MINORITY Serbs in the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia fought for more than four years to unite with other Serbs in Serbia and Bosnia. They finally appear to have given up on their dream of a ''Greater Serbia.''
Serbs in Eastern Slavonia - a region along Croatia's border with Serbia - agreed Sunday to relinquish control of the last remnant of the territories they overran in an uprising (aided by the Yugoslav Army) against Croatia's 1991 declaration of independence.
The pact was brokered in Dayton, Ohio, where leaders of the former Yugoslav republics are gathered with US officials to reach a comprehensive peace in the region.
If implemented, the pact will end a conflict that has left thousands of people dead and uprooted thousands of others from centuries-old ancestral lands. It may also lead to the normalization of relations between Croatia and Serbia following four years of war.
''This is the beginning of the end of the wars in former Yugoslavia,'' declared UN peace mediator Thorvald Stoltenberg in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. ''I believe it will have a contagious effect leading to an overall peace.''
The new accord was first sealed in Dayton between Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who instigated, armed, and financed the rebel Serbs in Croatia. It was then transmitted to Serb leaders in Eastern Slavonia by Mr. Stoltenberg and US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, who called their acceptance of the 14-point pact ''a significant step for peace.''
The agreement calls for the restoration of Zagreb's authority in Eastern Slavonia after a transitional period of at least one year. Either side can request a second year. During the transition, the region would be controlled by an international military force, the composition of which is yet to be determined. The region would be demilitarized within 30 days of the contingent's deployment.
The force's main tasks would be to safeguard the return of some 100,000 Croats expelled during the 1991 war and protect Serb residents from acts of revenge. But many experts say most Serbs will go to Serbia, fearful of discrimination under President Tudjman's hard-line nationalist government.
''These people will be gone,'' says a US diplomat. ''It's going to be like Krajina.'' Krajina is the northwestern region that formed the bulk of the self-declared state the Serbs proclaimed on the one-third of Croatia they captured in 1991. It was retaken by the Croatian Army in August, and about 180,000 Serbs fled, spurning Zagreb's promise of safety. Many Serb properties were burned and looted and a number of Serbs murdered.
Tudjman, eager for domestic political reasons to recover the areas, threatened to retake Eastern Slavonia by force if an accord for its surrender was not reached by Nov. 30. A Croatian troop buildup last week appeared to presage an assault.
There were fears that a Croatian offensive would scuttle the Dayton talks and provoke Mr. Milosevic into sending the Yugoslav Army to the aid of the Serbs in Eastern Slavonia.
But the agreement to give up the region has reinforced a view among US diplomats and other analysts that Milosevic's only priority now is to cooperate in peace efforts in order to win the lifting of UN sanctions that have devastated Serbia's economy.
''Milosevic wants the sanctions lifted and they [the rebel Serbs in Croatia] knew he wasn't going to their aid,'' says a US diplomat. ''They know he is no longer defending them.''
Some analysts, however, are skeptical about Serbian adherence to the new accord. They say that if the sanctions are lifted before the agreement is fully implemented, Croatia's rebel Serbs could renege, just as they did on a December 1991 UN-brokered accord that had required them to disarm.
''They are willing to sign anything right now to get the sanctions lifted,'' says Januz Bugajski, an Eastern European expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ''But that doesn't mean they are going to implement it.''
Though it is the smallest swath of territory the rebel Serbs seized, Eastern Slavonia has enormous strategic value. An agriculturally rich region that sits atop petroleum deposits, it is bounded on the east by Hungary and on the south by the Danube River.