There was a sequel to ”My Christmas 1991.” It had no happy ending.

Serbia is one of the countries which celebrates the Orthodox Christmas on January 7. An event on January 7 1992 marked a significant development  in the evolution of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Community as it then was, by putting into sharp focus the reality and limitation of that policy in practice.

As Jugoslavia moved towards disintegration in the summer of 1991, the European Community decided to get involved. A better description might be that the EC decided to fool in. This was, of course, a period of euphoria in western Europe. The collapse of communism in 1989 had led to the formation of nascent democracies in central Europe and to the reunification of Germany in 1990. The Soviet Union appeared to be in its death throes. The USA was preoccupied with the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

A complicated situation obtained in Jugoslavia, where pressure was building  up within the Federal Republic, with Slovenia and Croatia, on one side of the western/orthodox fault line which ran through the country, ultimately seeking independence from Belgrade. Jugoslavia and its republics had strong economic and historical ties with the bigger EC states so it was to be expected that the EC would take an interest in what was happening in its back yard. Since the revolutions had been peaceful elsewhere  in Central Europe, with the exception of Romania, the assumption was that there would be peaceful change also in Jugoslavia, a country where  several millions of western Europeans holidayed.

As events moved towards open warfare, an accord was signed at Brioni in Croatia on July 7, brokered by the EC, between representatives of Slovenia, Croatia,  the Federal Republic of Jugoslavia, and the European Troika of three Foreign Ministers. Entering the negotiations Luxembourg Foreign Minister Poos declared “The Hour of Europe has dawned.” Arising out of the Brioni Accord a European Community Monitor Mission (ECMM) to Jugoslavia was established.

The monitors, who came from most of the EC member states, Canada, Sweden and (then) Czechoslovakia, were a mixture of military, diplomats and bureaucrats, all unarmed and identifiable only by their white clothing. There was no armed back-up. In two MOUs, in July and September, the host parties guaranteed “the Monitor Mission” and its personnel , “ vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment”  full protection and unrestricted freedom of movement within the Mission area. Despite these assurances monitors were involved in several near misses and the Mission’s helicopters were grounded after being shot at.

As full scale war developed that summer between Croatia and Serbia, wearing the thin disguise of the Federal Republic and its army, the JNA,  the role of the European monitors became the thankless one of seeking to monitor numerous ceasefire agreements, some general, some local. A suggestion now current is that Croatia, under its leader, Tudjman, used the tactic of repeated ceasefires, factoring in the ECMM as pawns, to gain time while Croatia, massively outgunned, and with only one diplomatic champion, admittedly the heavy hitter, Germany, sought arms and international support. Media coverage of events helped with the second, Croatia being cast as victim. A UN arms embargo inhibited the first; Serbia was already heavily armed, Croatia was not, relying for the most part on smuggled weaponry and what could be seized from JNA barracks in Croatia.

What became clear very rapidly was that the EC had bitten off considerably more than it could chew.  The role of an international policeman presupposes military clout, and, ultimately, the political will to use it. The EC had neither. Faced with the passions on both sides, ethnic cleansing (the phrase had not yet been coined), massacres and heavy shelling of civilian population centres, carried out overwhelmingly by the Serbs, it became obvious that the boy-scout style mission of the ECMM was not going to solve anything.

In retrospect, and as more evidence becomes available, it appears that  the essential  shape of what was to come was established from early autumn 1991. The failed coup in Moscow and its aftermath  removed the Soviet Union as a factor. Slovenia was free to go its own way and Serb war aims in Croatia had crystallised into occupying, protecting  and cleansing areas with significant Serb populations, i.e. the Krajina (around 30% of Croatian territory). Hence Vukovar, hence Osijek and other Croatian outposts, the fate of Vukovar a small grim foretaste of what was to come in Sarajevo and Srebenice. Croatian independence  was not seriously in doubt provided some issues could be resolved, most importantly the evacuation of Serb men, weapons and armour from locations in Croatia.

But Europe wanted out and both sides realised that the EC had neither the political will nor the military means to impose a solution. The only alternative was the UN, which again, would not enforce a peace but only administer one with a peacekeeping force. This took some arranging. A deal was brokered by the UN in late November under which the EC monitors would play another and important role of facilitating UN intervention through safely evacuating Serb forces from within Croatia; this to be completed by Christmas Day. A general binding and comprehensive ceasefire would follow and bed in, after which a UN force, designated UNPROFOR, would be introduced.

The timetable for evacuation was met and a general ceasefire came into operation on 3 January 1992. The deal signalled the independence of unoccupied Croatia, since UN intervention tends to solidify ceasefire lines. Separately, under strong pressure from Germany, the EC, with some reluctance, had agreed to recognise Croatian independence just before Christmas, to take effect on 15 January. Not only was a major German policy objective realised but Germany appears  to have grasped, earlier than other member states, that  the logic of events for several months had been that Croatian independence was not only inevitable but would not be opposed by Belgrade or the JNA once their tactical aims had been achieved.

There remained only the crossing of t’s and the dotting of I’s.  One such was to get the ECMM helicopters flying again. Despite the assurances and guarantees in the MOUs they had been shot at in September, and grounded thereafter. Since then any flying applications made had been turned down by the Jugoslav Federal Air Traffic Control Authority(FATCA), which had banned flights over Croatia and Slovenia and which still clung to the fiction of a single federal Jugoslav state. With the ceasefire the situation changed. The helicopters flew, authorised by the JNA.

Then, disaster. At 14.09 hrs. on 7 January, the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, two ECMM helicopters, flying from Belgrade to Zagreb, were attacked by a JNA MiG in Northern Croatia; one was shot down, killing the five monitors on board. Compared to the thousands of war victims this was minor. But it was traumatic. These were the first European Community casualties, anywhere, volunteers, unarmed and on a peaceful mission on behalf the EC; the brave new world of the “Hour of Europe” got a reality check.

The subsequent enquiries served only to underline the obvious, that, at a time of a total ceasefire, which specifically covered and mentioned cessation of all hostilities in the air, a JNA MiG, flying at 900km per hour, had shot down a clearly identifiable (painted white  with ECMM markings) unarmed ECMM helicopter travelling at 150km, killing those on board. The JNA knew about the flight; it even had the flight plans.

There was another ECMM aircraft in the air at the time of the shooting down, a fixed wing with eight on board. They included two Ambassadors, the ECMM Head of Mission and his predecessor, as well as the deputy Head of Mission and his predecessor, both Generals; and me. Originally scheduled to fly from Belgrade to Sarajevo, the flight was aborted as Sarajevo was closed by snow. Instead a flight plan was filed for a journey back to Graz in Austria, and the plane duly took off at 13.24 hrs. The flight followed the route of the helicopters into Hungary towards Kaposvar , shadowed by a MiG for a while before we turned north west for Graz at about where the helicopters would have turned south west for the Croatian border at Varazdin . The HOM was informed by phone of the helicopter’s fate during the final descent into Graz at 14.15 hrs.

The JNA  denied emphatically any suggestion that the wrong aircraft had been targeted and claimed human error and faulty procedures over flight clearance. The basic issue of an unprovoked attack in breach of an otherwise fully observed ceasefire was never addressed . The MiG pilot was eventually apprehended, tried and jailed by the Italians, whose men had been killed.  Yet air force majors don’t shoot to cause an international incident during a ceasefire. Someone more senior to him issued the instruction to open fire.