should be simple. It's no further than from Brisbane to Tweed Heads. The narrow roads between Kotor and the border can be slow but after the border I expected it to be plain sailing.

We took a short cut from Kotor and headed in the opposite direction to our arrival route, towards Tavir. We were taking the car ferry to cut off the drive around the shores of Boka Kotorsky Bay. Queues for the ferry can be a nightmare we were told. But it was Sunday morning after the "Boka Night" festivities in Kotor, so we caught the Montenegrins napping. No queue.

We used a bit of Slavic attitude and barged our way on to the ferry. The crossing is quick and all was good until we approached the Croatian border. Again we had two check points about one kilometre apart to negotiate, one Montenegrin, one Croatian. This time we were prepared. We were stocked up with water, fruit, books. We were  of little interest to the Montenegrins because a) it's clear we were not any threat and b) we weren't exporting large quantities of local cheeses or narcotics (hidden in cheese blocks) and c) we're leaving not arriving; so we sped through the first checkpoint. 

Not so at the Croatian border. There were guards and guns everywhere. I figured that unless they mistook us for refugees entering the country ilegally in a Thrifty Rental Car; or worse Serbian we should be okay. Now this is where the Croatian/Slavic style made an early appearance. The border guard who collected our passports was deeply involved on a mobile call. I can only guess it was to his girlfriend. He holds our passports in one hand, the mobile in the other and has an: "I'm a bit busy right now" look on his face. No wonder this lane is so slow. As luck would have it we've only taken 40 minutes to traverse these two gates as opposed to two hours on the way in. And then we're in.

Whoopee. Into Croatia. Hugging the coastIine. Granite ranges plunging into the sea. The Adriatic sparkling below. And then another queue of cars. Oh, God. What's going on?  We've already crossed the border! Perhaps it's the entrance to the motorway? The line splits into three. I choose the shortest and then find we're in the trucks and bus line! How did that happen?

Turns out, it's another border check.

Guess what - there is a stretch of land about five klm long where Bosnia jags a piece of coastline between Croatia and .............. Croatia???!!! Exit Croatia, enter Bosnia, exit Bosnia, enter Croatia. Thankfully the guards give us a cursory look and wave us through each time. Didn't notice we weren't a bus. Still, it involved a queue each time. And not a criminal in sight. Demonstrates that the policy must be working I guess.

And then ..... plain sailing. We by-passed Dubrovnic; looked down on it from the high coast road. It looked lovely. By now it was after lunch and we were starving. We'd been on the road for more than four hours and travelled about 120ks. I spied a bakery cut into the cliff-face and pulled in. Andrea was desperate for a toilet stop.

Do you have a toilet? Shrug of shoulders. Took that to mean yes. Could you point me to it? Wave of hand in a non discript direction. Translated as "could be out the back; or up the road; or in here somewhere." And there it was, behind Andrea, disguised as a storeroom. No sign, no help. 

Next, onto the motorway and 'here we come Split'. We have a coffee break at the half way point and are served (loose use of the term) by a grumpy young woman who refuses to look at coins and notes being proffered by the confused man before me. He's trying to convert Euros back to Kunas (local currency). She Just keeps repeating the price.

I don't often make generalisations about national character but in the Croation case I'll make an exception. One word - SURLY. Maybe they're sick of tourists by end of August but it seemed more pervasive than that. 

Of course there were exceptions - Davros, our host in Split, who lives with his mum at the age of 47 was delightful; Slobie our host in Kotor, who is Montenegrin born but lives in Manchester, UK, smiled all the time; Alex, the Serbian boatman who took us for a three hour ride from Kotor to the Adriatic was very funny; the man at Thrifty Car Rentals who apologised for having to charge me for the broken mirror on the car was matter of fact but not churlish; while others in shops in Split were pleasant if not effusive. But overwhelmingly the service has been abrupt, dismissive and unfriendly. 

Maybe that comes from many years (generations) of hardship and oppressive regimes - the Venetians (400 years), Tito and his Russian allies (though he is regarded much more affectionately than the Venetians); and most recently Milosovic and the Balkan War of the 1990s.

Pity. It's an area rich in culture and natural beauty. And tourists are flocking here.