Yet the more immediate significance of Croatia's success is that it may bring a speedier settlement of the conflicts that have torn apart former Yugoslavia for the past four years. Suddenly, there is a grim clarity to the maps that show which nationality is in control of which areas. Minority communities, be they the Serbs of Krajina or the Muslims of the Drina valley in eastern Bosnia, are being wiped out, never to return to complicate the ambitions of mystical nationalists.
It is possible now to imagine a peace that would be based on the principle of defining three "nationally pure" states: Serbia for the Serbs, Croatia for the Croats, and a truncated Bosnia for the Muslims. Since it would be a peace that would violate the most fundamental values of tolerance that Western democracies purport to uphold, it will be a while before we hear our leaders talking in public about such a settlement. But the time will come, and the catchphrase to watch out for will be: "It is the best peace attainable."
There is, of course, a horrible logic to this argument. Forced transfers of population have been the world's preferred way of cooling trouble spots this century. In some cases they appear to have worked, though at great human cost in the short term. After a two-year war, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne provided for compulsory exchange of the Turkish and Greek minorities of Greece and Turkey. Since then, the two countries may have continued to detest each other, but they have not fought a major war.
Equally, the removal of more than 10 million Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union after the Second World War was an immense tragedy, in that it put to the flame centuries of German civilisation in eastern Europe. Yet with the perspective of time we can see that Poland and the Czech Republic, emptied of their restive German minorities, are more stable states. It is surely no coincidence that, outside former Yugoslavia, one of the most tense areas in Europe is the Romanian province of Transylvania, where a discontented Hungarian minority is struggling to assert its identity.
In the case of former Yugoslavia, the establishment of "nationally pure" states is a process that has gathered pace this year but is not yet complete. Rump Yugoslavia, which consists of Serbia and Montenegro, has a population of 10.5 million, of whom only 70 per cent are Serbs and Montenegrins. There are large minorities of Albanians and Hungarians, who fear that the violent redistribution of nationalities in Croatia and Bosnia is a remorseless process that must extend one day to their own communities.
The same threat hangs over Macedonia, where more than 20 per cent of the two million people are ethnic Albanians, and whose Slavic majority is not even recognised as a distinct Macedonian nationality by Greece, Bulgaria and militants in Serbia. If, as seems likely, the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia are to be settled on the basis of allocating three separate areas for Serbs, Croats and Muslims, this will increase the likelihood of warfare and expulsions of minorities in Macedonia and the Albanian- populated southern Serbian province of Kosovo.
Croatia's right-wing nationalist government can argue with some justice that the Krajina Serbs, a community descended from warriors who defended the Habsburg Empire's borders against Turkish attack, have not been expelled from their native areas but left of their own will. President Franjo Tudjman had committed himself to granting some degree of autonomy to the Krajina Serbs once the war was over.
The fact that tens of thousands of Krajina Serbs chose to flee their homes, even before Croatia's armed forces completed their victory, gives a good idea of what fate the Serbs expected at the hands of their conquerors. Memories of the barbarities committed by Croatia's Nazi-backed puppet state in the Forties are still vivid. Even if the Krajina Serbs' fears of a repeat slaughter were exaggerated, they saw little point in staying in a state that trumpets the Croatian national identity as its core value.
For the Bosnian Muslims, the future does not look promising. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have little prospect of returning to the areas of northern and eastern Bosnia from which Serb forces have expelled them since April 1992. Meanwhile, the south-western region of Bosnia-Herzegovina remains firmly under the control of the Bosnian Croats, armed and funded by Zagreb.
Nominally, the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia are allied in a federation that is in turn allied to Croatia. But Mr Tudjman, like his Serbian rival, President Slobodan Milosevic, displays little enthusiasm for reconstructing an independent Bosnia in its pre-war borders. On the contrary, his private conversations and scribblings indicate a desire to redraw the borders of the Yugoslav successor states, dismantling Bosnia while adding territory to Croatia and Serbia.
The United States, practically the only country with some influence over Croatian policies, appears not to have anticipated that to strengthen Croatia as a way of shattering the Greater Serbian dream was also to enhance Croatian power at the expense of the Bosnian Muslims. As a result of Croatia's victory over the Krajina Serbs, the Muslims are penned between a resurgent Croatian state and a Bosnian Serb region that, despite the current disputes between Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Mr Milosevic, will inevitably enter Serbia's orbit.
If the US and the European Union are genuinely committed to restoring Bosnia's integrity, there are various forms of pressure that could be used against Croatia and Serbia. Economic sanctions, above all the denial of fresh credits, could be maintained against Serbia. The EU could refuse to consider Croatia as a potential member and deny it a trade accord. But yesterday Croatia showed what it thought of the EU, when the government said it would have nothing more to do with EU mediator Carl Bildt.
It seems more likely that the West will eventually acquiesce in a Yugoslav settlement involving revision of borders. Existing Western-Russian peace proposals come close to acknowledging the need for such a settlement, since they envisage confederal links between Croatia and the part of Bosnia allocated to Muslims and Croats; and between Serbia and the part allocated to the Bosnian Serbs.
Some British politicians who specialise in foreign policy have long contended privately that borders will have to change because of the enormous scale of the population movements sparked by the Yugoslav wars. It would appear a defeat for Western principles. But it is in reality one more lesson that, if you do not intervene decisively in a war, you cannot expect to control its outcome.Reuse content