Peaceful Reintegration

Peaceful reintegration denotes a two-year process that restored the territories of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium to the constitutional order of the Republic of Croatia. The territories had been occupied in 1991 and the self-declared proto-state of the Republic of Srpska Krajina had been established. Peaceful reintegration began on January 15,  1996 and finished on January 15, 1998. The basis for the process was laid down in the Erdut Agreement signed in November 1995 whereby the Croatian and Serbian sides agreed on the establishment of a provisional transitional UN administration (official abbreviation: UNTAES) in the previously occupied areas. UNTAES provided for the demilitarization of the territory, the return of displaced persons from those areas who wanted to return, and ensured respect for the fundamental human rights of all citizens. All of the decisions were successfully implemented without a single major incident, and the UN peacekeeping forces mandate in the area ended on January 15, 1998. As a result, Croatia regained sovereignty over its internationally recognized territory, and the war came to a definitive end.  

The Croatian Government, led by President Franjo Tuđman, wanted to negotiate with the Serbian side about the restoration of the occupied territories, but the negotiations failed. Therefore, military actions were deemed necessary. After the military offensive Operation Flash (Croatian: Bljesak) in which the Croatian Army liberated occupied areas in Western Slavonia in May 1995, and Operation Storm (Croatian: Oluja) in which occupied territories in Central Croatia were liberated in August 1995, it was reasonable to expect that the Croatian authorities, if necessary, wanted to try to liberate Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium in the same manner. However, both offensives resulted in numerous casualties.   Croatian and Serbian authorities wanted to prevent new killings, destruction and the displacement of the population, so they started negotiations about the liberation of these areas through peaceful means via mediation provided by  representatives of the international community. The international community itself strongly supported the peace process.

The Basic Agreement for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium was signed on November 12, 1995 in Erdut, and that is why it earned its name: the Erdut Agreement. A number of diplomatic negotiations had been held prior to the signing, and among these, the meeting between the Croatian President Franjo Tuđman and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević stood out. The meeting was held on November 1, 1995 in Dayton. On this occasion, both presidents agreed to a peaceful resolution in principle. The agreement was signed by negotiator Milan Milanović on behalf of the Serbian side and Hrvoje Šarinić from the Croatian side. The agreement was also co-signed by witnesses: the U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter W. Galbraith and United Nations peace mediator Thorvald Stoltenberg. This was a rather short document containing 14 provisions. It  provided for the establishment of a UN transitional administration in the region, demilitarization, the possibility for the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes of origin, the right to property and the highest levels of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The agreement laid the foundations for peaceful reintegration that began on January 15, 1996 through the adoption of  Resolution 1037 of the UN Security Council. The resolution established the United Nations Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES). The head of the peacekeeping mission was Jacques Paul Klein, an American general and diplomat. The onset of peaceful reintegration was marked by an atmosphere of mutual distrust among Croats and Serbs; yet, as early as March 1996, the first refugees came to their homes in the villages of Baranja. In that sense, the two documents helped to ease the tensions.

In May 1996, the Act on General Amnesty was adopted in Croatia, and in August 1996 the Agreement on the Normalization of Relations between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia  was signed in Belgrade, whereby the two countries committed to respect each other within their internationally recognized borders that matched those of the former republics of Yugoslavia.  The Serbian Army was disbanded from the area as early as June 1996 and a sensitive process of establishing   mixed Croatian-Serbian police forces ensued. The process turned out to be successful.

In November 1996, the first returnees came back to the villages of the so-called Sirmium Triangle, the southernmost part of the Croatian Danube region. These were among the first territories that the UNTAES had restored to  Croatian authority. Slowly but surely, the stage was set for the peaceful return of the population on a more massive scale. Peaceful reintegration was all about discussion, agreements and negotiations. Not only politicians engaged in dialogue. Ordinary citizens started talking to each other too.  They had to live as neighbours, one next to the other. They had to work together in schools, hospitals, city administrations, etc. and put aside their  personal losses and traumas.  

In April 1997, local elections were held. In political, institutional and symbolic terms, they denoted the abolition of the Krajina authorities,  marked the end of the transitional UN administration, and represented the establishment of Croatian authority in line with the constitutional order of the country. In December 1997, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a decision on the conclusion of the UNTAES mandate. On January 15, 1998, the Agreement on Peaceful Reintegration concluded and the Republic of Croatia regained full authority over its territory.   

Peaceful reintegration was branded as the UN's most successful peacekeeping mission ever and it is considered as a role model to all the warring parties around the world that they should consider peaceful resolution as a solution to ending and preventing conflicts. However, in Croatia, military offensives (especially  Operation Storm which is marked as a national holiday and a non-working day) are celebrated publicly, collectively and solemnly whereas the peaceful reintegration process is celebrated in a more sustained and modest way. The Croatian government recognized the importance of the process only in 2019, when it was marked as a national memorial day. This is still a category below a national holiday (the status which Operation Storm has). Peaceful reintegration has not become a part of our historic heritage to the degree it deserves given its significance.

As citizens of a country that went through a war, we lack the awareness of the importance and benefits of peaceful resolution. Joško Morić is a police war veteran who implemented peaceful reintegration on-site by setting up police forces, which was a rather challenging task. In 2015 at a round table discussion organized by Europe House Vukovar and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation to recognise the peaceful reintegration process, he said, “If we celebrate and mark military actions for the liberation of Croatian territory that, unfortunately, resulted in a large number of casualties and wounded people on both sides, what is the rationale behind not celebrating the liberation of the entire Danube region without a single person wounded or killed? Is a victory by reason worse than a victory by arms? In my opinion, this is the key question.”   

Non-governmental organizations and peacebuilding activities played an important role in the process of peaceful reintegration. Their peacebuilding work had begun even before the formal beginning of the peaceful reintegration process. In 1996, the non-formal Coordination of Peace Organizations for Eastern Croatia, Baranja and Western Sirmium was set up. They supported the return of the population, helped local governments and created spaces for communication among divided communities.

After the peaceful reintegration process came to an end, real everyday challenges in integrating citizens in the community actually began, but the authorities were not interested in the continuation of peacebuilding activities. Despite this, NGOs and peace activists persisted. They  used their knowledge to overcome divisions in  society and created a functional post-war community. Numerous training activities on non-violence, conflict management, cooperation and trauma management were held and free legal aid was provided. Unfortunately, the contribution of NGOs to peaceful reintegration remains unrecognized and unknown to the wider public to this day. The Zagreb-based Centre for Peace Studies has urged the Croatian Government to recognize the peacebuilding experience from the Danube region as a “comparative advantage of the country that may find its place in foreign policy.”