A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

In Graz, everybody discussing Southeastern Europe, including myself, is eager to point out that Zagreb is closer than Vienna. Of course, this might be true in terms of kilometers, but not necessarily if measured by hours travelling. If you take a car, the journey for the less than 200 kilometers is a quick two hours, but if public transport is your choice (or not) things look different.  If one wants to travel directly between the two cities, there is a bus at 6 am, a train at 7.30 and finally one more bus at 23.00. These take a breathtaking four hours to Graz (average speed 50 kilometers per hour)

Those not lucky to catch these trains or buses will have to take a slightly longer journey, as I did today.

The not-too-friendly at the ticket counter give me a flyer with my connection predicting an sobering 7 hour journey. I got on the intercity “Sava” from Belgrade to Munich. I remember the cars of the Yugoslav railways, when I took them for the first time 20 years ago, back than surprisingly how new they were. How could the Yugoslav railways (the Yugoslavia which was just Serbia and Montenegro) have new cars, when everything around it was collapsing, under sanctions. Now, the cars looks appropriately worn. The Yugosphere is alive and well with exchange of crude graffiti between supporters of Delije and Ustasha in the toilets, where they belong.

At the border, the Slovenian carina official kept shouting at a hapless Bulgarian “nešto za prijaviti” and the other passengers gladly repeated after the customs official in both Serbian and Croatian prijaviti, prijaviti. The customs official got increasingly aggressive amidst his disbelief that this word could not be the same in all world languages (or at least all of the ones spoken in the Balkans). After all this, is a Schengen border, the EU begins here and displaying good old habits marking ones national sovereignty with rudeness are now Europeanised.

A friendly Serbian waiter came shouting through the car “restaurant arbeiten—restauran radi”, but not enough time before Zidani Most, a little hamlet in a valley between Celje and Ljubljana. When I first changed trains here two decades ago, I thought I had arrived in the wild gorges of the Balkans, but it is only a charming train stop at the end of the Alps. A place nicer when driving through than when stopping. Mentally preparing for an hour stay here, a train rolls into the station that my Croatian timetable kept from me. Stopping in every village to Maribor, I might even arrive earlier in Graz. Maribor is only an hour and a half away from the stony bridge and Boris Kidrič continues to welcome new arrivals.

An elderly lady sells a little knitted Slovenia map, another one offers a  little kitchy cityscape drawn (or rather burnt) on wood and as additional incentive to make the purchase, engraved on top “Maribor European Capital of Culture 2012”. A few colorful cubes mark the main squares and a two car rail bus slowly moves towards the border, Spielfeld-Strass. In order to honor Maribor become cultural capital, the train connection between Graz and Maribor, some 50 kilometers apart has been cut down to two direct trains a day (despite “EuroregionMaribor-Graz and nice headlines such as Graz and Maribor are getting closer together in the local newspaper).

At the border, the two trains approached each other like for a cold war prisoner exchange. The Slovenian train and the Austrian train meet head to head, spit out their passengers and took the ones from the other side. Nobody was left behind. So when the local train (called Wiesel or in English Weasel) pulled into Graz, it took only five and a half hours instead of the feared seven.

Thus, one year before Croatia joins the European Union, getting from Zagreb to the European capital of culture 2012 and on to Graz is a journey at an average speed of less than 50 kilometers per hour, taking not much more time than the journey did over 100 years ago. My Baedeker Austria-Hungary from 1905 tells me that it take two hours from Agram to Steinbrück (Zidani Most to Zagreb today, one and half hours ) and around three and a half hours from Steinbrück to Gratz (today anywhere between two and a half and three hours).

After the five and a half hours, four trains, three changes, and two cultural capitals, Croatia’s EU integration felt like a virtual world, far removed from the stuffy, torn up trains that make this a journey at the borders, not the centre of Europe as it should be.

When Bosnia was Divided in Graz

Only a month had passed since the beginning of the war in Bosnia when the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić meet with new strong man in the Bosnian Croat HDZ Mate Boban for a secret meeting at the Graz airport on 6 May 1992. At this point, the HDZ was still formally a coalition partner to the Muslim SDA in the Bosnian government, but this alliance was quickly unraveling. It was thus that this meeting was officially “secret”, even though the Austrian media, including the state broadcaster ORF, and later the international press reported extensively from this event. The content of this meeting remained silent, as there was no official announcement and the Croat delegation left the five hour meeting without speaking to journalists. Karadžić however revealed to reporters and, as the Austrian daily “Die Presse“ notes on 7.5.1992,  that the talks focused on the “cantonization of Bosnia”. Already at the time, Austrian tabloids speculated, as it turns out rightly, whether the meeting had as its goal the partition of Bosnia.

Karadzic at the Graz Airport, 6 May 1992

The meeting in Graz between Boban and Karadžić follows an earlier, better known meeting between the Serbian and Croat preisdents, Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman, in March 1991 in Titos old hunting lodge where both had already agreed on the partition of Bosnia. How much Karadžić and Boban received the backing of the two republics also became obvious as Karadžić arrived with the plan of the Yugoslav government and Boban with a car of the Croatian authorities.

So what did Boban and Karadžić agree on in Graz? Despite speculation about the partition of Bosnia by media and frequent reference to the agreement during trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the content remains largely unknown. Neverthless, the Bosnian daily “Oslobodjenje“ proved to be well informed a few days after teh meeting, correctly identifying the content of the agreement. The agreement itself was later published by the Croatian politician Zdravko Tomić. Austrian journalists noticed that the Croat and Serb delegation focused on a large Bosnian map showing the demographic distribution. The Agreement indeed focused on drawing a line of division between Croat and Serb spheres of influence in Bosnia, effectively dividing the country without the third and largest community being represented at the table.

Croat and Serb representatives do not agree on all matters in Graz. While Karadžić considers the river Neretva the border between Serb and Croat territories in Herzegovina, the Croat delegation supports the border of the 1939 Croat banovina instead. In the North of Bosnia the two delegations agree on the division of territory along the strategically important Posavina corridor that connects the region around Banja Luka with Serbia. The Agreement concludes that „as a consequence of what has been agreed there is no reason for further armed conflicts between Serbs and Croats on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina “.

Kleine Zeitung, 7 May 1992

The Agreement does not in a single word mention the Muslim population (not to mention anybody else). This is particularly absurd when dividing Mostar, the scene of intense battles between Croat and Bosnian government forces just a year later. The agreement notes that Croats claim all of the city, while Serbs see the Neretva river once more as the line of division.

During his trial at the ICTY Karadžić noted the importance of the agreement as it largely put an end to the Serb-Croat conflict. Similarly the well respected Serbian journalist Miloš Vasić noted in 1993 that the Grazer Agreement constituted „perhaps the single most important document of the Bosnian war“, as it enabled the Bosnian Serb army to focus on Muslim targets and prepared the ground for the two side war against the Bosnian government in 1993.

The maps on which the nationalist leaders drew new borders have been rolled out before Graz: The European Community represented by Portugese diplomat José Cutileiro suggest the creation of ethnically defined cantons already in February 1992 at the insistence of nationalist politicians. The division of Bosnia also had been decided already in 1991. In Graz, however, new borders were drawn for the first time and one conflict, the Croat-Serb one in Bosnia, came to an end so that the overall war would continue much longer. The consequence of the agreement was the Croat-Muslim war within the war which only came to an end in 1994 with the Washington Agreement, a prerequisite for the Dayton Peace Agreement.

What remains of the Graz Agreement? With more than three years of war with and some 100,000 victims, the borders Boban and Karadžić drew in Graz were drawn and redrawn, some changed, others remained the same. The border between the Croat and Serb dominated regions of Herzegovina is similar to the 1939 Croat banovina, as Croat negotiators in Graz had hoped. The Posavina region has remained under control of the Serb Republic, even if it is divided by the District of Brčko. More important than the maps is the idea that Bosnia should be divided along ethnic lines. Despite (or because of) the Dayton Peace Agreement and extensive international support for refugee return, most of Bosnia remains divided into ethnically largely homogenous regions. The Graz agreement is thus a reminder 20 years after its conclusion of the failure of international mediation and ruthlessness of nationalist “leaders” to divided lands without any consideration of the people living there. While Mate Boban died in 1997 and Radovan Karadžić stands trial in The Hague, their ideas, maps and plans remain alive.

(thanks to Nidžara Ahmetašević and Iva Komšić  for researching the background materials).

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