CROATIA'S right-wing regime and minority Serb rebels in the Krajina region are to begin a new cease-fire today in the latest test of United States-Russian efforts to bring peace to former Yugoslavia.
US and Russian mediators, capitalizing on recent progress toward ending the carnage in Bosnia, brokered the complex truce in 18 hours of bargaining last week in the Russian Embassy in Zagreb, Croatia.
The accord calls for a cessation of hostilities beginning at 9 a.m. local time today and the withdrawal of artillery out of range of the 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) of front lines.
By Thursday the rival infantries are each to pull back by a kilometer (.621 mile), creating 2-kilometer-wide buffer zones in which UN troops will be deployed.
It is the first general truce signed by the two sides to end fighting that has flared in varying intensities since a January 1992 UN-brokered cease-fire.
The earlier truce ended for a time the all-out war that erupted when Croatia declared independence from former Yugoslavia in June 1991. Following that declaration, rebel Serb forces backed by Serbia and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army overran the Krajina - which constitutes about one-fourth of Croatia - and declared their own independent state.
The new truce will determine if US and Russian mediators can move ahead with the next phase of a peace plan, which has the ultimate aim of denying the Krajina Serbs independence and their dream of joining, along with the Bosnian Serbs, in the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.
The mediators hope to achieve that end in talks next week in Zagreb by brokering accords to reconnect trade, energy, communications, and transportation links between Krajina and the rest of Croatia. The last phase of the initiative calls for a final resolution of Krajina's political status.
By leaving the most contentious issue to the end, US and Russian mediators hope it will be easier to draw the Krajina Serbs into dropping their independence demand once trust is reestablished with Zagreb through resumed economic cooperation.
``There is a feeling that when we have a cease-fire in place and economic relations fairly reestablished, we can have a better environment for a political resolution,'' special Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin told the Monitor.
``By establishing economic links, the two sides will recognize the obvious, which is a very high degree of economic dependence,'' agreed Peter Galbraith, US ambassador to Croatia.
``The real point is that both sides want peace,'' he said. ``Both ... want to move on to this stage.''
There are good reasons for such an assessment.
The war has wrought an economic catastrophe for Krajina that has left its people in penury and prompted thousands to migrate to rump Yugoslavia in search of work.
The dominant agricultural sector has collapsed because most men are on the front lines. The main lifeline from rump Yugoslavia is also drying up, as Belgrade reduces food and other aid because of its own economic crisis.
And even if it had substantial production, Krajina's only available market is rump Yugoslavia. But it lies several hundred miles away from the region and is accessible only by a narrow corridor across Serb-held northern Bosnia.
For Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, it is critical to his country's future economic and political stability to reconnect the transport and communications lines that run across Krajina.
Most crucial are those between the Adriatic tourist and trade centers of Dalmatia and the north and center of the country.
Both sides must also cooperate to generate the resources needed to repair an estimated $25 billion in war damage.
But in seeking to reestablish links between the sides, US and Russian mediators will inevitably run into the sacrosanct question of Krajina's political status.
Conceded a senior UN official: ``As we proceed, we move into issues that are politically more sensitive.''
These include such seemingly innocuous items as international telephone dialing codes. In an interview last week, Mr. Tudjman repeated his insistence that Krajina, which is currently reached through rump Yugoslavia's telephone network, adopt Croatia's international code.
But the self-styled Krajina government has refused, as that might be construed as tantamount to acknowledging Croatian sovereignty.
Similarly, the rebel Serbs have rejected a Croatian demand that they obtain import and export licenses from Zagreb, which has turned down Krajina's call for its own Adriatic coast outlet.
Krajina officials acknowledge that the most ideal situation for them would be compromises that allow the reestablishment of economic ties, after which they would indefinitely stall on a political resolution.
Drawing a comparison to the self-declared, unrecognized Turkish Cypriot state, they say Krajina's borders would be de facto secured by the UN troops being deployed under the new truce.
In time, Krajina's existence would be accepted, they say.
There are as yet no direct signals from the chief architect of the 1991 Serbian rebellion, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, as to whether he would accept something less than total independence for Krajina.
Tudjman, meanwhile, said he will not compromise on his demand for Krajina's re-incorporation into Croatia's ``constitutional and legal'' system, albeit with political, cultural, and religious autonomy for its Serbs.
``On the other hand, we will never be reconciled to a state of affairs such as that prevailing on Cyprus,'' Tudjman said.
In an obvious threat of renewed conflict, he said if the current peace efforts ``bear no fruit, we would not be prepared to tolerate such a state of affairs indefinitely.''