How Croatia Built Up Military Might

With help from the West, Croatia used a truce to rearm. How will it use its new muscle?

DRESSED in a bright white Admiral's uniform and surrounded by a phalanx of white military police motorcycles, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman looked uncannily like former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and positively beamed.

As his jeep passed the review stand of a May 30 Zagreb military parade, the fruits of a worldwide, $1 billion Croat arms-buying spree followed him.

In a display that stunned Western observers and made a mockery of a United Nations arms embargo against the former Yugoslavia, newly acquired Russian surface-to-air missiles, East German fighter planes, and Ukrainian battle tanks glistened in the spring sunshine.

''There is an arms embargo, but apart from NATO ships patrolling the Adriatic, no one is enforcing it,'' says Tim Ripley of the London-based Jane's Intelligence Review. ''If you have enough money, and a willingness to go to the right places, people will sell you whatever you want.''

With the strong backing of the United States and Germany, Croatian military officials have used a $2 billion annual defense budget to travel the world over and buy small arms - T-72 and T-55 Soviet-made tanks, surface-to-air missiles, attack helicopters, and jet fighters from places as diverse as the former East Germany, Israel, and Singapore.

By disassembling weapons and shipping them piece by piece over its unmonitored borders with Hungary and Slovenia, dozens of weapons - including approximately 20 advanced Warsaw Pact MIG-21 fighters and 15 Hind MI-24 attack helicopters believed to be from East Germany - have apparently entered Croatia.

Using raw materials from Austria, Slovenia, and Germany, a Croatian factory has built 125 armored personnel carriers. Each one is equipped with 50-caliber Browning machine gun and Croatian-made mortars.

Like proud fathers, the United States and German officials have nurtured Croatia as a Balkan rival to powerful and land-hungry Serbia.

''The assumption is that a strong Croatia would counterbalance Serbia and bring peace to the region,'' says Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. ''We are witnessing a massive rearmament program.''

American and German officials have watched with delight as recent Croatian Army blitzkriegs have handed rebel Serb regimes in Bosnia and Croatia their two largest military defeats ever.

In May, a lighting, multipronged attack captured a 200-square-mile Serb enclave in two days. Last week, 10,000 Croatian troops and dozens of tanks crossed into Bosnia, cut a key supply route by capturing the towns of Grahovo and Glamoc, and dealt the vaunted Bosnian Serb army its largest single defeat in three years of war.

Analysts say covert US and German assistance may have aided the Croatian buildup. But Croatia's sudden military prowess comes from its own wallet.

With political and economic aid of the US and Germany, the Croatian economy has remained relatively strong, allowing a 20 percent ''war tax'' to be placed on all transactions in Croatia to give military officials here an arsenal of cash.

Western analysts also praise Croatia for effectively using three years of relative peace to build a well-equipped, professional Army since it fought a bitter ''war of independence'' from the former Yugoslavia.

Croatian officials have continually bashed the United Nations mission here for failing to deliver a negotiated reintegration of the 25 percent of the country held by the Knin-based ''Republic of Serbian Krajina.'' Croats are openly hostile to UN officials here, but analysts say the UN has bought them enough time to effectively train and rearm. ''From the rag-tag militia and national guardsmen that held back the Yugoslav Army in '91 and '92,'' says Jane's analyst Ripley, ''they can field a force of perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers who are equipped to professional Western standards.''

But analysts caution that the troubled Muslim-led Bosnian Army is in some ways a victim of Croatia's military might.

Analyst Eyal estimates that Croatia takes a 40 percent cut of all weapons that cross Croatia on their way to landlocked Bosnia. UN officials say Croatia continues to block shipments of desperately needed heavy weapons to Bosnian government forces.

Despite a March 1994 US-brokered federation agreement between Bosnia and Croatia, the poorly equipped Muslim-led Bosnian Army continues to lose hundreds of lives in World War I-era trench warfare in neighboring Bosnia, while tank-backed Croatian Army blitzkriegs roll on.

Some UN officials warn that the creation of a ''strong Croatia'' by the US and Germany will eventually backfire. ''In the end, there's going to be a 'Greater Croatia' and a 'Greater Serbia' here,'' warns a Bosnian-based UN official, ''and Bosnia's going to be stuck somewhere in the middle.''

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