AS the Croatian government acted to block further advances of the Yugoslav federal Army over the weekend, the European Community's efforts to resolve the crisis appeared to be in a shambles.The European-brokered cease-fire collapsed as the Croatians blockaded Army barracks - cutting off food, water, phones, and electricity - in a bid to halt federal forces' backing of Serbian militias in taking control of large parts of Croatia. The Army countered by taking the fight to the town of Sisak, only 35 miles south of Zagreb, the Croatian capital. Plans for Britain's Lord Carrington, head of peace talks being carried on in The Hague, to visit Yugoslavia on Monday appeared to be in question at press time. Meanwhile, diplomats saw little hope for any progress being made through the talks. "The situation is totally grim," says an Austrian diplomat. "We were never as pessimistic as we are now. How long can Carrington conduct these meetings while the fighting goes on?" "No one can be optimistic about the talks," says a British Foreign Ministry official. "The best we can say is that no one has yet walked out." Fighting between the federal Army and the Croatian militia has now spread through half of Croatia - from Osijek in the east to the Dalmatian coast on the west, forming a large crescent around the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Croatian women and children have been evacuated from much of the area, many now staying in tourist hotels along the Adriatic that began to empty after Slovenia and Croatia declared independence last June.
Serbian intentions What has become clearer in the past week, many observers say, are the intentions of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, acting through the federal Army, to establish a historic "greater Serbia" in the Balkans by creating a new border extending well into Croatia. In the past 10 days, federal Army troops have fought in Petrinja and in Sisak - towns that do not have sizable Serbian minorities. "Certainly the lines of the war are not along ethnic divisions, but military and strategic lines," says a well-placed German diplomat in Washington. A senior United States official in Europe offered privately that the world may be witnessing the start of the third Balkan war in the 20th century - that Serbian expansionism may soon extend into the republics of Bosnia (one-third Serb) and Macedonia, which last week held an independence referendum. So far, he says, the Yugoslav federal Army's "salami tactics slicing off a bit of Croatia at a time - have been extremely effective. "The generals in Belgrade must be congratulating themselves on how well the campaign has gone," he adds, noting that the Army has occupied a huge amount of territory quietly. About 450 deaths have been reported. A British diplomat agrees that the Yugoslav Army is fighting under a master plan. The local commanders in the field may often act arbitrarily, he notes, but "their capacity to call in air strikes and cover indicates a higher level of military coordination." Some observers feel that, given the clear lack of progress in the talks at the Hague, only two real possibilities exist for peace: US intervention, or a shortfall of basic resources inside Serbia. US action is not likely. The status of vital resources in Serbia is not known. However, several options are being debated in Europe in the event peace talks fail: stiffening of sanctions against Serbia; referring the conflict to the UN; beefing up current enforcement mechanisms such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE); intervention by EC states; and formal recognition of the breakaway republics.
Problems with sanctions Problems exist with most of these efforts. Sanctions would be difficult to extend since Balkan networks are so diffuse and cutoffs would likely hurt those who are most in need of help. A UN resolution would go to the Security Council, but it is felt China and possibly the Soviet Union would vote against intervention. The CSCE is still a young group, and setting up a mini-security council and military wing would take time. Intervention by EC states through some association such as the Western European Union runs the risk of putting in the Balkans the very national groups, Germans and French, that helped inflame the region historically. Nor is there any popular feeling in Europe for sending troops into a messy village-to-village conflict. As one British official puts it, "Armed intervention won't stop the problem between Serbs and Croats." That leaves formal recognition of breakaway republics. The Germans, partly in response to popular opinion at home, are spearheading the effort to recognize Croatia. The recognition is seen as a moral gesture honoring the right of self-determination of states. Germany is joined in this by Austria, Hungary, and, in a significant shift last week, by French President Francois Mitterrand. Germany may also have the Italian vote inside the EC following a meeting between German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Italian Foreign Minister Gianni de Michelis. Recognition would open the door to humanitarian aid, and further isolate Serbia in this view. Many inside these countries hotly debate recognition, and the US and Britain argue against it, at least in the short run. Those opposed say it would lead to internationalization of the conflict, create expectations for military assistance in Croatia that may not be forthcoming, and set the trigger for conflict in Bosnia.