Croatian ceasefire heralds dawn of peace

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The contours of a general Yugoslav peace settlement began to take shape yesterday when representatives of Croatia and its Serbian minority signed a ceasefire to end the war that broke out in June 1991.

At the same time the Muslim- dominated parliament of Bosnia- Herzegovina approved the creation of a federation uniting Bosnia's Muslims and Croats and linking them in a loose relationship with Croatia.

The success of the initiatives, designed to halt Europe's bloodiest conflicts since the Second World War, depends to a large extent on local Serbian leaders in Croatia and Bosnia and their patron in Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic. Neither the Croatian Serb nor Bosnian Serb leaderships have shown much willingness to abandon their dream of uniting with Serbia in a single state, but the United States and Russian diplomats who mediated the latest accords have indicated that the Serbs must moderate their ambitions if they want a lasting peace.

International diplomatic efforts will focus now on settling the status of Krajina, the region of Croatia where Serbs established a breakaway state after Croatia seceded from the former Yugoslavia, and on defining the relationship of the Bosnian Serbs to the Muslim-Croat federation. Mediators are hoping to persuade Mr Milosevic to extract concessions from his client states in Croatia and Bosnia in return for the lifting of United Nations sanctions that have greatly damaged the Serbian economy.

The status of Krajina promises to be an exceptionally difficult problem to solve. Under yesterday's agreement, Croatia and the Krajina Serbs signed 35 maps establishing demarcation points and pledged to pull back heavy weapons and infantry from front lines. However, the two sides have not yet addressed in detail the question of what relationship, if any, Krajina is to have with the Croatian state.

Krajina's Foreign Minister, Slobodan Jarcevic, said this week that Croatia had a proven record of mistreating its Serbian minority and should therefore have no authority over Krajina. 'We cannot pledge any kind of community with Zagreb,' he said.

However, that is wholly unacceptable to President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, who is believed to have renounced Croatian territorial ambitions in Bosnia only on condition that Croatia regains control of Krajina. The Serbs conquered about 30 per cent of Croatia in 1991, severely disrupting trade and transport links between northern Croatia and the economically vital Dalmatian coast.

US diplomats believe that a compromise over Krajina is possible if Croatia makes a greater effort to guarantee the Serbian minority's rights. This may require Serbian autonomy and a redrawn constitution, so that Croatia is defined as a country of all its citizens rather than of Croats first.

But above all it requires the Croatian authorities to honour the Serbs' rights in practice rather than merely point to fine promises on paper.

Even this may not prove enough for the Krajina Serbs. It hinges partly on whether Mr Milosevic can be talked into accepting autonomy rather than independence for Krajina. That, in turn, depends on whether Mr Milosevic regards the Bosnian deal on offer as satisfactory to Serbian interests.

At present the Bosnian Serbs control about 70 per cent of Bosnia, but they are under pressure to give up 20 to 30 per cent to the Muslim- Croat federation. If they do, they will insist on a close relationship with Serbia, possibly even a full union. However, it is still unclear if Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs will strike a deal in Bosnia at the expense of the Serbs of Croatia.

(Map omitted)