The Choice in the Balkans

The lightning Croatian victory in the Krajina region of Croatia has changed the face but not necessarily the essence of the war in the Balkans. By force of arms, as impressive as it was illegal, the Croats have accomplished what years of negotiation could never have achieved for them—they have recovered the gateway to the Dalmatian coast, with its lucrative tourist industry, without having to give political autonomy to the Krajina’s Serbian population. Virtually that entire population, a fixture in the Krajina since the days of Maria Theresa, was either expelled or intimidated into flight by a military operation as comprehensive, and perhaps even as ruthless, as the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina’s Croatian inhabitants by the Serbs during the Serbo-Croat war of 1991.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman’s revenge for his humiliation in that war has now won back for Croatia most of the territory it lost to the Serbs four years ago. The exception is Eastern Slavonia, an oil-and-soil-rich region contiguous to Serbia, which the Serbs seem determined to defend. The Bosnian side is also taking satisfaction from the Croatian victory. The headlong flight of the Krajina Serbs—reputedly the toughest fighters in the Balkans, heirs to the warriors brought to the Krajina by the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century to defend the Empire’s military frontier against the Turks—has shattered the myth of Serb invincibility. The Bosnian Serb leadership has become divided by a power struggle between the civilian leader, Radovan Karadzic, and the commander-in-chief, General Ratko Mladic. The Bosnian and Croatian armies have moved quickly to exploit the disarray of the Serbian forces along the Croatian border in a bid to reconquer territory in western Bosnia.

Bosnian triumphalism may be short-lived. The Serbs have not been beaten in Bosnia. With the presentation of a new American peace plan, the Bosnian Serb leaders are talking peace, but they have not reduced their capacity for war. They may be reinforced by the tens of thousands of Krajina Serbs, disgraced and vengeful, who have poured into Bosnia from Croatia. Nor has the Serbian military position weakened in all parts of Bosnia. In July the Serbs captured two “safe areas” in the east, Srebrenica and Zepa, leaving a third, Gorazde, exposed. They still have the capacity to threaten Sarajevo.

The future actions of Serbia and Croatia may determine whether the Serbian reversal in Croatia is a turning point or just an interlude in the Bosnian war. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a nationalistic opportunist rather than an opportunistic nationalist, has been consistently willing to settle for less in Bosnia than Karadzic or Mladic is. Milosevic does not share Karadzic’s obsession with ethnic apartheid. In Serbia, where a third of the population is non-Serb, he has been content to impose restrictions on minorities rather than get rid of them. On the territorial question, in a Time interview on July 17, before the Croatian attack on the Krajina, he reiterated his support for the five-nation contact group plan …

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