Republic of Serbian Krajina

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Coat of Arms of the Republic of Serbian Krajina

The Republic of Serbian Krajina (Republika Srpska Krajina, RSK) was an internationally unrecognized Serbian republic in Croatia. Established in 1991, its main portion was overrun by Croatian forces in 1995; a rump remained in existence in eastern Slavonia until its peaceful reincorporation into Croatia in 1998.


The origins of the Krajina

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Map of the original Krajina

The original Krajina was carved out of parts of the crown lands of Croatia and Slavonia by Austria in 1553/1578 in order to form a "Military Frontier" with the Ottoman Empire as a means of defending the border. Many Serbs immigrated into the region and participated in the fight against the Ottomans. The Austrians controlled the Frontier from military headquarters in Vienna and did not make it a crown land, though it had some special rights in order to encourage settlement in an otherwise deserted, war-ravaged territory. The abolition of the military rule took place between 1869 and 1871. After that, the Military Frontier was reincorporated in Croatia in 1881.

Following World War I, the Krajina became part of Yugoslavia where it was in the Posavska banovina with most of old Croatia-Slavonia. Between the two world wars the Serbs of the Croatian Krajina, as well as the Bosnian Krajina and other territories west of Serbia, organized a notable political party, the Independent Democratic Party under Svetozar Pribičević. The region's population suffered badly during World War II, both massacres of the Serbian population by the Ustase rgime of Croatia and of the Croatian and of Bosniak population by pro-Serbian Chetnik guerrillas. The Partisan movement of Josip Broz Tito, the later president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, rejected the proposal by a Communist functionary Moa Pijade, a former member of Greater Serbian organization "Black hand" to grant territorial autonomy to the Croatian municipalities with Serbian majority, and the former military frontier was after the war again the part of Croatia, this time as the Socialist Republic of Croatia. The autonomous political organisations of the region were also suppressed by Tito; however, the Yugoslav constitutions of 1965 and 1974 did give substantial rights to national minorities including the Krajina Serbs.

The net effect of the Krajina's troubled 20th century history was that, by the end of the 1990s, many Krajina Serbs were very distrustful of the Croatian government. With nationalist feelings growing on both sides of the ethnic divide, there was a fear among Krajina Serbs that a nationalist Croatian government would revive the spectre of fascism and ethnic killing. This provided a powerful rallying point for Serbian nationalists opposed to the prospect of living in a newly independent Croatian state.

The creation of the RSK

Croatia's moves towards independence in the early 1990s following the election of the nationalist President Franjo Tuđman were strongly opposed by the country's Serbian minority, who were supported both politically and militarily by the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and Serbia under President Slobodan Milošević. At the time, Serbs comprised about 11% of Croatia's population. Nationalist Serbs in the Krajina established a Serbian National Council in July 1990 to coordinate opposition to Tuđman's policies. Milan Babić, a dentist from the southern town of Knin, was elected its President.

The Krajina Serbs established a paramilitary militia under the leadership of Milan Martić, the police chief in Knin. It erected barricades of logs across roads through the Krajina, effectively severing the Croatian coastal region of Dalmatia from the rest of the country, in an incident which became commonly known as the "log revolution." In August 1990, a referendum was held in the Krajina (but was confined to Serb voters) on the question of Serb "sovereignty and autonomy" in Croatia. The resolution was passed by a majority of 99.7% but was declared illegal and invalid by the Croatian government.

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The borders of RSK circa 1994 (both Serb-held and UNPA areas) superimposed on 1981 census ethnic data

The Krajina Serbs did not initially seek independence for their area. Instead, on September 30, 1990, the Krajina Serbian National Council declared "the autonomy of the Serbian people on ethnic and historic territories on which they live and which are within the current boundaries of the Republic of Croatia as a federal unit of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." Croatia was at this time still part of the SFRY and it was theoretically possible that the Serbian Krajina could have seceded from Croatia to remain part of a Yugoslavia minus Croatia and Slovenia. Indeed, this was a source of significant tension within Krajina Serb politics, which was dominated by a conflict between supporters of a unified Yugoslavia and ultranationalist supporters of a "Greater Serbia".

Babić's administration announced the creation of a Serbian Autonomous District (Srpska autonomna oblast or SAO) of Krajina on December 21, 1990 and on April 1, 1991 declared that it would secede from Croatia to join (or, rather, not leave) Yugoslavia. Other Serb-dominated communities in eastern Croatia announced that they would also join the SAO and ceased paying taxes to Zagreb.

Croatia held a referendum on independence on May 19, 1991 in which the electorate — minus many Serbs, who chose to boycott it — voted overwhelmingly for independence with the option of confederate union with other Yugoslav states. On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia both declared their independence from Yugoslavia. As the JNA attempted unsuccessfully to crush Slovenia's independence, clashes between Krajina Serbs and Croatian security forces broke out almost immediately, leaving dozens dead on both sides. The fighting generally took the form of Serbian attacks on Croatian police posts and state buildings, with the Croatian police fighting back where they could. Both sides engaged in tit-for-tat attacks on civilian targets, blowing up and burning houses belonging to people of the "wrong" ethnic group. The Serbs were initially armed with little more than small arms but the JNA soon remedied this by allowing them free access to army equipment, up to and including armoured vehicles and artillery.

The European Union and United Nations attempted to broker a ceasefire and peace settlement, but the truces were repeatedly broken by both sides (often within only a few hours) and hardline nationalists on both sides rejected any moves to settle the conflict. Around August 1991, the leadership of the Serbian Krajina (and that of Serbia) agreed to embark on what war crimes prosecutors would later describe as a "joint criminal enterprise" to permanently forcibly remove the non-Serb population of the Croatian Krajina in order to make them part of a new Serb-dominated state. The participants included Milan Babić, Slobodan Milošević, other Krajina Serb figures such as Milan Martić, the Serbian militia leader Vojislav Šešelj and Yugoslav Army commanders including General Ratko Mladić, who was at the time the commander of JNA forces in Croatia.

According to testimony given by Babić in his subsequent war crimes trial, during the summer of 1991 the Serbian secret police — under Milošević's command — set up "a parallel structure of state security and the police of Krajina and units commanded by the state security of Serbia". Shadowy groups of paramilitaries with names such as the "Vukovi sa Vucjaka" ("Wolves from Wolftown") and the "Beli Orlovi" ("White Eagles"), funded by the Serbian secret police, were also a key component of this structure. A full-scale war was launched in which a large area of territory, amounting to a third of Croatia, was seized and the non-Serbian population was either massacred or ethnically cleansed. The bulk of the fighting occurred between August and December 1991, during which time approximately 80,000 Croats and Muslims were expelled or killed. Thousands more died and were deported in fighting in eastern Slavonia, but the JNA was the principal actor in that part of the conflict.

Although it was less violent and so attracted much less attention from the international media, a parallel process of ethnic cleansing took place in the Croatian-held parts of the Krajina and in other parts of Croatia. Thousands of Serbs were forced to leave their homes through fear of reprisals, pressure from Croatian nationalists and paramilitary actions. Many took refuge in the Serbian Krajina, occupying homes vacated by Croats. Similarly, exiled Krajina Croats moved into homes vacated by Serbs elsewhere in Croatia.

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Map of the territory held by the RSK, circa 1992-1995

On December 19, 1991, the SAO Krajina proclaimed itself the Republic of Serbian Krajina. On February 26, 1992, the SAO Western Slavonia and SAO Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem joined the RSK, which initially had only encompassed the territories within the SAO Krajina. The RSK occupied an area of some 17,028 km² at its greatest extent. It was located entirely inland, although its southern portion came close to Adriatic Sea access because they controlled the Novigradsko more, a small, protected bay located to the east of Zadar. The acquisition of coastline near Zadar and Šibenik, and a smaller town between these two, Biograd na Moru, was a key strategic goal for the Krajina Serb authorities, as this would have given the republic a vital outlet; however, this objective was never realised.

A ceasefire agreement was signed by Presidents Tuđman and Milošević in January 1992, paving the way for the implementation of a United Nations peace plan put forward by Cyrus Vance. Under the Vance Plan, four United Nations Protected Areas (UNPAs) were established in the territory of the RSK. The Vance Plan called for the withdrawal of the JNA from Croatia and for the return of refugees to their homes in the UNPAs. The JNA officially withdrew from Croatia in May 1992 but much of its weaponry and many of its personnel remained in the Serb-held areas and were turned over to the RSK's security forces. Refugees were not allowed to return to their homes and the few Croats and other non-Serbs who had remained in the RSK were expelled in the following months. On February 21, 1992, the creation of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was authorised by the UN Security Council for an initial period of a year, to provide security to the UNPAs.

The agreement effectively froze the front lines for the next three years. Croatia and the RSK had effectively fought each other to a standstill, each side unable — for the moment — to defeat the other militarily. The ceasefire had little effect on the RSK's international standing. It was not recognized in the sense that it exchanged diplomatic credentials with other countries, but the republic's de facto independence had to be acknowledged by the countries of the region as a fact of life. It gained support from Serbia's traditional allies — Greece, Russia, and several other countries with Orthodox Christian majorities.

With the creation of new Croatian counties on December 30, 1992, the Croatian government also set aside two autonomous regions (kotar) for ethnic Serbs in the areas of Krajina. UNPROFOR deployed throughout the region in order to maintain the ceasefire, although in practice its light armament and restricted rules of engagement meant that it was little more than an observer force. It proved wholly unable to ensure that refugees returned to the RSK. Indeed, the Krajina Serb authorities continued to make efforts to ensure that they could never return, destroying villages and cultural and religious monuments to erase the previous existence of the non-Serb inhabitants of the Krajina. Milan Babić later testified that this policy was driven from Belgrade through the Serbian secret police — and ultimately Milošević — who he claimed were in control of all the administrative institutions and armed forces in the Krajina. This would certainly explain why the Yugoslav National Army took the side of the Krajina Serbs in spite of its claims to be acting as a "peacekeeping" force. It should be noted that Milošević has denied this, claiming that Babić had made it up "out of fear".


By the start of the 1990s, about two thirds of the Krajina population was Serb. Before the war, about 236,000 people (representing 40.6% of the total Serbian population in Croatia) lived in the Krajina. The increase in ethnic tensions caused the demographic proportions to shift markedly even before the fighting broke out. A census held in the spring of 1991, just before the war began, showed that 555,540 people lived in the territory of what became the RSK. Of these, 331,619 (59,7%) were Serbs, 168,026 (30,2%) were Croats and 55,895 (10,1%) were other Yugoslavs, Muslims, Hungarians, Slovaks etc. The increase in the Krajina's Serbian population was almost certainly due to Serbs from other parts of Croatia moving to the Krajina to escape ethnic tensions in their home regions.

The allocation of the population in the different parts of the RSK was as follows:

Krajina (main) Western Slavonia Eastern Slavonia
255,966 (67%) Serbs
70,708 (28%) Croats
13,101 (5%) others
14,161 (60%) Serbs
6,864 (29%) Croats
2,577 (11%) others
61,492 (32%) Serbs
90,454 (47%) Croats
40,217 (21%) others
(Source: ICTY (

Sources vary about the population numbers, and it was difficult to determine the exact population due to the war situation; many Serb refugees from elsewhere in Croatia and Bosnia settled in the Krajina and a steady stream of people left the region to escape its pervasive poverty. According to a local census by the RSK authorities from 1993, there were 480,000 people: 91% Serbs (433,595), 7% Croats and 2% others. In 1994, the RSK's government estimated the population at 430,000 people [1] ( The apparent fall in the population may have been due to the RSK authorities' efforts to drive out the non-Serb minorities as well as the ongoing exodus of Serbs.

The fall of the RSK

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Krajina Dinar, 5 million dinar note

The partial implementation of the Vance Plan drove a wedge between the governments of the RSK and Serbia, the RSK's principal backer and supplier of fuel, arms and money. Milan Babić strongly opposed the Vance Plan but was overruled by the RSK's assembly. On February 26, 1992 he was deposed and replaced as President of the RSK by Goran Hadžić, a Milošević loyalist. Babić remained involved in RSK politics but as a considerably weaker figure.

The position of the RSK eroded steadily over the following three years. On the surface, the RSK had all the trappings of a state: an army, a parliament and president, a government with its own ministries and even its own currency and stamps. Its economy was, however, wholly dependent on support from the rump Yugoslavia, which had the effect of importing that country's hyperinflation. The RSK issued its own currency, the Krajina Reformed Dinar (HRKR), in parallel with the Yugoslav Reformed Dinar in July 1992. This issue was followed by the October Dinar (HRKO), first issued on October 1, 1993 and equal to 1,000,000 Reformed Dinar, and the 1994 Dinar, first issued on January 1, 1994 and equal to 1,000,000,000 October Dinar.

The economic situation in the Krajina soon became disastrous. By 1994, only 36,000 of its citizens were employed out of a population of 430,000 (an unemployment rate of over 92%). The war severed its trade links with the rest of Croatia, with its few industries left idle. It had few natural resources on which to rely and had to import most of its resources, goods and fuel. Its agriculture was devastated, operating at little more than a subsistence level. [2] ( Professionals went abroad to Serbia or elsewhere to escape the Republic's grinding poverty. To make matters worse still, the RSK's government was grossly corrupt and the region became a haven for black market and other criminal activity. It was clear by the mid-1990s that the RSK was economically unviable without a peace deal and reintegration into Croatia. This was especially clear in Belgrade, where the RSK had become an unwanted economic and political burden for Milošević. His government sought to push the Krajina Serbs into settling the conflict but was rebuffed, much to its frustration.

The republic's weakness also affected its armed forces, the Vojska Srpske Krajine (VSK). Since the 1992 ceasefire had been agreed, Croatia had spent large sums of money importing weapons and training its armed forces with the aid of American contractors. At the same time, the VSK had grown steadily weaker, with its soldiers poorly motivated, trained and equipped. The VSK had only about 55,000 soldiers available to cover a front of some 600km in Croatia plus 100km along the border with the Bihać pocket in Bosnia; 16,000 of these were stationed in eastern Slavonia, leaving only some 39,000 to defend the main part of the RSK. In reality, only 30,000 of the theoretical 55,000 were capable of being fully mobilised. The VSK had little mobility and faced a far stronger Croatian army. It was also politically divided between supporters of Hadžić and Babić. On occasion, this rivalry broke out into clashes between rival units, which left several people wounded.

An early demonstration of the new Croatian capabilities came in January 1993 when the revitalised Croatian army launched an attack on Serbian positions around Maslenica in southern Croatia (which prevented them from utilizing sea access via Novigradsko more). In a second offensive in September 1993, the revitalised Croatian army overran the Medak pocket in the southern Krajina. The Croatian action was halted by the successful intervention of Canadian UN peacekeepers. Although the Krajina Serbs were able to bring up reinforcements fairly quickly, the strength of the Croatian forces proved a shock. Hadžić sent an urgent request to Belgrade to send reinforcements, arms and equipment. In response, around 4,000 paramilitaries under the command of Vojislav Šešelj (the "White Eagles") and the notorious "Arkan" (the "Serb Volunteer Guard") arrived to bolster the VSK. They found that the RSK's government and military was in a chaotic state.

The RSK's end came in 1995, when Croatian forces retook western Slavonia in Operation Flash (May) and overran the rest in Operation Storm (August). As a consequence, almost the entire Serbian population fled in what was in part an evacuation ordered by the Krajina Serb authorities and (allegedly) in part "a large-scale deportation and/or displacement" conducted by Croatian forces under the command of Colonel General Ante Gotovina (for which the latter has been indicted by the ICTY) [3] ( Serbia did not intervene, having earlier indicated in the state-controlled media that it was finally washing its hands of the Krajina Serbs.

Around 150,000–200,000 Serbs left the RSK in 1995, most of whom fled to Serbia (and are mostly still there). Of the Serb inhabitants that lived in the main part of the RSK (i.e. excluding eastern Slavonia), only 4,000 were left after the offensive. Some Serbs and most of the expelled Croats have since returned, but the Krajina Serb population is still only a fraction of its pre-1995 numbers. The autonomous regions planned by the government in 1992 were disbanded on February 7, 1997 and the areas were integrated into civic counties. At the time, the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the Krajina was quietly accepted by Western governments as a means of ending the conflict quickly (rather like the expulsion of the Germans from eastern Europe after World War II). Since then, however, it has come under close scrutiny from war crimes investigators. Prosecutors have indicated that, had he not died, President Tuđman probably would have faced indictment for his actions in the expulsion of the Krajina Serbs.

The parts of Krajina in eastern Croatia (along the Danube) remained in place as the Republic of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and western Srem (previously the Srpska Autonomna Oblast Slavonija, Baranja i zapadni Srem, or sometimes called Sremsko-Baranjska Oblast). The national and local authorities signed the Erdut Agreement in 1995, sponsored by the United Nations, that set up a transitional period during which the UNTAES peacekeepers would oversee a peaceful reintegration of this territory into Croatia. This process was completed in 1998.

See also


sr:Република Српска Крајина


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