Krajina Serbs vote for Greater Serbia: The chances of a political settlement in Bosnia recede as UN declares referendum 'illegitimate'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FROM Vukovar's radio station, the tune of an old Serbian war song, 'March on the river Drina', blares over the airwaves. Over the din of trumpets and drums, a woman's voice shouts, 'We are stronger than destiny] Let the word of Krajina be heard]'

The advert is broadcast every half hour. Answering the call more than 80 per cent of voters in the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia turned out at the weekend in a referendum on uniting their enclave with Serb-held parts of Bosnia. The vote is seen as a first step towards the creation of a Greater Serbia made up of parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia proper.

Spokesmen in Krajina for United Nations' forces, which are responsible for the security of the enclave, dismissed the referendum as illegitimate. In Zagreb the Croatian authorities said the ballot was a provocation. In Serbia, where the authorities are conducting delicate negotiations with Croatia to carve up Bosnia, the media granted the referendum low priority.

Serbs in the Krajina region broke away from Croatia in 1991. As Croats began wriggling free from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation, local Serbs staged an armed rebellion. With strong support from the Yugoslav army they overran 30 per cent of Croatia's territory. A UN-patrolled ceasefire has since reduced the level of fighting, but has not brought a political settlement any closer.

In Vukovar, a Serbian remnant is all that is left in a once-bustling Croatian city. Some buildings have been repaired in the centre. Most of the city is an eery, silent ruin. Of a pre-war 80,000 population, the maj ority were Croats. They have fled, been expelled, or were killed in the fighting. The Serbian extremists who took over claim 60,000 Serbs live

in the city. The deserted streets suggest the real figure is at most a few thousand.

The handful of Serbs in Vukovar see union with the more numerous and powerful Serbs of Bosnia as a safeguard against a return to Croatian control. But joining Bosnian Serbs is a provisional arrangement. The goal is union with Serbia proper.

'We should unite with Serbia as soon as the European Community allows it,' said Nikola Grubinic, a worker in Vukovar's shoe shop. 'As far as we are concerned it could happen tomorrow. The wishes of the Serbian people must be recognised, just as the world recognised the self-

determination of the Slovenes, Croats and Muslims,' said Sanja Vukicevic, a local radio journalist.

Zdenka Musolin, a museum curator, is one of a tiny group of Croats who stayed in Vukovar after the Serbian takeover. 'Unification with Serbia would be the answer to all our problems,' she said. 'People like me who were married to Serbs had terrible trouble before the war.' Most of Krajina is barren mountain. The importance of the region is strategic. From the mountains of Knin, Serbian forces shell the Croatian ports and block the railway line which links the Croatian seaboard with Zagreb.

After talks on Bosnia last week in Geneva with President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, pooh- poohed rumours of a sell-out of Krajina to Croatia. Serbian control of Krajina is a hot political topic in Belgrade and a rallying point for ultra- nationalists.

However, that does not mean that the unification of Krajina and Serbia is on the agenda. Both Serbia and Croatia urgently want to carve up Bosnia, and that will be difficult without a general agreement between the Croats and the Serbs on the rest of former Yugoslavia. At the moment Mr Milosevic needs the support of Serbian ultra-nationalists, and Krajina is not for sale to Zagreb. In the long term, a bargain between Serbia and Croatia, which includes Krajina, will have to be struck.