Tudjman Backs Partition At His Peril, Critics Say

Three-way division of Bosnia seen to fortify Serb hold on Croatia

AS peace mediators struggle in Geneva to broker an accord on the ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia faces growing anger at home over his support for the plan.

Mr. Tudjman insists that the division of Bosnia would allow Croatia to deal with its own crisis over the occupation of 35 percent of its territory by Belgrade-backed Serb separatists.

But opposition leaders, Western diplomats, and many citizens believe exactly the opposite - that Tudjman may be committing a blunder of such proportions as to eliminate any possibility that Croatia will ever regain its lost territories.

The tens of thousands of Bosnian Croats being driven by the Muslim-led Bosnian Army from their homes in central Bosnia are already paying the price for Tudjman's errors, critics say.

"The results of his policy are catastrophic," asserts Bozo Kovacevic, the secretary-general of the Croatian Social Liberal Party, the main opposition group. "No normal person can understand his policy."

Says a United Nations official: "In the end, everyone comes to the conclusion that this will be a tragedy for Croatia."

Even members of Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (known as the HDZ) have openly questioned his policy, as has the powerful head of Croatia's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Franjo Kuharic.

As an alternative to the partition plan, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic Wednesday proposed a joint Muslim-Croat state in his former Yugoslav republic, but Tudjman rejected the idea. Two flaws seen

Critics focus on what they see as two fundamental flaws in the proposal backed by Tudjman to slice Bosnia into Serb, Croat, and Muslim republics.

The first is that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's Bosnian proxies would receive the strategic territory running from Bosnia's eastern border with Serbia along its northern Sava River frontier with Croatia.

The so-called northern corridor is the only route by which arms, food, and other supplies can be sent from Serbia to Western Slavonia and the Krajina, two of Croatia's three regions overrun by Serb rebels in the 1991 war and now under UN protection.

The corridor is, therefore, a key to the economic and military survival of those regions, and its control by the Croatian Serbs' ethnic brethren in Bosnia will ensure that it remains unbroken.

Furthermore, the corridor provides the territorial continuity between Serbia and Serb-held territories in Bosnia and Croatia that Mr. Milosevic needs for his goal of creating a "Greater Serbia."

The second major problem involves the political precedents the partition plan would set.

Should the international community accept Bosnia's division on lines largely created by Bosnian Serb conquests and "ethnic cleansing," such principles could be applied to a settlement in Croatia, diplomats say.

That would mean recognition of the self-proclaimed state that rebel Serbs have declared on Croatian territories.

"These principles are not really indivisible," a Western diplomat says. "It is really bizarre that the Croats think that if the partition of Bosnia occurs ... the international community will turn around and say it is a different matter in Croatia."

But Tudjman insists that while Bosnia's three "constitutive" ethnic groups share equal weight in plotting their political futures, Croatia's Serbs are a minority and have no such right.

"National minorities do not have the right to self-determination," Tudjman said at a news conference this week.

He continues to threaten to regain Croatia's lost territory by force. But the Croatian Army's prowess is widely doubted and such a move could ignite a fierce new Serb-Croat war.

Another major error Tudjman committed, his critics charge, was underestimating the strength of the Muslim-led Bosnian Army and its reaction to the partition plan.

The Army generally believes that Tudjman and Milosevic harbor plans to divide Bosnia between their republics at the expense of the Muslims. It therefore lashed out at its weaker opponent, launching the offensive to overrun territory in central Bosnia populated by Croats.

The offensive has been gathering momentum. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Croat refugees are streaming out of the region into western Herzegovina. Nod to the lobby

Western diplomats and Croatian opposition leaders are deeply perplexed over Tudjman's reasons for pursuing what they regard as a policy so detrimental to Croatian interests.

Most believe he is a hostage of right-wing HDZ politicians from western Herzegovina obsessed by a dream of joining their region of 150,000 people to Croatia, no matter the cost to the rest of Bosnia's 600,000 Croats. Under the partition plan, western Herzegovina would comprise a major portion of the proposed Bosnian Croat republic.

The so-called Herzegovinan lobby is led by Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak, a naturalized Canadian businessman. It derives its power by raising money among Herzegovinans who emigrated abroad to escape the area's crushing poverty.

"These people funded the president's first [election] campaign in 1990 and he gave them promises," says Mr. Kovacevic of the Socialist Liberal Party. "They have always thought that Herzegovina should be part of Croatia."

Tudjman has replaced many moderate HDZ politicians in important posts with Herzegovinans, who now largely control the Army and security services. But they have lost popularity because of this issue.

"Give us back our Serbs and take our Herzegovinans," says graffiti painted on a Zagreb wall.

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