Croatian army generals, fresh from a string of successes against Serb forces in central Croatia and western Bosnia, are confident that the end is nigh for the Republic of Serb Krajina, the rogue state established in 1991 by militants among Croatia's Serb minority. The generals hope to exhaust the Krajina Serbs by throttling supply routes to Knin, the fortress town in southern Croatia that serves as the rebels' capital. If necessary, they are prepared to launch lightning strikes of the kind that won back the Krajina Serb-controlled enclave of western Slavonia in May and captured the Bosnian Serb towns of Grahovo and Glamoc last week.
For President Franjo Tudjman and his right-wing nationalist government, the challenge is to break Krajina Serb resistance without provoking Serbia, still the strongest military power in former Yugoslavia, into intervention on the rebels' side. Too rash a move against the Krajina Serbs, and Mr Tudjman runs the risk that his old adversary, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, will send in Serbian forces, doubtless disguised as "volunteers", to tip the balance once more against Croatia.
There is, however, a buoyant mood in Zagreb, a sense that the tide of war in former Yugoslavia is finally turning in Croatia's favour after more than four years. Internal feuds since the fall of western Slavonia have sapped the morale of the Krajina Serbs, while Croatia's armed forces have never looked stronger or more professional. Moreover, for all their formal counsels of restraint, Western governments have done nothing in practice to discourage the Croats from taking on rebel Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia.
The outlook for Croatia was less promising in 1991. Supported by the Serbian-dominated former Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries, the Krajina Serbs had little difficulty in seizing 30 per cent of Croatia's territory for themselves. The eastern Croatian town of Vukovar was reduced to ruins, the Adriatic port of Dubrovnik was heavily shelled, and hundreds of thousands of Croat refugees filled Zagreb, Split and other cities.
Seeking to buy time for building up his armies, Mr Tudjman, a former Communist general turned nationalist dissident, accepted United Nations peacekeeping troops in Croatia in early 1992. However, they were deployed along the Serb-Croat ceasefire lines rather than on Croatia's borders with Serbia and Bosnia, and it quickly became apparent that the main effect of the UN presence was to consolidate the Krajina Serbs' grip on their war gains.
The outbreak of the Bosnian war in April 1992 compounded Mr Tudjman's problems. In earlier times, he and Mr Milosevic had discussed the possibility of partitioning Bosnia, with Serbia taking areas in the north and east and Croatia taking the mainly Croat-populated south-west.
In pursuit of this goal, the Bosnian Croats proclaimed their own state, Herzeg-Bosnia, in July 1992 and, armed and funded from Zagreb, began a war against the Bosnian Muslims, who were already under immense pressure from the Bosnian Serbs.
Croatia's cynical attempt to exploit Muslim weakness lost it vital sympathy in the West. Some European politicians and commentators interpreted Croatia's behaviour as evidence that there was little to choose in moral terms between Zagreb and Belgrade. Even worse from Mr Tudjman's point of view, Western officials started to hint that, as long as Croatia continued to meddle in Bosnia, there would be little active support for its most important national objective, the recovery of Krajina.
Attention also moved to Croatia's internal record on democracy and civil rights. Some critics asked if Mr Tudjman could really be counted upon to respect the rights of the Serb minority - about 12 per cent of Croatia's population - once the war was over. They pointed out that he appeared to have little sympathy for the aspirations to self-government expressed by a majority of voters in the northern region of Istria.
Mr Tudjman's party, the Croatian Democratic Union, controlled all levers of state power and cracked down on anti-government newspapers. Two former Tudjman allies, Stipe Mesic and Josip Manolic, left the party last year, accusing it of promoting an authoritarian political culture.
Croatia's return to respectability can be traced to February and March 1994, when Mr Tudjman, under US pressure, called a halt to the Croat-Muslim war. The Bosnian Muslims and Croats formed a federation, which in turn agreed a formal alliance with Croatia. The purpose of these arrangements was to focus Croatian and Muslim efforts on fighting the common Serb enemy.
Although doubts remain over the Bosnian Croats' commitment to the federation, the Muslim-Croat alliance has been effective in putting the Bosnian Serbs on the defensive in large parts of western and central Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs who had protected Krajina's flank east of Knin for four years lost hundreds of square miles last week in a matter of days.
Such victories reflect Croatia's success in breaking the UN arms embargo imposed on former Yugoslavia in 1991. The Croatian army, which had only one fighter plane in 1991, now has 20 planes and 17 helicopters. It also has 230 tanks, 600 heavy guns and more than 1,000 artillery pieces.
Some weaponry has probably arrived from former Warsaw Pact arsenals in eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. But Croatia - a devoutly Catholic country - also has a remarkably warm relationship with Iran, whose Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, said yesterday that arms shipments from Iran for the Bosnian Muslims would be allowed to go via Croatian territory. It is a fair bet that Croatia will be taking its cut.
The Croatian government, which views Germany as its closest European friend, is also likely to seal a trade accord with the European Union in the near future. Unlike Serbia, Croatia has been marked down as a candidate for EU membership after the war is over. Admission to the EU would crown Croatia's perception of itself as an authentic European state, linked by history to Venice and the Austro-Hungarian Empire while Serbia languished under Ottoman despotism. It would also put paid for ever to Yugoslavism, the idea - first nurtured by Croatian intellectuals in the 19th century - that Serbs, Croats and other south Slav peoples should live in one state.
All this, however, lies some way down the road. There is first the matter of restoring Croatia's territorial integrity by dismantling the self-styled Krajina state. Mr Tudjman's forces may find it relatively easy to force the Knin region into submission, but in eastern Slavonia, which borders Serbia and is hence much more important to Belgrade's security, he may discover he has a bitter fight on his hands.
Avoiding a full-scale war against Serbia while recovering the whole of Krajina is Croatia's goal. It may prove an impossible circle-squaring task, but in Mr Tudjman's eyes Croatia has never been better prepared to take it on.Reuse content