Tension after Serb-Croat deal

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The Independent Online
THE OUTSKIRTS of Karlovac were heavily damaged in the 1991 Serb-Croat war but they still look beautiful, covered in a thick blanket of January snow. The idyllic beauty of the area is belied only by the shell-shattered houses that litter the landscape and the fact that the whole area still straddles a front line between Croatian troops and the rebel Krajina Serb forces that hold about 30 per cent of Croatia.

At the last Croatian checkpoint before no man's land yesterday, just two days after President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia agreed to normalise their relations, it was business as usual. Croatian soldiers looked with distrust past the thin line of UN blue helmets separating them from the Serbs.

'You see everything is normal,' a Croatian policeman said sarcastically as he turned back a group of foreign journalists who wanted to visit Serb-held areas of Croatia. 'Just look at the free flow of traffic. Normalisation, hell . . .'

The policeman's suspicion of Wednesday's surprise Croat-Serb deal in Geneva may be premature but it has been exceeded by sceptical statements of politicians in both Serbia and Croatia. Its sincerity so far has also been contradicted by events on the battlefield.

President Tudjman hailed the agreement, made on the fringe of the Bosnian peace talks, as a 'victory of Croatian diplomacy'. Under it, both countries are to open liaison bureaux in Belgrade and Zagreb, reopen the highway connecting the capital cities, and reconnect gas and oil pipelines. Late on Thursday, the Croatian government ordered the re-establishment of telephone links between the states, which it said should take place soon.

The deal certainly helps Croatia and Serbia put pressure on the Bosnian government, which refuses to agree to a carve up of Bosnia-Herzegovina into Croatia, Serbian, and Muslim mini-states. But the real issue dividing Serbia and Croatia, the future status of the Serb-held areas in Croatia, still appears unresolved. Vagueness on this issue, critics say, places the whole deal in doubt.

Mr Tudjman said the agreement amounted to Serbia's de facto recognition of Croatia's internationally recognised borders and that it implied Serbia supported the re-integration of Serb-held areas into the Croatian state. On the other hand, the foreign ministry of Yugoslavia, comprised of the republics of Serbia and its tiny ally Montenegro, was quoted in a Belgrade newspaper Politika on Thursday as saying that the agreement only provided a framework for discussing all 'open questions in Serb-Croat relations'.

Even before the ink dried on the agreement, Serbian opposition leaders viewed it with distrust. 'Tudjman will conclude it means a step towards the recognition of Croatia in internationally recognised borders. The Serbian side will understand it as a lead for communications with no obligations,' the president of the Serbian Democratic Party, Dragoljub Micunovic, said. 'If this (agreement) is just a hasty move without consensus then it will be a meaningless gesture.'

Despite the deal, the Croatian foreign ministry yesterday talked of continuing Serb attacks in different parts of the country, including the small mortar attack late on Thursday against the village of Kasic near Zadar. There were also reports of Serbs' attacks on Croatian forces in northern Bosnia yesterday.

The real wild-card in the success and significance of the agreement is the Krajina Serb leadership, which is locked in struggle as it prepares to contest the fourth round of presidential elections tomorrow.

President Milosevic is backing Milan Martic, the 'interior minister' of the so-called Krajina Serb republic. But Mr Martic has lost three rounds of elections to his hardline rival, the Mayor of Knin, Milan Babic. Mr Babic, however, was denied victory three times by alleged voting 'irregularities' believed to have been invented by Belgrade because Mr Milosevic's candidate lost.

President Milosevic's disdain for Mr Babic dates to late 1991, when Mr Babic, then the Krajina 'president', refused to sign a UN brokered ceasefire plan. Another election victory by Mr Babic, who is vehemently opposed to making any deal with Croatia over the future of Krajina, could cause a great deal of embarrassment to Mr Milosevic.

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