BALKAN BREAKDOWN

MARY NEMETH March 18 1991

BALKAN BREAKDOWN

MARY NEMETH March 18 1991

BALKAN BREAKDOWN

A late-night brawl in the local cevabnicara, or hamburger restaurant, is the most serious uproar that usually afflicts the sleepy Yugoslavian town of Pakrac. But last week, the town, 265 km northwest of Belgrade, became the site of a bitter clash between the country’s two main ethnic groups, the Serbs and the Croats. Then, a rampage of partisan violence in Belgrade at week’s end set Serbs against Serbs—another tear in the fabric of a nation that is fast coming apart.

In the capital, tens of thousands of Serbs demonstrating against their republic's Communist government battled with riot police. Then, Yugoslav army tanks and troops in armored vehicles with machineguns rumbled into the city centre. At least two people died and dozens were injured in

the city’s worst violence since the Second World War. Police arrested Serbia’s opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic.

In the clash at Pakrac, an isolated Serbian community inside the Croatian republic, Serbs occupied the local police station and declared the town’s independence. That sparked a gun battle with Croatian police that injured no more than five people. But in Yugoslavia’s overheated atmosphere, a Serbian announcer on Radio Belgrade called the clash a “massacre,” setting off a spate of anti-Croatian protests. In nearby Banja Luka, one speaker told a cheering crowd of nearly 70,000 Serbs: “The blood of our brothers will be avenged.”

Centuries-old ethnic animosities have plagued Yugoslavia since its formation in 1918 as a union between southern Slavic states and remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the Second World War, the Communist regime of Marshal Josip Tito kept those tensions in check. But federal authority waned after Tito’s death in 1980, and growing inflation and unemployment throughout the 1980s

fuelled nationalist upheavals. Last year, in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings that toppled Communist regimes across Eastern Europe, each of Yugoslavia’s six republics elected governments on nationalist platforms. And the northern republics of Croatia and Slovenia threatened to secede from the union unless they were granted greater autonomy. That has brought them into open conflict with the leaders of Serbia, the largest republic, and the Serbian-dominated central government.

If Yugoslavia does break apart, Serbian leaders say, they will demand a revision of internal borders to incorporate 2.5 million Serbs living in other republics, including the 550,000 who make up about 10 per cent of the population of Croatia. In the Balkans, a region whose very name denotes disintegration, Yugoslavia’s future as a nation appears increasingly hopeless.

MARY NEMETH with LOUISE BRANSON in Pakrac

MARY NEMETH

LOUISE BRANSON