Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

JNA Planned Croatian Strike

Babic says Milosevic told him of impending military action and plans to arrest Croat ministers.
By Goran Jungvirth
Milan Babic, the former president of rebel Serb territory in Croatia, told the trial of Milan Martic this week about the extent to which Serb leaders were involved in the events that led to a brutal series of wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Martic was leader of the armed rebellion in Serb-held territory inside Croatia. He later became president of the Republika Srpska Krajina, RSK, after replacing his opponent Babic in a power struggle.

He is charged in relation to his role as the leader of a notorious local force, known as “Martic’s police”, and other armed forces, in the expulsion and murder of non-Serbs in Croatia and western Bosnia between 1991 and 1995.

He is also charged with responsibility for launching missile attacks against civilian targets in the Croatian capital Zagreb in response to Croatian military action aimed at regaining Serb-run territories.

Babic, who has previously pleaded guilty at the tribunal, has spent the last two weeks on the stand as a prosecution witness in this trial. This week, he continued to explain how incidents in Croatia which justified the use of force by the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, were orchestrated by former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

During cross examination by Martic’s defence lawyer Predrag Milovančevic, Babic confirmed that he heard in 1990 that the JNA top brass, along with Milosevic, planned to conduct a “military strike” in Croatia, a year before the armed conflict started.

Visiting Belgrade in January 1991, Babic got direct confirmation of this information from a JNA officer, who also told him the army was planning to arrest the Croatian government.

Babic said he was invited to Milosevic’s office, where the president told him that the “JNA will arrest Croatian ministers” and that it would be better for him to stay in Belgrade because he would be in jeopardy in Krajina’s capital Knin if the Croatians resisted as expected.

“He [Milosevic] told me to stay in Belgrade, offered me a government residence, and I got police protection,” said Babic.

Milovancevic insisted that Babic’s testimony was “full of illogical moments which [take] away its sense”. He tried to show that the information wasn’t reliable, because Babic’s original source was a man who ran a cafe.

After the prosecutor objected that the defence had tried repeatedly to misinterpret Babic’s words, Milovancevic received a warning from the judge.

He then changed tack, trying to show how the rebellion by the Krajina Serbs was caused by rising Croatian nationalism, shown in the “Croatisation” of state symbols and language.

Milovancevic argued that the actions of Croatian Serbs were triggered by being disenfranchised by Croatia’s new constitution, which described them no longer as a nation but as a national minority inside Croatia. He also cited the rebellion of Serbian police officers in Knin, led by Martic, as a legitimate protest against the imposition of Croatian emblems on police uniforms, which reminded them of the Second World War fascist Croatian state.

According to Babic, the referendum in Krajina in which Serbs voted to break away from Croatia at the end of 1990, had been proposed by a Serbian member of Yugoslav’s collective presidency, Borisav Jovic.

“The public strategy was preservation of the [Yugoslav] federation, and the secret [strategy] was the creation of paramilitary forces and causing the JNA to intervene [in Croatia] with the goal of creating a single state for all Serbs no matter what the republic’s borders looked like. That was Milosevic’s policy,” said Babic.

“The rebellion and Serb anxiety,” said the witness, “were designed with the purpose of provoking bloodshed, which was going to become the excuse to implement military administration in Croatia by the JNA.”

Babic, whose testimony continues, is currently serving a 13-year sentence in an unidentified western country for crimes against humanity. He has already testified as a key insider in the cases of Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik, both of whom are currently on trial.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.