Croatian region simmers as Balkan war-in-waiting

March 07, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

ZAGREB, CROTIA — ZAGREB, Croatia -- Even if diplomats can convince the Bosnian civil war's miserable cast of thousands to lay down its arms, yet another war is waiting in the wings of the former Yugoslavia. It is the unresolved Serbian-Croatian dispute over land within the borders of Croatia.

The danger of renewed fighting seems greatest in a narrow strip of rugged land near Croatia's Adriatic coastline, in a region known as the Krajina. There one can find all the usual symptoms of Balkan madness crystallized to their hardest forms -- narrow ethnic hatreds, historic claims to land and vivid memories of recent vendettas.

Ethnic Serbs dominate the populations of the Krajina's towns, and they've vowed either to form their own republic or join the emerging Greater Serbia. The battlefront of their war against Croatian forces has cut Croatia in half.

Although local cease-fires have kept hostilities at a low simmer since December, some observers believe that's partly because commanders have diverted soldiers and weapons to the fighting in Bosnia. And no one thinks the conflict is over.

"It is unfinished business," a United Nations observer in the area says. "The war in the Krajina is a forgotten war. But in terms of possible escalation into a major Serbo-Croatian conflict, it is definitely the most dangerous, and you're talking about a conflict that would be very hard to stop once it started. Both sides feel they are absolutely right, and both have a genuine fear of genocide."

Both sides know how costly it would be to resume fighting.

"We know the consequences," says Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, spokeswoman for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. "We expect that 50,000 Croatians would die."

That hasn't stopped Croatian military leaders from boasting of how fast they could retake the region, nor has it prevented the hard-liners among Krajina Serbs from insisting on independence.

The tension persists despite a feeling among diplomats that momentum is building toward a peaceful resolution in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If anything, in fact, some Croats have watched nervously as the Serbs pulled backed heavy artillery from the hills around the besieged city of Sarajevo. They worry that the guns are now free to be used against them if their conflict with the Serbs comes back across their border.

Memories of World War II

As in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, the Krajina's combatants have resumed old roles from World War II, when the Croatian-nationalist Ustasha movement joined with the Nazis against the Serbian-nationalist Chetniks. Both sides carried out massacres against one ethnic group or another, although Nazi assistance helped the Ustasha end up with the bloodiest hands.

So when Croatia declared its independence from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia three years ago, the Serbs of the Krajina were convinced they were marked for destruction, and propaganda on both sides only heightened their fears. It didn't help when Ustasha-style groups began organizing in the nearby hills.

Few observers were surprised when a June 1991 confrontation in the regional capital of Knin produced the first bloodshed of the war.

The two sides agreed to a truce on all fronts in January 1992, only a few months before war erupted in Bosnia, but the fighting has occasionally reignited.

But with the economies of both sides skidding toward ruin, MrTudjman and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic agreed last month to normalize relations.

Diplomats called the agreement an important first step toward overall peace in the Balkans, although the pact ignored all the tougher questions about borders and land claims, much less what to do about the 400,000 Croatians forced from their homes by the fighting.

Still, diplomats say that Russia's new role in helping to mediate the fighting in Bosnia may be convincing the Serbs to soften their demands everywhere. But even if that's the case, there's no guarantee that local Serbian and Croatian leaders in the Krajina will follow dictates from Zagreb and Belgrade.

The complexity and volatility of the mess in the Krajina can be summed up by a presidential election held there in January, a contest between two Serbs.

Croatia refused to recognize the legitimacy of the election. Mr. Milosevic, meanwhile, poured money and influence behind one of the candidates, Milan Martic, even though U.N. officials believe he has been responsible for a lot of the ethnic terror and harassment against Croats.

The other candidate, Milan Babic, trusts neither Mr. Tudjman nor Mr. Milosevic and wants ties with neither. He, too, has been in the thick of the bitter ethnic fighting.

Mr. Martic won, barely, and only after Mr. Milosevic helped tilt the odds with economic threats and free advertising.

The result, says the U.N. observer, is "a political vacuum in terms of who to talk to and who can deliver on a cease-fire. You have a whole lot of scenarios for internal splits in the Krajina."

Tenuous cease-fire

The tenuous cease-fire holding in the Krajina was negotiated almost unit by unit among the military commanders along the front lines.

Some Croats who fled the area when the war began seem ready to try to live again as an ethnic minority among Serbian neighbors as long as the Krajina again becomes part of Croatia.

"It will be hard to settle again when you were last looking at your neighbor over a loaded gun barrel," says Maria Juvolic, now living in a refugee camp near Zagreb. "But my house suffered little material damage, so I could move back there if my safety could be guaranteed."

Other refugees are still so upset by what happened that they oppose the recent agreement to normalize relations, and it is these people who could be the biggest obstacles to peace.

"They will never accept normalization," Ms. Skare-Ozbolt says. "I wouldn't either if I were them. But it is the only way to return to normal life again. Otherwise you will never have peace in all of the Balkans."

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