A Serbian tank division was reported yesterday to be moving on the border of the Serb-controlled area of eastern Slavonia in the far east of Croatia. The Croatian government has said it has no intention of ceding eastern Slavonia to Serbia, but the Croatian claim to the area is recent and may be negotiable.
The Croat defence of Vukovar, a major town in the area, from August to November 1991 against great odds, has become a widespread source of national pride in Croatia. But before the 1990 elections President Franjo Tudjman indicated that eastern Slavonia was not part of his vision of Croatia. Popular sentiment suggests the Croats will fight to recover control of the area: realpolitik suggests that they are not so concerned.
Eastern Slavonia contains oil fields and some of the richest agricultural land in the former Yugoslavia. Until the end of the Second World War it was part of Vojvodina, not Croatia. Thus, when President Tudjman said, on several occasions, that he envisaged a Croatia within its 1939 boundaries, he implied eastern Slavonia need not be included.
The area is of great potential strategic importance to Serbia because control of it means commanding both banks of the Danube. During the 1991 war two important bridges over the Danube, at Batina and Bilok, near Vukovar, were not destroyed by the Croatian Army. Drago Hedl, a Croatian editor of the Balkan War Report and an authority on the region, said that had given rise to rumours of a deal under which President Tudjman was ready to exchange eastern Slavonia for parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But the dynamics of the 1991 war between Serbia and Croatia may have upset his plans. The three-month siege in the autumn of 1991 pitted fewer than 2,000 Croat soldiers against vastly superior forces of the mainly Serb Yugoslav National Army. They held on for three months, with an estimated 6,000 civilian deaths in Vukovar. Claims of 30,000 Serbcasualties are as implausible as those of medieval battles but Vukovar has entered modern Croatian folklore and in many towns thoroughfares have been renamed Vukovar Street.