Greater Serbia plan breeds civil war

August 7, 1991

By Peter Annear
in Zagreb and Ljubljana

The defeat of the federal army by Slovenia's territorial militia and the July 7 signing of the Brioni Declaration produced a temporary stand-off in Yugoslavia's long-simmering national crisis.

Following the June 25 declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia, 70 died in 10 days of fighting in Slovenia. Since then, the focus has been on Serbian-populated areas in Croatia as the country again lurches towards open conflict.

"What we are witnessing is the disintegration of the old Yugoslav federation", says Bogdan Denic, a prominent Croatian academic. On a hot summer's night we are sitting around the table in the courtyard of a Zagreb restaurant with supporters of the fledgling, leftist League of Social Democrats.

The Croatian parliament took its independence declaration to be the first step in negotiations towards a new, looser Yugoslav federation or confederation, said the ebullient Denic. "The Slovenians, however, assumed that their declaration of independence was a fait accompli." They seized the frontier posts and customs offices, and moved to stop the federal army from retaking the posts by blocking the highways and barricading the border positions.

"Had they just wanted to retake the frontier posts, the federal troops could have done it with helicopters. What they were really trying to do by moving in the tanks and troops was to intimidate the Slovenians, which was stupid because they did that with inadequate force", said Denic.

'Folly'

We arrived in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, the day the European Commission-brokered Brioni accord was signed. The tension had climaxed three days earlier, on July 4, when fear that the military conflict would turn to full-scale civil war gripped many of Zagreb's residents.

On that day a small statement appeared in the Zagreb paper Borba from the respected academic, Gajo Petrovic, a veteran of the 1960s dissident Praxis group of Marxist intellectuals. In the study of his Zagreb home, Petrovic showed us his appeal for an all-Yugoslav disarmament conference to resolve the issues.

"The folly has reached its peak", read the statement. "One more step and all nations of Yugoslavia will find themselves in the worst catastrophe of their history. Every use of

arms should be stopped immediately ... All controversies between individuals, nations and states must be resolved peacefully ... An enormous majority of the citizens of Yugoslavia want to have peace. Hence they must refuse their support to the rulers who want to lead them to war and to ruin."

While Zagreb was quiet, the evidence of civil war was around: streets deserted of the usual tourist crush; armed militia on patrol, especially in the vicinity of government buildings; a plethora of Croatian flags and nationalist symbols adorning buildings; in the central Ban Jelacic square, a stand selling flags and other nationalist paraphernalia supporting the governing HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union).

At night, denied their usual summer holiday, thousands of local residents cram sidewalk cafes escaping the summer heat. On Sunday night a Catholic mass in Ban Jelacic square precedes a political rally by the right-wing nationalist HDS (Croatian Democratic Party).

In Ljubljana a few days later, the armed presence was more prominent: steel barricades blocking streets leading to government buildings; soldiers standing guard behind sandbag defences. An equally prominent army of foreign reporters patrolled the city, waiting for action, photographers snapping soldiers in outdoor cafes; mud-spatted hire cars with "TV" taped on their bonnets standing at the roadside. The real action was out of the capital in regions along the border and on the highways.

Brioni agreement

Under the terms of the Brioni agreement, Slovenian police maintain control over border crossings into Italy, Austria and Hungary; customs revenues are to be collected by Slovenian officials and passed on to the federal treasury. A cooling-off period of three months has begun, while federal troops return to their barracks unconditionally and territorial militia are deactivated and returned to quarters.

The Slovenian Assembly accepted the Brioni Declaration on July 10, stating that the only "debatable question is the way in which [the right to self-determination] is [to be] asserted" and suggesting that "negotiations about a consensual disassociation of Yugoslavia and about the future inter-republican relations in any institutionalised form — confederation or economic community — should start."

At a press conference the next day, a government spokesperson emphasised that Slovenian sovereignty was not negotiable. "The decision of our citizens made by referendum was to have our own independent state. The significance of the Brioni document is only that we accept a temporary suspension of the implementation of the next step of the independence declaration in the next month, during

which we will look for a solution to some issues which remain open.

"But if you look at what is happening right now in Yugoslavia, what a madhouse Yugoslavia has become, then you can be convinced that there is no real possibility that after the three months' cooling-off period expires we can start talking about the possibility that Slovenia will remain in Yugoslavia. The question is whether the Yugoslav federation will last the three months."

In a December 23 plebiscite, 88.5% of the citizens of Slovenia indicated their wish to live in an independent and sovereign state.

Similarly, in May, 93.24% of the people of Croatia (Croatians and other nationalities) voted in a referendum to live in an "independent and sovereign Croatia that should try to come to an agreement with the other republics about the formation of an alliance of sovereign states", according to a statement by the Croatian Ministry of Information.

Bogdan Denic thinks "the European Community has imposed a temporary cease-fire in Yugoslavia which is extraordinarily shaky, because all sides are trying to cheat, to take advantage of it. It solves nothing because three months from now they are back to square one. Square one is a simple question: Can Slovenia break away by simple vote of its own parliament, or is that something which requires negotiations?

"The reason the European Community is extremely alarmed is not their great love for democracy, but rather the fear of fragmentation along national lines which could spread throughout the entire region. It is the problem of Scotland once it discovered it had oil, it's the problem of Catalonia, Ireland, Corsica, the Basque country etc."

Serbs in Croatia

Another civil war is already being fought inside Croatia between the territorial police force, the national guard and armed Serbian groups, according to League of Social Democrats leader Milorad Pupovac, an ethnic Serb living in Zagreb. "The problem is greater Serbia nationalism and [Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic's impossible goal that all Serbs live in one state", Pupovac told Green Left Weekly.

"Talk about a greater Serbia is wrong because Croats feel that Yugoslavia would then be a terroristic, hegemonistic state. A greater Serbian state is not possible because it includes so many minorities: Albanians, Hungarians, Croats, Muslims and others. Serbia cannot rely on force to control all these minorities. Milosevic's last card is war, as it has always been for Serbia in Balkan history."

Croatian president Franjo Tudjman "knows that war between Serbs and Croats is the end of his project in Croatia, so his moves are more rational today", said Pupovac. "But Tudjman has made very great errors, especially against Serbs in Croatia. In effect, he wants the position of Serbs in Croatia to be as it is for Albanians in Serbia — they don't exist, they are just 'terrorist Chetniks' and 'rebel groups'. Without agreement between Serbs in Croatia and the Croatian government, an independent Croatia is not possible."

However, in a television address on July 7, Tudjman said: "The democratic government of sovereign Croatia considers all [Serbs within Croatia] its citizens. In accordance with constitutionally guaranteed civil and national rights, we are prepared to discuss cultural autonomy and local government with your democratically elected representatives ... We will do everything possible to prevent any chauvinistic manifestations and activities among the Croatian population which might remind Serbs of Ustashi war atrocities. At the same time, I expect that the Serbian population [in Croatia] will more decisively distance itself from the Chetnik extremists, as their war atrocities are likewise embedded into the souls of the Croats ..." [Unofficial government translation.]

Army

Tudjman charges that federal troops are siding with the armed Serbian groups in Croatia, where most fighting has occurred since the July 20 decision of the Yugoslav state presidency to order the withdrawal of federal troops from Slovenia. The 12,000 troops to be removed from Slovenia will reportedly be redeployed in Serbia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Despite the dominance of the federal army, all sides in this conflict are militarily weak. Croatian and Slovenian territorial forces are not a conventional army supported by heavy equipment but an armed militia trained for guerilla war. The Yugoslav army is larger and has heavy weapons, but, despite the Serbian predominance among the officer corps, is divided and weakened by its mixed national composition. Already hundreds of Slovenian and Croatian federal troops have deserted to their republican forces.

In a speech at Belgrade's Centre of Military Academies on July 5, federal army leader General Blagoje Adzic said the situation of the army "is not a very good one, the morale is quite weak, which was plainly shown in Slovenia".

According to Adzic, "The whole battalion of 5000 in Macedonia refused to obey orders, and they have civilian support. In Bosnia-Hercegovina we had to mobilise the Serbs into the Yugoslav National Army brigades ... because Muslims refused to answer the call of the Yugoslav National Army. There are also cases in which some Serbs do not want to fight against Slovenia, for example,

there are desertions, there is a movement of mothers to have their sons taken from the army, and so on."

Reports appeared in July that Adzic aimed to refound the old Yugoslav Communist party to assert control. On July 5 Adzic said the secessionists in Slovenia and Croatia threaten to destroy the past achievements of socialist development in the Yugoslav community.

Adzic said "the Yugoslav army will do everything in its power to preserve Yugoslavia until the possible political agreement, but at the same time it will insist on the right of all nations to secede from the republics they make a part of and to create their own states or to align with their national states" — an apparent reference to Serbs in Croatia.

It is unlikely then that the federal army could successfully fight a war on two fronts in Slovenia and Croatia simultaneously, or that it could be a genuinely independent factor in Yugoslav politics. Formally it is under the control of the president of the collective federal presidency, Stipe Mesic, a Croat, but no-one can say just who controls the army today. In effect, however, its activities support Serbian intentions.

Milosevic

Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's political strategy is to destroy the federal presidency and break up the Yugoslav federation in order to create greater Serbia. The instability caused by federal army intervention against the republics seeking independence helps the Serbian case. But key to the Milosevic plan now are the 600,000 Serbs who constitute 12% of the Croatian population.

"Slovenia can rely on its geographic position in the west and on its almost entirely homogeneous Slovenian population", says feminist and academic Rada Ivekovic, a Croat who regards herself first and foremost as a Yugoslav.

"The separatist idea is the main idea there of not only the ruling coalition but of the whole population. There can be no coming back on what they have decided. But in the past two years, federal Yugoslavia and especially Serbia have done everything to kick Slovenia out. At some point Slovenia got fed up and, because it is a developed region, decided it could survive on its own. But in Croatia I see no solutions. The rest of Yugoslavia may let Slovenia go, but it will not let Croatia go."

Serbia and Croatia may attempt to redraw Yugoslavia's internal borders. On July 9, Zarko Domljan, president of the Sabor, Croatia's parliament, said such talks had already been held between Milosevic and Tudjman. Apparently the talks began last May but were

suspended as a result of the recent hostilities. In his July 7 address, Tudjman said if the demand that all Serbs live in one state is valid, then nobody can deny the same right to Croats.

The present internal borders were forged by Tito after World War II, and Tudjman admits any redrawing would have enormous repercussions for the other republics, especially Bosnia-Hercegovina, which includes both Serbs (33%) and Croats (18%) along with 2.5 million Muslims (47%). The Milosevic-Tudjman talks, which considered how Serbian-dominated areas in Croatia could be incorporated into Serbia, and Croat-dominated areas in Bosnia-Hercegovina into Croatia, will reportedly resume in August. Muslim leaders have stated their opposition to any carve-up of their republic.

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