Croatia suffers setback in Slovenia's liberation

July 21, 1991|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BELGRADE -- Yugoslavia's quarreling political leaders could agree on little last week except to effectively accept the independence of Slovenia, thus recognizing an important piece in the country's disintegration.

Now attention shifts to Croatia and the potential it poses for a wider civil war.

Croatia, which along with Slovenia declared independence June 25, appeared to have suffered a serious setback. Croatia's representative on the eight-man collective presidency, Stipe Mesic, had cast the only vote against the army withdrawal from Slovenia --the move that seemed to guarantee Slovenia's independence.

"The Croats got a nightmare out of this," said a Western diplomat. "They got exactly what they had desperately tried to avoid -- the removal of the army from Slovenia but not from Croatia." Indeed, the move opens prospects for a wider army role inside Croatia, he added.

Croatia had hoped to be included under the umbrella of the European Community-brokered agreement for settling the Slovenian problem as a way of "internationalizing" its conflict with the Serbs, 700,000 of whom live in Croatia and want to be absorbed into Serbia. While an eight-member EC inspection team entered Slovenia to monitor the cease-fire, no EC monitors could be deployed in Croatia without the endorsement of the federal presidency.

So while Slovenia celebrated yesterday, Croatia was glum.

Croatia's leader, Franjo Tudjman, said he "could welcome the decision about the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from Slovenia if it is the first step toward a withdrawal from Croatia." He added that Croatia "demands" that the Yugoslav army be first confined to the barracks and then removed "entirely from sovereign Croatia." His prime minister, Josip Manolic, was more acid and suggested a deal between Serbia and Slovenia at Croatia's expense.

With Slovenia's apparent slipping away from Belgrade's grip and turning into a quiet sideshow, the Tudjman government has come under severe public pressure for its alleged lack of decisiveness and failure to use opportunities to secure Croatia's independence.

The pressures were building with intensifying guerrilla warfare inside Croatia. Machine-gun and artillery fire echoed throughout the week in clashes involving Croatia's police, Serbian militants and Yugoslav army units in Croatia. According to official estimates, more than 250 people have died and several hundred have been wounded so far this year in the ongoing sectarian violence in Croatia.

Apart from the simmering civil war -- reports of mortar attacks, explosions, killings, road minings, attacks on police stations, nighttime artillery exchanges, and similar activities take up more than two-thirds of all radio news programs -- the vicious war of words between Serbia and Croatia is escalating. It seems increasingly unlikely that the leaders of the two republics will find a way to resolve their differences peacefully.

Croatia's Defense Minister Sime Djodan reached new heights this week when he described Serbia's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, as a "confirmed schizophrenic." Croatia's second-in-command, Mr. Mesic, who is Yugoslavia's titular head state, created a nationwide sensation last week when he likened Milosevic to Adolf Hitler.

The purpose of such pronouncements is unclear. Mr. Mesic's statement was given wide publicity in Serbia, where it was used to show that the Croatian politician lacked balance and a sense of propriety. Western diplomats who know Mr. Mesic were puzzled by his statement, suggesting he may have deliberately sought to inflame ethnic tensions.

Opinion was further inflamed by Croatia's President Tudjman, who said in a separate interview that the crisis between Serbia and Croatia could be overcome by a division of the central republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The idea that Bosnia and Herzegovina should be carved up was discussed in two private meetings between Mr. Tudjman and Mr. Milosevic this spring, according to knowledgeable diplomatic sources. But this was the first time that the sensitive, complex issue was raised in public, provoking an adverse reaction particularly among Moslems, who comprise almost 50 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina's 4.5 million population.

Croatia's defense minister, presumably to counter the adverse impact among the Moslems, said, "We support an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, we welcome it because we know that Bosnia would like to join us in a federation as sort of [a] customs union."

Meanwhile, there are abundant signs that the federal army is rapidly disintegrating. About 600 reservists in Bosnia this week turned in their weapons and uniforms and then went home in protest. "We are not going to shoot at any Yugoslavs, no matter who they are," the protesters shouted.

In Montenegro, only one out of four reservists responded to a call-up. Even in Serbia, young recruits staged a dramatic protest when they announced their defection from the army before the television cameras. Several hundred soldiers turned in their winter uniforms -- the army had no summer clothes to give them -- and they jeered a general who was dispatched to restore order. The soldiers spoke of complete collapse of order and discipline and said the tanks they were given were old and in bad repair.

Another sign of chaos was the flood of refugees. Tens of thousands are fleeing the disputed lands of eastern Croatia, including Serb women and children crossing the Danube River into Serbia, while Croat families board up their homes and move westward.

As if all that were not enough, the Serbian National Council for Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem formally proclaimed themselves an autonomous region this week -- yet another move seen as a prelude to Serbia's takeover of eastern Croatia.

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