Key Balkan Region Edges Toward Peace

Turnover of Eastern Slavonia, on Serb-Croat border, will be closely watched

AMERICAN diplomats and United Nations officials are working overtime to persuade Serbs and Croats to abide by a bold peace plan that will transfer the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia back to government control and reintegrate the former warring parties.

Rebel Serbs brutally conquered this narrow strip of land on the eastern edge of Croatia, with rich farmland and oil fields, when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The return to Croat control is to be guaranteed by 5,000 UN peacekeeping troops within two years.

Some peacekeepers from the previous UN mission to Croatia already are in place in Eastern Slavonia, notably 650 Belgians (Belgium will command the new peace mission) and some 950 Russian soldiers. The bulk of the rest of the forces of the UN mission that began in mid-January - armored Jordanian and Pakistani units, and others - have been pledged but have yet to deploy.

The transitional UN administrator, retired American Gen. Jacques Klein, hopes that full deployment will be completed by May or June. At that point he will declare deployment "sufficient," which will set the clock ticking for Serb and Croat forces: Their demilitarization of the area must then be completed within 30 days.

Kicking through the ruins of Vukovar, the once-pristine port city on the Danube River that was bombarded by Serb shells for three months before it fell, US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith says he is hopeful that the message of peace is slowly taking hold.

"There is no alternative to Croats and Serbs living together ... it's the only possible future," he says, as he leads an entourage past one destroyed building after another. "This is not to say I'm optimistic. I'm simply saying it's the only alternative."

Eastern Slavonia abuts Serbia, so lasting peace between the governments of Croatia and Serbia is critical to the success of the Dayton peace accord. The presidents of both countries have accepted that Eastern Slavonia is part of Croatia. But the peace deal - negotiated separately from the Dayton accord - assumes that Serbs and Croats can and will live together again and aims to recreate the pre-war ethnic mix.

By contrast, Dayton legally separates Bosnia's ethnic warriors and only envisions complete reintegration in certain areas such as Sarajevo. The current exodus of Serbs from Sarajevo suburbs coming under Muslim-Croat control highlights the difficulties of creating mutual trust and security - and could be a harbinger of things to come in Eastern Slavonia.

But for Mr. Galbraith, who helped negotiate this peace plan, a Serb exodus is not an option. He has held a series of town meetings on both sides of the front line to explain the provisions and has been surprised by local misconceptions: Serbs have been terrified to hear that "their" land has been given away; Croats are angry that they were prevented from taking the territory by force, which they had been poised to do last October.

"Of course people are nervous, and some people are scared about the future," Galbraith says. Croats consider Vukovar to be their "Stalingrad," after the Russian city devastated by German forces in World War II. Russian UN troops guard a mass grave of people killed by Serbs, and a handful of Serbs have been indicted for war crimes committed in Vukovar.

"I know this agreement makes many people here unhappy," he says. "But it is an agreement that is much better than the alternative, which is another war, thousands of dead, and continued isolation and poverty. We can see what war has done."

UN officers expect that military aspects of the plan - complete demilitarization that will begin one month after full deployment of UN troops and international police - will be easiest. The UN mission will be complete, and Eastern Slavonia will return to Croatian rule, within two years. No territory has been handed back yet, though both Serbs and Croats have pulled back from specific, narrow demilitarized zone already as part of the previous UN mission.

Far more problematic are the creation of a mixed Serb-Croat police force and the return of Croat refugees to their homes. There is little mutual trust to build on, so there is already friction over the police force: Croats want it to have the same ethnic mix as before the war; Serbs want it to mirror the current ethnic makeup of the region - almost all Serb.

Some 50 American police may take part in the UN operation, joining up to 400 from Scandinavian and other countries who will be unarmed and work with the Serb-Croat police. Success is crucial, diplomats and officers say, to persuade the Serbs to stay on under Croat rule.

The return of refugees will also be difficult. Croats have been told they can return home, but what will come of Serbs, many refugees themselves, who are squatting in Croat homes? Milan Milanovic, the top Serb leader here, says: "We have to think about the people who are refugees here. We can't throw them into the Danube."

After years apart, many in Vukovar can't imagine living with Croats again, though this region was once one of the most ethnically mixed in Yugoslavia. "Not yet," says one Serb man, stopping beside a building reduced to rubble. "When? It's difficult to say. I'm convinced that in five or six years some can be forgotten. Peace is a very important thing."

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