Civil war threatens Croatian independence

August 14, 1991

By Peter Annear

PRAGUE — There is little chance the temporary cease-fire, negotiated on August 6 by the Yugoslav federal presidency to stop fighting in Serb-dominated areas of Croatia, will hold.

The low-level civil war is being used to give leverage to Serbian claims for an expanded territory which would include most Serbs.

By failing to resume discussions sponsored by the European Commission on August 4, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic again revealed his basic strategy: if he cannot win his demands otherwise, a bloody war against Croatia will redefine Yugoslavia's internal borders and, in the process, also destroy the autonomy and integrity of neighbouring Bosnia-Hercegovina.

EC delegation leader and Netherlands foreign minister Hans Van Den Broek said, "On a number of vital elements, the agreement of one party is lacking ... It is not difficult ... to recognise those who stonewalled our mission", according to Laura Silber, reporting in the Financial Times.

Others, including head of the Yugoslav collective presidency Stipe Mesic and Slovenia's representative on the presidency, openly blamed Serbia for the breakdown.

German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher called for sanctions against Serbia and again suggested recognising the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. On this the EC is divided, with Britain, France and Italy against independence for the republics. Austria, which borders Slovenia, is for it.

Greater Serbia nationalism now dominates the political agenda. Milosevic has incorporated Vojvodina and Kosovo into the Serbian republic and has delayed Slovenia's inevitable progress towards complete independence.

Now he plans to destroy Croatia. Next will be Bosnia-Hercegovina, which includes Serbs (33%), Croats (18%) and Moslems (47%).

Weak position

While Slovenia was able to fight off federal troops in July, Croatia is in a weaker position. The Slovenian militia refused earlier this year to hand over weapons as demanded by the federal army. It has one of the best trained militias in the country, and is ethnically homogeneous. Croatia, which complied with the army's command, has a poorly trained and equipped force.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman admitted in an address to Croatia's Sabor, or parliament, on August 1 that Serb-dominated areas in Croatia — principally Slavonia in eastern Croatia, on the Hungarian and Vojvodinian borders, and the autonomous region of Krajina in Croatia's south-west, adjacent to Bosnia-Hercegovina — could not be defended. Croatian troops face the combined force of rebels backed by Serbia and the federal army, which has 70,000 troops in Croatia.

Tudjman looked to the EC's diplomatic intervention to ward off attack. Milosevic knew this and therefore would not cooperate with the EC mission.

But Tudjman, if he is to retain any credibility in the eyes of Croatia's nationalist movement, cannot be seen to make a deal with the Serbian leadership. That is why reported talks between Tudjman and Milosevic on the redrawing of internal borders have given way to the threat of civil war.

Nonetheless, a de facto redrawing of borders has occurred day by day as Croats in ethnically mixed communities have fled from systematic Serbian and federal army terror.

Serb minority

While the chance for Tudjman to find a solution to the problem of Serb rights in the republic is well and truly gone, Croatia can gain nothing by war with Serbia, though it may be forced to defend its independence.

In Zagreb, League of Social Democrats leader Milorad Pupovac told Green Left Weekly, "The Croats do not regard the Serbs in Croatia as a minority but as one part of the Serbian majority of Yugoslavia. That produces a very conflicting and confused state within the Croat consciousness — a very dangerous state, because Serbs are actually in a minority here."

Despite the legitimate cause (and, in the circumstances, necessity) of Croatian independence, the Tudjman government has made errors that have worsened the situation, especially in relation to the republic's Serbs, who constitute 12% of its 4.7 million population.

"What would you think if President Bush went on television and wished a happy new year to all white Americans?", Bogdan Denic, a well-known leftist Croatian academic, asked me in Zagreb. "That is virtually what Tudjman did when he gave new year greetings to all 'Croatians'."

Under former Communist leader Joseph Tito's 1974 constitution, every republic was considered an autonomous multinational unit. But under the Croatian constitution adopted in 1990, Serbs were awarded the status of a "national minority" within a Croatian state.

"To be fair to the nationalists", said Denic, "it is true they say they will give these people minority rights. But that means you divide the citizens between the majority who are full citizens and the minority who are tolerated. That's why the entire revival of 19th century romantic nationalism here is enormously dangerous and has a very authoritarian potential.

"The army helped arm the Serbs in the minority regions in Croatia partially because a number of the officers are from that part of the country and had their families massacred by fascist Croats in World War II, partially because the Serb minority has been pushed into a totally unacceptable and enormously dangerous role of holding the majority in Croatia hostage. The Serb minority is saying to the majority in Croatia, 'You cannot have independence because of us'. That sets them up as scapegoats."

Cabinet reshuffle

Tudjman's August 1 Sabor speech was a search for concessions in an attempt to defuse the war threat. It may also help to spread the political fallout from a possible defeat by Serbia. Ironically, losing Serbian-dominated territory in Croatia could remove a stumbling block for those on the Croatian right who want to realise an ethnically pure state. But neither Tudjman, nor any rightist Croatian politician, could say so and remain in power.

These circumstances help explain Tudjman's August cabinet reshuffle and the replacement of the previous one-party HDZ government by a new coalition. Right-wing nationalists, defence minister Sime Djodan and interior minister Onesin Cvitan, jointly responsible for defence strategy, were removed, though they remain in an ill-defined "war cabinet". Two Serbs were appointed to minor positions in the new government.

The Tudjman plan also envisaged offering cultural and political autonomy to ethnic Serbs, proposed negotiations with the Serbs at Knin ("Krajina") and called for extending the intervention of the EC observers' mission to include Croatia.

Milorad Pupovac thinks the measures may be too little too late. Reportedly, the far right of the HDZ refuses any concessions to the Croatian Serbs.

Imprisoned for his role in the repressed 1971 "Croatian Spring" democratic movement, and again in 1982 after Tito's death, Tudjman won the 1990 republican elections at the head of the HDZ, which captured 58% of seats. The HDZ promised independence for Croatia.

Like Tudjman, Milosevic was lifted to power by the nationalist movement. Milosevic came from obscurity to win the Serbian Communist leadership in 1987, promising to redress the 1974 constitution's separation of Vojvodina (55% Serbs and 19%

Hungarians) and Kosovo (77% Albanians, 13% Serbs) from Serbia. He did that by military-constitutional means in 1988-89.

But as one Zagreb politician told the press: Tudjman may have made mistakes with regard to his republic's Serb minority, while Milosevic wants to destroy Croatia; there is no comparison between the two.

Zagreb academic Rada Ivekovic told Green Left Weekly, "Up to and during the election campaign, Tudjman was more pronounced in his right-wing [nationalist] claims than now because, after he came to power, he had to play the moderate within his party ... There are people in the HDZ more to the right than he is, including the defence minister [Sime Djodan], and there are other rightist parties."

Tudjman's moderation in dealing with Serbia's aggression produced open tension within the ruling party and the postponement of a session of the Sabor early this month as HDZ hardliners increased pressure for returning sacked cabinet ministers to their posts, for a general mobilisation and for the declaration of a state of war in Croatia.

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