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11 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

For two days last week, the Croatian city of Knin was drenched in a fiery rain of artillery shells, mortars and bombs. The self-styled capital of Krajina, the stronghold of nearly 200,000 rebel Serbs who seceded from Croatia in 1991, found itself the focus of a massive assault by the forces of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Within the first half-hour of the offensive, more than 200 shells fell on Knin. By Saturday panic had descended as well. As Croatian tanks began rolling through the streets, Knin’s Serb leaders placed a last-minute call to the U.N., requesting the evacuation of 32,000 civilians. Then the leaders themselves joined the long line of cars, trucks and buses streaming in the direction of northern Bosnia. Around noon, an enormous Croatian flag, whose red-and-white checkerboards have long served for Serbs as a hated symbol of Croatian rule, was hoisted above Knin’s 10th century citadel, once used as a coronation site for medieval kings.

And then Knin appeared to give itself over to one of war’s more oddly languorous moments. The streets were deserted, apart from scattered corpses and rescue vehicles scavenging about like small birds. Abandoned by the losers, as yet unoccupied by the winners, the city seemed lost in its pause, as if reflecting on the raw brutality with which the victors had smitten the vanquished. “Almost the only people remaining,” said Major Alan Balfour, a U.N. spokesman, “were the dead and dying.”

In the Balkans, there is now a whole new war to die in. Four years after a humiliating defeat, the Croats are on the move with a well-trained, well-equipped force of more than 100,000. That is the largest army to fight in Europe in 50 years. There is a risk that the battle for Krajina will spin out of control and engulf the Balkans in a wider war, one that could conceivably draw the republics of the former Yugoslavia, as well as their European and American allies, even further into the conflict. At the same time, however, there is a chance–admittedly a remote chance–that if the Croatian offensive succeeds, a balance of power will be achieved and four years of Balkan butchery will come to an end. In any case the Balkans have entered a new phase, one in which the fighting and the killing may for a time be more intense than they have been since 1992.

For weeks Tudjman’s generals had been massing troops around Krajina, threatening to retake the breakaway province unless the Serbs agreed to rejoin Croatia. Then three weeks ago the Bosnian Serbs began attacking Bihac, a pocket bordering Krajina and controlled by the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government. The Croats helped the Bosnian Muslims and took two towns in Bosnia controlled by the Serbs. Following that action, the Croats seemed to gear up for a full-scale offensive. There was a brief moment of hope when the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, announced concessions by the Serbs. The U.S. had been trying to broker a peaceful settlement. But the moment passed; at 5 a.m. on Friday, the shells began falling on Knin.

The offensive struck along a 700-mile line, penetrating Krajina in 30 places. Tudjman threw 100,000 soldiers–the full battle strength of Croatia’s army–against about 50,000 Serbs. For the most part, the Croats have been armed from stocks of Soviet weapons that were supposed to be destroyed after the cold war but instead found their way to the black market or were sold to Croatia by Ukraine, despite the U.N.-mandated embargo against trading in arms with the former Yugoslavia. “There is no stopping this now,” says one military expert, referring to the offensive. “It is what Tudjman wants and the military has been built to do. And they can do.”

The Krajina army was originally expected to employ a collapsing defense strategy, holding a prepared line for a time, then falling back to another prepared position until it reached an area that was finally defensible. Experts deemed it a reasonable strategy; not only is Krajina too large to defend in its entirety, but the weight of both geography and history were on their side. “They are frontiersmen,” said one Western diplomat in Belgrade, who pointed out that Serbs were first sent to Krajina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a buffer against the Turks. “These guys were the eternal defense.” On Saturday night, however, the situation took an unexpected twist when word arrived that the entire Krajina Serb army seemed to have vanished. While Serb resistance could simply have scattered in the face of the Croats’ furious advance, the mystery of the Krajina army’s disappearance immediately provoked suspicions that the Croatian Serbs may have been headed en masse for Bosnia with the intention of linking up with Radovan Karadzic, self-styled leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Barely 24 hours earlier, Karadzic had added to his portfolio by unexpectedly demoting his military commander, General Ratko Mladic, and appointing himself supreme head of the Bosnian Serb armed forces. If Krajina’s 50,000 armed Serbs were to place themselves, even temporarily, under Karadzic’s control, it could once again change the equation in Bosnia’s ever mutating balance of power.

Caught between the two sides in the battles last week were U.N. peacekeepers. On Friday a Danish soldier was killed and two Poles were wounded when Croatian units began shelling several U.N. observation posts. By the end of the week two more peacekeepers, both Czech, had been killed, and more than 90 U.N. soldiers had been detained by the Croats. Although there was no immediate Allied military response to the attacks, French General Bernard Janvier, head of U.N. troops in the former Yugoslavia, pledged air support to U.N. peacekeepers who were coming under fire. A pair of U.S. Navy EA-6B warplanes demonstrated the allies’ resolve at dusk on Friday when they unleashed a pair of missiles at a Serb missile battery near Knin.

The Croatian onslaught created a rift among NATO allies, who had only recently come together with a new, tougher policy toward the war in Bosnia. Earlier in the week the alliance had announced it would apply to all Bosnian “safe havens” the same rules it had already laid down for Gorazde–calling for pre-emptive air strikes if the areas are seriously threatened. By Thursday, the Serbs had apparently heeded the warning and pulled back.

But then the Croats attacked, and new differences arose. No sooner had bombs begun falling on Knin than the French government formally condemned Zagreb’s entry into the war, a sentiment that was swiftly echoed by the British. The U.S. and Germany, however, merely paid lip service to condemning the attack and privately applauded the Croats for doing what the West has been unwilling to do for so long: punish the Serbs. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel released a statement expressing “regret” about the offensive but concluded by saying, “We can’t forget that the years of Serb aggression … have sorely tried Croatia’s patience.” Similarly, the Clinton Administration, which signaled its ambivalence by issuing a ritual call for “restraint,” pointedly noted that the Croatian offensive “was provoked initially by a Krajina Serb attack on the Muslim enclave of Bihac.” The Russians, who have close ties with the Serbs, expressed particular anger at the German and U.S. responses. The Russian Foreign Ministry declared that “unnamed” Western governments “showed solidarity with the military action of the Croat side.”

Kinkel and Clinton both may have had a point when they implied that the Croatian Serbs courted their own fate. The Krajina region is, after all, recognized as part of Croatia, and a government has the right to assert its authority over its own territory. But in the Balkans, nothing is ever this simple. In 1991 Tudjman helped touch off the ethnic explosion that has swept across the entire peninsula by recklessly pushing his country into independence from Yugoslavia. Goaded by the example of Slovenia, the breakaway province to his north, Tudjman rushed to free Croatia without bothering even to acknowledge the concerns of, much less offer guarantees to, Serbs whose fears of Croatian brutality trace back to World War II, when Zagreb’s pro-Nazi Ustasha government massacred hundreds of thousands of them.

In the climate of uncertainty and terror that seized the disintegrating Yugoslav confederation during 1991, a credible effort to assuage the worries of Croatia’s Serbian communities would have made an immense difference. But Tudjman managed to achieve the opposite effect, by tolerating and at times even encouraging his government’s enthusiasm for reviving the fascist and anti-Serb slogans that had once been the signature of the dreaded Ustashas. Even worse, when Croatian Serb communities in Krajina and elsewhere rebelled, Tudjman’s police began pushing Serb civilians from their jobs and communities. This early form of “ethnic cleansing” eventually took on a more chilling tone as Serbs displaced, detained or murdered entire villages. While the Bosnian Serbs subsequently, and rightly, stand accused of the worst abuses of “ethnic cleansing,” the Croats’ role in inspiring such atrocities should not be forgotten.

Croatia’s ill-trained and poorly disciplined troops might have held their own during the rebellion, but Tudjman grievously underestimated the willingness of the powerful Yugoslav National Army, controlled by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, to intervene on the side of the Croatian Serbs. By January 1992 the fighting subsided into an uneasy truce, and the Croats had lost roughly one-third of their territory.

Now Tudjman is trying to get it back. In May he seized an area known as Western Slavonia (in the eastern part of Croatia) with ease from rebel Serbs, and if he wins back Krajina, Croatia’s borders will be largely restored. What the consequences of this effort will be depends on Tudjman’s own shrewdness and on the reaction of Milosevic. Right now the Serbian President appears exceedingly disinclined to enter the war on the side of his embattled brethren. The rebel Serb causes in Croatia and Bosnia have recently fallen from his protective grace as Milosevic has concentrated on negotiating an end to the U.N. sanctions that have been strangling his economy for the past three years.

If Milosevic does not come to the Serbs’ aid, and if Tudjman is satisfied with retaking Krajina, the chances for peace in the region might actually be improved. A demonstrably strong Croatia could act as a counterweight to Serbia; a defeat for the Serbs might make them more amenable to negotiation; and a reintegrated Krajina would no longer be a source of instability. As American and European diplomats point out, the map looks much simpler with Krajina in Croat hands, the isolated eastern enclaves in Serb hands and some sort of Bosnia in the middle, making the way to a settlement clearer.

But Milosevic may not be able to stay aloof, and Tudjman may reach for too much. If the situation of the Krajina Serbs becomes truly dire, nationalists in Serbia will press Milosevic to act. “I don’t expect Milosevic to come to the rescue of the Krajina Serbs unless there is a barbaric massacre or the blowing up of churches by the Croats,” says one State Department official. “That would put him under tremendous pressure.” Thousands of refugees now pouring into Serb-held lands in Bosnia could also provoke sympathetic outrage in Serbia.

Milosevic’s silence up to now has fueled speculation that the two Presidents may have crafted a secret deal, allowing the Croatians to attack Krajina so long as they leave the Serbs in eastern Croatia alone. But Tudjman covets other regions in Croatia, and if he tries to seize those, he is sure to provoke Milosevic. All-out war would almost certainly follow, for example, if the offensive were to spill into the oil-rich and agriculturally prized region of Eastern Slavonia, which is now occupied by Croatian Serbs. Tudjman is tough and shrewd, but he has misjudged Milosevic before.

As for the Bosnian Muslims, they have been expressing quiet glee at the unusual spectacle of Serbs suffering bombardment. But the Bosnians’ cooperation with the Croatians may be short-lived. Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia have long harbored the desire to divide Bosnia between themselves, and Bosnia’s recent partnership with the Croats does not change its vulnerability. Indeed, some fear that a successful Tudjman might begin divvying up Bosnia with Milosevic. “Every government acts only in its own interest,” said one Bosnian government official, who predicts that once Croatia has what it wants, it will eagerly turn to the task of carving up its newest ally. If so, that would be honoring a centuries-old Balkan tradition.

–Reported by Edward Barnes/Sisak, Jay Branegan/Brussels, Massimo Calabresi/Vienna, Dean Fischer/Washington, Tala Skari/Paris, Alexandra Stiglmayer/Zagreb and Bruce van Voorst/Bonn

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