VUKOVAR, CROATIA — Jacques Klein has an exceedingly difficult job. This retired American general must oversee the transition of a tiny, but volatile, slice of land from UN to Croatian control.
This land, called Eastern Slavonia, is about the size of Vermont, but its Texas-type oil reserves and fertile soil mean it's no Balkan backwater. Rather it is highly prized.
When Croatia declared independence in 1991, the Serbs here rebelled. With the help of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army, Serbs captured 30 percent of Croatia and declared an independent ministate. But under a US-backed peace deal, Croatia is supposed to regain control of Eastern Slavonia sometime next year.
Meanwhile, the UN was brought in to smooth the power transfer. But tensions between local Serbs and the Croatian government are sufficiently high that, at the Serbs' request, the UN plans to extend its mandate. Officially the mandate expires Jan. 15, but it is certain to be extended to April.
Mr. Klein's biggest problem is the 150,000 Serbs who call Eastern Slavonia home. These Serbs - many of whom are from other parts of Croatia and were pushed out of their homes in a 1995 Croatian offensive - are unsure what they'll do when Croatia takes control and some 70,000 Croatians return.
If the Serbs stay, as Klein hopes, a multiethnic Slavonia would contribute to general reconciliation between Croatia and Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, enhancing regional stability and reducing chances of another war.
But given Croatia's sullied human rights record in other regions once controlled by rebel Serbs, no one can be assured the Serbs will stay.
Klein hopes more time will enable him to stabilize the situation and allow confidence-building measures to deepen trust between the parties.
Klein's operation has been successful thus far. In just nine months, the UN has demilitarized the region, reestablished phone, highway, and postal links with Croatia, and forged a productive working relationship between local Serbs and Croatian government officials. Still, he says, more must be done. One of his biggest tasks is to orchestrate elections before ceding control to Croatia.
But Croatia is impatient to regain control of the region's main city, Vukovar, which Croatians consider their "Stalingrad" - the symbol of the country's wartime martyrdom at the Serbs' hands.
"Most people here want to stay," says Milos Vojnovic, a leading member of the Serb's governing council. "But if Croatia does not allow a minimum of assurances for us to live in security and dignity, then I can't exclude the possibility of a large exodus of people from the area."
Local Serbs fear that the Croatian government has no intention of allowing them to remain in the country as equal citizens. Many will probably have to leave Eastern Slavonia, as most are presumably squatting in the homes of the 70,000 Croats expelled by Serb forces in the 1991 war.
Diplomatic sources say the Croats also want Serb refugees to leave so the area will return to its prewar demographics: 45 percent Croat; 33 percent Serb.
"The Croats don't want these people to come back, nor do they want them to stay in Slavonia where they'd have the numbers to create a Serb-majority region," says a Western diplomatic source.
A few, mostly elderly Serbs remain in Krajina - a region to the west where many of Eastern Slavonia's Serb refugees are from. They are subject to beatings, bombings, vandalism, and theft, rights groups say.
And Croatian President Franjo Tudjman takes an ominous stance on the refugees: "Any Serb can return ... if they really want to. If they aren't welcomed by the people there, maybe they should ask themselves why that is," says Tihomir Vinkovic, a spokesman.
Despite a Croatian parliamentary resolution against an extension, Klein says he'll stay because "The top level [of the government] is supportive of our work."