WASHINGTON — AN expected United States decision to recognize the break-away Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia may provide a small if belated boost to international efforts to create peace from the wreckage of the Yugoslav federation.
"US recognition will broaden the international protection of the two republics and strengthen UN peacekeeping efforts," says Stephen Larrabee, a former national security council expert on southern Europe. "It tells the Serbs that there's nothing they can do to prevent the breakaway of the two republics with their Serbian populations intact," adds Brookings Institution scholar Helmut Sonnenfeldt.
Prodded by Germany, the European Community (EC) recognized the two republics Jan. 15, prompting more than 30 other nations to follow suit. The EC argued that recognizing Croatia and Slovenia would help end ethnic fighting by making it clear to Serbia that the international community was prepared to extend its protection to the two republics, despite their checkered records on human rights.
But, despite EC pressure, the US refused to go along. Persuaded by special United Nations envoy and former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, the Bush administration insisted that recognition would only inflame Serbian nationalism and deepen the conflict between Croatia and Croatian Serbs backed by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army.
The US changed its position when the UN decided to deploy a 14,000-member peacekeeping force to maintain a cease-fire during EC-sponsored peace negotiations in Europe.
In a joint statement issued with his EC counterparts, Secretary of State James Baker III said Tuesday that the US would give "rapid and positive consideration" to the two republics' request for recognition. US State Department sources say a formal announcement could come as early as next week.
American officials say they will delay recognizing two other break-away republics, Bosnia-Herzegovena and Macedonia, until final political arrangements for independence are made.
Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence in June 1991, plunging the region into the civil war that has cost as many as 10,000 lives.
Under the UN peace plan, the Yugoslavian Army and Croatian military units will be replaced by UN forces, while insurgent Croatian Serbs will be disarmed. Peace talks attended by representatives of all six former Yugoslav republics have so far been unproductive.
EC officials believe that, with the US and EC policies more closely aligned, the Western democracies will be sending a clearer, more consistent signal to Serbia that it needs to negotiate.
"The fact that the EC and the US are now on the same track will hopefully give a boost to the EC-sponsored peace talks," says a senior European diplomat in Washington. UN peacekeeping efforts could also benefit from the weakened position of Serbia's fiery president Slobodan Milosevic. After Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, Mr. Milosevic launched an emotional quest for a "greater Serbia" encompassing Serbian enclaves in the other Yugoslav republics. Nine months later a devastated economy, tripl e-digit inflation, and international isolation have generated opposition at home, highlighted when 30,000 anti-Milosevic protesters took to the streets of Belgrade last week.
Meanwhile, the objective for which so much was sacrificed has proved unattainable as the international community prepares to complete its recognition of the remaining breakaway republics with their Serbian enclaves included.
Milosevic may yet make a last desperate grab for territory, shattering a cease-fire that has held for more than two months. More likely, he will make a virtue of necessity by saying UN protection of the Serbian minority in Croatia was his goal all along, diplomatic analysts suggest.
"There are indications that he has reconciled himself to the fact that there will be a rump Yugoslavia containing Serbia and Montenegro but not much else," says Dr. Larrabee. "Croatia and Serbia are lost."
The first of the 14,000 UN peacekeepers began trickling into Croatia this week, in what even UN officials acknowledge is something of a gamble. If the cease-fire holds as peace talks in Europe progress, the mission will be a success. If peace talks break down, the force could be caught in the kind of crossfire that has complicated the work of UN peacekeepers elsewhere, including the Congo and southern Lebanon.
"Even if disgruntled splinter groups resume fighting, the UN forces may hang tough, since they don't want to be responsible for the resumption of wider hostilities after they leave," says William Durch, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington and co-author of a forthcoming study of UN peacekeeping operations. "This is the conundrum when the UN gets involved in half-resolved situations."