JUBILANT Croats filled the streets of Zagreb Wednesday night to celebrate diplomatic recognition by more than 20 countries, including the 12-members of the European Community.
Some shot wildly into the air, convinced their nearly seven-month battle for independence was finally over. These spontaneous street celebrations were in marked contrast to the rather somber ceremony earlier Wednesday when the first ambassador to Croatia, a German, arrived in the capital.
Many here credit Germany with forcing the pace on recognition, despite initial international hostility to any breakup of Yugoslavia - a point not lost on Serb leaders who claim they are fighting against the "Fourth Reich" and reject recognition as a violation of international law.
But Croats also stress their own tenacious resistance. "If you don't stand up and defend yourself, or if you are not strong enough, no one will recognize you," said Mario Nobilo, top foreign policy adviser to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. "We have won our freedom in battle," said a Croatian soldier guarding the Presidential palace on Wednesday.
Though Croatia's army remains heavily outgunned, it had started to win back territory before the 15th cease-fire of the war, brokered by United Nations special envoy Cyrus Vance in Sarajevo on Jan. 2, halted the fighting. If the cease-fire continues to hold, 10,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops will arrive shortly in Croatia.
Although Zagreb has only been attacked once - in an air strike on the presidential palace - signs of war are everywhere. Windows are taped on the outside to prevent them shattering, and black bags cover the inside to prevent any light escaping.
The cost of six months of fighting is massive. At least 5,000 Croats are dead and another 650,000 have fled their homes; 35 percent of Croatia is occupied, and much totally devastated. Croatian officials estimate damage at $18.5 billion.
The German conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine in its lead editorial yesterday said, "Those who rebuked Bonn [in December] have since then found it increasingly difficult to credibly demonstrate that this step [Germany's recognition] has hurt efforts for a cease-fire and peace." International reluctance
Britain and France had been especially reluctant to recognize Croatia, fearing it might exacerbate the fighting and compromise the European Community's role as honest broker in the conflict. Britain is still insisting on adequate protection for Croatia's Serbian minority.
In an interview in London, Lord Carrington, the British chairman of the European Community's conference on Yugoslavia, said that "it was hard to claim that the German initiative on recognition had speeded the peace.
It seemed more likely that the two sides had become exhausted by the fighting and had come to realize that a pause in the conflict was inevitable."
Lord Carrington added that "in conversation with the Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic last week, I gained the impression that if Croatian assurances on human rights for the Serbian minority were enforced, that would satisfy the Serbian leadership in Belgrade."
A law safeguarding the rights of minorities and guaranteeing proportional representation in state organizations was passed last month, but only comes into force when the war ends. The European Community's Arbitrage Commission reserved judgment on Croatia's human-rights record.
Milan Djukic, leader of the Serbian People's Party based in Croatia, the most prominent Serbian politician to attach himself to the Croatian cause, says he is optimistic Serbs and Croats can still live together because of their common interests. He points out that three quarters of Croatia's Serbs live outside the contested regions and most voted for Croatian independence. Minority rights
"Our future in Croatia depends on the rule of law. This did not exist in Communist Yugoslavia. But Croats, too, want the rule of law," he says.
Nonetheless, he and Zivko Juzbasic, the only Serb in the Croatian government, are campaigning to draw attention to growing incidents of violations of human rights of Serbs in Croatia.
Meanwhile, Milan Babic, president of the self-proclaimed Serbian republic of Krajina, promises to continue the war despite no longer having support from Serbia. Serbs in Croatia are facing "genocide," he says, and will continue to fight.