Serbian enclave uses vote to cement independence

December 12, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

KNIN, Croatia -- This backwoods mountain town may not look like much to outsiders, but to Serbs who live here, it is the capital of a future European mini-state.

Today's first multiparty elections in Krajina, the rebellious Serbian enclave in Croatia of which Knin is the capital, are designed to legitimize their quest.

The vote also may determine whether or not there is another war between Croatia and Serbia.

At present, Krajina is controlled by a puppet of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Goran Hadzic. But Serbs in Krajina are unhappy at this arrangement. They suspect Mr. Milosevic wants to sell them down the river in a wider territory swap with Croatia.

There are signs that popular local leader Milan Babic -- who used to be Mr. Milosevic's man controlling Krajina but who was pushed aside after he disagreed with Mr. Milosevic last year -- may make a comeback.

Mr. Babic and other Krajina nationalists insist on the independence of Krajina and its eventual joining of other Serb states. This was Mr. Milosevic's original goal. Over the past year, however, the Serbian strongman has shifted his rhetoric, and his agents have been involved in secret negotiations with senior Croatian officials in Norway and near Belgrade. One top pro-Milosevic Krajina Serb has publicly entertained the possibility Krajina remaining inside Croatia as a confederal unit.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of today's vote. Preliminary soundings show a surge in the popularity of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, whose presidential candidate, Rade Leskovac, insists on the full independence of Krajina. "We are coming," he tells enthusiastic crowds of supporters.

Diplomats in Belgrade believe that Mr. Babic and his supporters may emerge with most of the 315,000 votes likely to be cast. In their view, Mr. Babic is a genuine local force who may seek an accommodation with Croatia.

A solution of the Krajina crisis is of crucial economic importance for Croatia. Krajina's insurgence has disrupted the principal rail and road communications from Zagreb to the Dalmatian port city of Split. Moreover, there are no hopes of the revival of Croatia's tourist industry -- the country's main hard currency source -- as long as hostile Krajina Serbs control the hills above the Adriatic and can lob bombs at the once-splendid tourist spots on the coast.

The condition of the Krajina capital is a metaphor for the desperate economic situation of Krajina Serbs. The town is groaning under a blanket of snow and ice. It has no electricity. Many have no running water.

Today's election seems bound to further complicate the already inflamed relations between Eastern Orthodox Serbs in Croatia, who accounted for 12 percent to 14 percent of Croatia's $H population before the war, and the Roman Catholic Croatian majority.

It is a quintessentially Balkan dispute. Croatia considers Krajina an integral part of its territory and regards the Serbs as recent settlers. Serbs, on their part, regard Krajina as their homeland. The rebel state occupies more than 16,000 square kilometers with a population of only 500,000.

Just when the Serbs settled in Krajina is a matter of dispute. It is certain that, in the 16th century, they were a majority there. They point to Orthodox churches and monasteries that place them in Krajina a few centuries earlier. Renowned as fierce fighters, the Serbs were recruited by the Hapsburg emperors to fight the Turks. In 1578, Krajina was formally removed from Croatia's administrative control and became a militarized buffer zone against Turkey under direct control of the Hapsburg emperors. Moreover, Krajina Serbs were freed from feudal obligations in exchange for their services to the empire; Croats remained bonded serfs.

This situation remained largely unchanged until 1878, when the Ottoman Turks were expelled from Bosnia. This coincided with the birth of the Yugoslav idea, when ethnic tensions were replaced by a spirit of cooperation among Serbs and Croats in Croatia who wanted to have a state of their own.

But once placed under a single Yugoslav political roof in 1918, Croats and Serbs discovered that the religious and cultural differences were staggering. Ethnic hatreds reached their peak following Hitler's attack on Yugoslavia in 1941. Tens of thousands of Serbs in Krajina and adjacent territories were massacred by Croatian fascists.

The Communists emerged victorious from the war, advocating the "fraternity and unity" of all Yugoslav peoples. They used force to keep ethnic tensions in check. The collapse of communism and the first democratic elections in Croatia brought to power a nationalist party led by President Franjo Tudjman. But his policies and the rhetoric of his supporters conjured up images of a fascist spirit stalking the land, at least in the eyes of Krajina's Serbs.

The outcome was terribly predictable. The Krajina Serbs took up arms, expelled Croats and dug themselves in for a long siege. None of this, of course, was acceptable to the Croats, and it led to the war in Croatia, which was only halted when United Nations troops were deployed to separate the warring parties.

Since then, Krajina opinion has moved beyond its old position, creating an "independent" Republic of Serb Krajina to which it incorporated conquered Croatian territory at the far eastern area of Croatia.

Before today's election, Mr. Tudjman had an about-face: Croatia was prepared to offer Krajina Serbs "local and cultural" autonomy. The vote is expected to show whether such compromise is possible.

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