Here We Go Again

Misha Glenny on the coming Balkan war

The glistening heads of surface-to-surface missile systems are peeping out from behind their covers after three years of virtually uninterrupted hibernation. Their svelte nozzles are being tickled again by the Croatian/Krajina-Serb/ex-Yugoslav sun, whose dancing rays they would mask in an acrid haze. Their merry operators in smart khaki jackets wave and smile. Rhetoric is sharpening. Muscles are being flexed. Guns are being cleaned. Yes, that point in the historical cycle has come round again – a little earlier than expected. The Croats and Serbs are preparing to go to war. If it happens this time, however, the results will be catastrophic.

On 31 March the mandate of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) comes to an end in the Republic of Croatia. In fact, the mandate runs out every six months, but until now it has always been reluctantly renewed by the Croatian Government. In January, however, the Croatian Prime Minister, Nikica Valentic, casually let slip during an otherwise innocuous visit to China that his President, the supremely sagacious military historian Franjo Tudjman, had decided to give Unprofor its marching orders. Anton Tus and Karol Gorinsek, two of Croatia’s most experienced generals (both of whom have been pensioned off), have warned recently that an Unprofor withdrawal would be suicidal for Croatia. Wisely ignoring this cavalier advice, the perspicacious President decided to show the world just how tough and resolute the civilian population of all Croatia’s major cities can be when faced with the prospect of a sustained attack by those gleaming Krajina missiles. After all, what is another Dresden or two when your country is stiffened by the backbone of a thousand years of national mythology?

The slaughter witnessed inside the former Yugoslavia has been the product of a limited Serbo-Croat war. For the past three and a half years the two most numerous nations of the extinct federation have been attempting to define the borders of their new nation-states by force. The Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina, squeezed between the Serbs and the Croats in the most vital strategic territory of the northern Balkans, have been the main victims of this war. The decision of the Croatian Government not to renew the UN mandate threatens a conflict much bigger than anything seen so far – a war between the Serbs and the Croats in which the heaving mass of weaponry deployed in the former Yugoslavia will come into play.

The war between Croatia and its Serb minority backed by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the peripheral areas known as the Krajina was frozen with the implementation of the so-called Vance Plan in January 1991. Under this arrangement, 14,000 UN troops were stationed in the Krajina. Later they were moved into a front-line zone from which the Krajina and Croatian armies agreed to withdraw. It is here, in between some of the most committed warriors in the world, that the UN soldiers now watch the uneasy truce. The Vance Plan also contained provisions for a gradual negotiated settlement to the Croatian war. Economic agreements re-establishing communications and road and rail links were to be followed by the return of some 160,000 Croat refugees to their homes in the Krajina. Eventually, a deal restoring Croatian sovereignty was envisaged. The war in Bosnia, however, and the intransigence of both Serbs and Croats in Croatia has ensured that progress on the political aspects of the Vance Plan has been slow – very slow.

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