WORLD

Back from the brink

The army moves in to prevent civil war

MARY NEMETH May 20 1991
WORLD

Back from the brink

The army moves in to prevent civil war

MARY NEMETH May 20 1991

Back from the brink

WORLD

YUGOSLAVIA

The army moves in to prevent civil war

The shooting usually begins when night falls. For most of the past two months, Croatian policemen and Serbian civilians have fought frequent gun battles throughout the Yugoslav republic of Croatia in towns and hamlets inhabited mainly by the Serbian minority. Then, on May 2, a group of Croatian policemen walked into the Serbian-dominated town of Borovo Selo. A gun battle erupted and 17 people died, the bloodiest ethnic clash in Yugoslavia since the Second World War. And last week, an estimated 30,000 demonstrators attacked a naval base in the Croatian city of Split, killing a young conscript from the republic of Macedonia. With the nation of 23.5 million people teetering on the brink of civil war, Yugoslavia’s fractious eight-man presidency met for three tense days in emergency session last week—finally emerging with an agreement to deploy federal troops in Croatia. The pact appeared to avert widespread bloodshed. But, said one veteran Western diplomat who wished to remain anonymous, “Yugoslavia’s slide into civil war is likely only to have been held up temporarily.”

Ethnic tensions in Croatia have been fuelled by the republican government’s threat to secede from Yugoslavia unless the multi-ethnic country is reorganized into a loose federation. In response, many of the 600,000 Serbs in the republic of 4.5 million people have declared their towns to be independent of Croatia. For two months, leaders of Yugoslavia’s six republics and two provinces have been holding talks in an effort to resolve the conflict. Leaders of Serbia, the largest and traditionally dominant republic, have argued for emergency rule in Croatia to protect the Serbian minority there. But Croatian leaders have rejected any such move as an infringement on their sovereignty.

Last week's agreement came only after Defence Minister Gen. Veljko Kadijevic threatened to impose military rule to end the unrest unless the presidency, which includes representatives from each of the republics and provinces, resolves the conflict. The pact calls for the creation of a group of Croats and Serbs to examine “all political questions that are deemed to be the cause of the crisis.” It also calls on the military to take control of Serbian enclaves within Croatia, and to disarm all civilians and paramilitary groups in the republic.

It remained unclear, however, if the order to disarm applies to the Croatian republic’s reserve police force, which has grown to 70,000 members since free elections in Croatia brought the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union to power last year. But late last week, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said that he would not permit the disarming of Croatia’s police force. And that, analysts said, makes it unlikely that Serbian civilians will tum in their weapons willingly.

Distrust between the Serbs and the Croats, Yugoslavia’s two largest ethnic groups, is deeply rooted in history. After the Second World War, Communist strongman Josip Broz Tito repressed ethnic differences in Yugoslavia, a country that was improvised in 1918 from the ruins of the AustroHungarian and Ottoman empires. But since Tito’s death in 1980, old tensions have reemerged. And they have reached crisis proportions since free elections last year brought nationalist governments to power in each of the republics. Those tensions have taken a particularly severe toll on families divided along ethnic lines. Zoran and Ivana, who asked that their last names not be used, live in Vukovar, a town in eastern Croatia with a large Serbian minority. Zoran, a Serb, and Ivana, a Croat, said last week that they think of themselves as Yugoslavs, but that few people still think of themselves that way. Pointing at the iron bars they have installed over their windows, Ivana said: “That’s what it’s like inside our minds. We are still very much a family, but we feel the forces around us trying to smash us apart.”

When she was a child, Ivana said, her father used to talk bitterly about the postwar, Serbian-dominated government that sentenced him to six years in jail for flying a Croatian national flag. Her husband, Zoran, said that he remembers hearing stories about family friends who were rounded up and massacred by security police loyal to Croatia’s Fascist government during the Second World War. But Zoran, 39, and Ivana, 38, grew up under Tito’s rule and, they said, when they married in 1972, the old Serb-Croat antagonisms seemed to be ancient history. Now, that history is repeating itself. Their 13-year-old son, Dusan, goes to a school where children have formed rival Serb and Croat gangs. When Dusan came home one afternoon last week, Ivana said, “He wanted us to declare ourselves Americans or German or Martians and go and live somewhere far away.” In a country fast coming apart at the seams, the day may come, very soon, when they may not be able to call themselves Yugoslavs at all.

MARY NEMETH with LOUISE BRANSON in Belgrade

LOUISE BRANSON