Croats and Serbs go sullenly to talk peace: Russians and Americans hope moves towards end of war in Bosnia can be emulated in other other parts of former Yugoslavia

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The Independent Online
THE Croatian government and leaders of Croatia's Serbian minority open talks at the Russian embassy in Zagreb today that are intended to bring a formal halt to the war that began in 1991 between Serbs and Croats. Russian and US diplomats are pressing the two sides to make a success of the talks so that recent progress towards peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina can be extended to other parts of former Yugoslavia.

However, the signs are that both Croatian officials and delegates from the Serbian-held region of Krajina are going into the talks with their attitudes already hardened. President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia made it clear last weekend that he would not cede an inch of territory to the Krajina Serbs and wanted the restoration of Zagreb's sovereignty over the region, with only a degree of autonomy for the Serbs.

For their part, the Krajina Serbs are insisting on their right to self-determination. This translates into either the preservation of Krajina as a separate state or its unification with Serbia. Krajina's President, Milan Martic, appears unwilling to hand over any territory to Zagreb in return for recognition or a special status for Krajina within Croatia. Neither Mr Martic nor Mr Tudjman is attending today's talks.

The Serb-Croat war broke out in earnest in June 1991 after Croatia declared its independence from the then Yugoslav federation. The Krajina Serbs received heavy military support from the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav armed forces and established control over about 30 per cent of Croatia's territory.

The United Nations sent 14,000 peace-keepers to Croatia in early 1992 to uphold a truce, but skirmishes and shelling have continued to this day. Croatia argues that the UN presence has served to consolidate Serbian war gains, and Mr Tudjman demanded on Saturday that UN forces should disarm the Serbs and secure railways and airfields for the Croatian authorities.

Mr Tudjman appears confident that his co-operation in securing a Muslim-Croat peace deal in Bosnia this month means that the West will support his call for the return of Krajina to Croatian control. But Russia's special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, who convened today's talks, is likely to defend the Krajina Serbs' right to some form of self-rule.

Before the war, Serbs made up about 12 per cent of Croatia's 4.7 million people. Mr Tudjman argues that Krajina has no right to self-determination since the Serbs are in a majority in only two districts - Knin and Glina. 'It is there that they will have the right to local self-rule in accordance with our constitution,' he said last Friday.

However, some Croatian sources believe that Mr Tudjman may offer a further concession and allow most Serbian policemen and local officials to keep their jobs in Krajina as long as the Serbs recognize Zagreb's overall authority. Even this measure would almost certainly fall short of the Serbs' demands.

An important factor in the talks will be the tactics of Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic. He manipulated presidential elections in Krajina last December and January to ensure victory for Mr Martic. Now he may require Mr Martic to show a more flexible approach on the questions of Krajina's sovereignty and size.

Mr Milosevic has incentives to compromise over Krajina as he wants an end to UN sanctions against Serbia. On the other hand, the Finance Ministry of Serbian-led rump Yugoslavia has suggested introducing its new 'super dinar' currency into Krajina, a move implying that Belgrade still harbours ambitions for a Greater Serbia.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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