Croatia Braces After Serb Vote

Zagreb vows to use military force to prevent unification of Croatian, Bosnian Serbs

EVKA BABIC, an elderly Croatian peasant, does not care about politics. She just wants the killing to end.

"All the Serb towns are bombed. All the Croat towns are bombed," Mrs. Babic says as she sits in a friend's kitchen, waiting to eat a salad of nettles and weeds the two rely on to supplement their meager diets.

"We had really good relations here," she recalls, recounting decades of ethnic peace in this mostly Serb village set amid the majestic wilderness of the mountains flanking Croatia's Adriatic coast. "I would like us to live together again."

That may be a distant dream. Last weekend Croatian Serbs overwhelmingly voted to unify the 35 percent of Croatia they captured in 1991 with the self-styled state of their ethnic brethren in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Every Croatian Serb voter interviewed said they would never again live in Croatia.

The referendum is seen as another step in the Serbs' effort to create a "Greater Serbia" in the Balkans - the merger of Serb-conquered areas of Croatia and Bosnia with rump Yugoslavia.

But the most immediate concern arising from the vote is that it will prompt another war between Serbs and Croats fighting over Croatian territory. Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Seks warned in a Monitor interview that Croatia would resort to force to regain Serb-controlled territories if a political resolution cannot be reached.

UN officials worry that Croatian hard-liners will use the referendum results to push for military action against the Croatian Serbs - a move that could spark a military conflict with the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.

"If the war breaks out here, it will be hard to control," a UN official says. "The big question is what will the Croats do."

The town of Smilcic has been nearly deserted since January, when Croatian troops surrounded the town. Their offensive marked the end of a truce between Croatia and its militant Serb minority, who with Yugoslav Army backing fought a 1991 war to seize Croatian territory.

Only Serbian soldiers and stray dogs stir among the sun-baked homes, many of which are damaged by daily shellfire from Croatian guns a mile away.

The 1991 war in Croatia was provoked by President Franjo Tudjman's declaration of independence from former Yugoslavia. Whipped by Belgrade propaganda into a hysteria over a resumption of World War II persecution, Orthodox Serbs in Croatia - 12 percent of the overwhelmingly Catholic population of 4.7 million - revolted, claiming the right to remain united with their ethnic brethren.

Under the 1991 truce accord brokered by UN mediator Cyrus Vance, 15,000 UN troops were deployed in the Serb-controlled territory to maintain peace pending a political resolution. The pact specified, however, that the area would remain part of Croatia.

Since then UN-sponsored talks have failed to make headway, hindered by Serbian intransigence and the refocusing of international peace efforts on Bosnia.

That prompted Mr. Tudjman to mount an offensive in January 1993 in which his troops pushed back the truce lines along the central Adriatic coast. He has refused to order a withdrawal.

The incursion, violating several UN cease-fires, including one signed in Geneva last week, helped prompt the referendum. The Croatian Serbs said the offensive demonstrated the ineffectiveness of UN peace efforts.

BUT other major factors behind the vote were international diplomacy's failure in Bosnia and the new Serb-Croat peace plan to divide that former Yugoslav republic into three ethnic states.

Many Croatian Serbs worry that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, anxious to end devastating UN sanctions against his country, could make a deal with Tudjman that would leave their territory as part of Croatia, albeit with considerable autonomy for the Croatian Serbs.

Milan Babic, the mayor of Knin, the main town in the Serb-controlled Krajina region of Croatia, concedes that the referendum is as much a message to Mr. Milosevic as it is to Croatia and the international community.

"I admit that we are complicating the position of Belgrade," he says. "But Belgrade also has responsibilities for the Serbs outside of Serbia."

The vote marked a triumph for Mr. Babic, affirming his reemergence as the paramount Croatian Serb powerbroker. The pudgy-faced dentist was Milosevic's hand-picked leader in the 1991 revolt against Zagreb. But he soon had a falling out with Belgrade.

Babic vehemently rejected as a betrayal Milosevic's demands that he accept the Vance plan. That prompted the Milosevic to orchestrate Babic's overthrow by rivals, who then signed the pact.

Serbia argued that while its goal remained the unification of all "Serb lands," the time was not right, since such a move would not be accepted internationally.

Bitter infighting flared between pro-Babic and pro-Milosevic members of the Croatian Serb leadership.

The Babic faction regained control of the leadership after the international community refused to accept Croatian Serb independence and Tudjman's January offensive.

Babic admits that the weekend referendum was encouraged by the Bosnian Serbs' success in using a similar vote in May to stand up against Milosevic's demand that they accept the Vance-Owen peace plan and shelve for the moment the goal of "Greater Serbia."

"Mr. Milosevic will have continual problems because of this," Babic says. "I believe I am raising the hairs on the back of his neck. He will have to swallow what we are cooking."

But the situation is not that simple. The Bosnian Serb leadership has indicated that the timing of the Croatian Serb referendum was premature as it could complicate talks with the Tudjman-backed Bosnian Croats on the division of Bosnia.

For that reason, a meeting on unification of the self-declared Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb republics that was scheduled for Saturday may be postponed.

And, like their Bosnian brethren, the Croatian Serbs are almost totally dependent on Milosevic for economic support.

But Babic is adamant that nothing but a new war will derail the Croatian Serbs' goal of secession.

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