WED, 12 FEB 1997 22:22:15 GMT
AIM, OSIJEK, February 7, 1997
Recently one Zagreb weekly at the prominent place on its front page thunderously announced a Croatian military action in Eastern Slavonia with the aim of taking bridges over the Danube river (in Ilok, Erdut, Batina), disarming the transitional police forces and arresting a part of the local Serbian leadership. Indeed, many things that could lead to such a conclusion have happened in the last ten days - the radical Serbs, especially after Presidential Statement of the Security Council on various terrorist acts (which have culminated in the killing of a Belgian UNTAES member) have added fuel on the flames; the Transitional Administrator Jacques Klein was on a two-week visit to the United States; Milosevic's position was seriously shaking in Serbia so that he could well use a Croatian military action in the Danube river valley not only on the internal plane, but also for diverting the world scrutiny from Belgrade towards Zagreb; elections are at Croatia's door which is traditionally the time when the ruling party uses military victories for its own pre-election promotion.
Things reached a boiling point when it looked as if Vojislav Stanimirovic, the most cooperative of the local leaders, was losing battle to the radical stream (Goran Hadzic, Milan Keravica, Vaso Zigic) and when serious pressure was exerted on him to withdraw. However, immediately after the publication of the Presidential Statement of the Security Council - which the local Serbian authorities declared quite unacceptable - his Executive Council brought a decision on self-suspension. However, a rumour soon spread throughout Eastern Slavonia that the whole Stanimirovic's cabinet had resigned, which was published by some radio stations in the UNTAES region.
An absurdity happened in this small propaganda - psychological war - some media rushed to deny the information on the resignation of Stanimirovic's cabinet. Simultaneously with rumours on Stanimirovic's political demise a story started going around Vukovar that Hadzic met with Milosevic who supported his firm stand in negotiations with Croatia. However, the story held water for only two days: early this week the Serbian leadership of Eastern Slavonia met with Milan Milutinovic, Milosevic's Foreign Minister, so that two days later in Vukovar at the local Serbian Assembly Stanimirovic had no trouble swimming out of troubled waters. Even Hadzic threw him a lifebelt - suddenly and at the surprise of councillors - by enumerating good sides of the Presidential Statement and advocating a more cooperative stand in negotiations regarding elections and future status of the existing UNTAES area in a conciliatory tone.
For the first time the Serbian Assembly in Vukovar, held last Wednesday, sent a clear message to the local population that it should go to the elections, which was welcomed the following day by Ambassadors of the Contact Group who have come to Vukovar to see for themselves the political situation and evaluate whether it was suitable for holding the elections. Peter Galbraith and Gavin Hewitt, the two most influential members of the Contact Group, did not make their stands public. The only thing that is known is what they said to the Serbs, but not the true content of their demarche to the Croatian authorities, which concerned the conditions that should be created for holding the elections. The British high representative Hewitt said to the Serbs that the times of negotiations were over and that attention should be now directed to elections, while Galbraith warned that the international community would not have understanding for the Serbian boycott.
While the diplomats behaved diplomatically, general Klein was more specific and - on the same day that Contact Group visited Vukovar - on the UN radio disclosed much of what the Croatian public did not hear from its politicians. Quite openly Klein hinted at the possibility of elections in the Croatian part of the Danube river valley (Podunavlje) being held at a different time than those in other parts of Croatia - March 16, as it was announced. True enough, in his recent interview to the "Vijesnik" Ivica Vrkic, Head of the Governmental Office for Peaceful Integration of Eastern Slavonia also said something similar. Namely, answering a question whether the elections in Podunavlje would be postponed he replied that theoretically that possibility existed. However, speaking of the same Klein was more specific: he mentioned "early spring" several times as a term for holding the elections, pointing out that they have to be held a month before the termination of the UNTAES mandate, in other words till June 15. Klein said that he personally would bring a decision on scheduling the elections and that he would do it in the next several weeks.
Kleins's formulation "several weeks" essentially differs from the announcement of Vladimir Seks that the date for holding the elections in Croatia will be known by February 12, at the latest. It is not quite clear whether this is an additional pressure on Croatia, to make some additional concessions, or whether Klein perhaps really thinks that conditions for holding the elections are still not ripe, but the discord between tones coming from Klein's headquarters and those coming from Zagreb is more than evident. Speaking on the UN Radio only a day after he came back from New York and Washington, Klein said that even after the elections the international community will "for many years to come" remain present in this area, true, in somewhat changed form. Quite differently from the messages of the official Zagreb he spoke of the entry of Croatian Army to that area. According to him that was unnecessary and he also announced the sending of reserve officers from that area to Zagreb so that they could agree with the Defence Minister on the future status of Eastern Slavonia.
Only indirectly, reading between the lines or "cross-matching" statements of Klein and his associates with those coming from the Croatian power holders, it would be possible to tentatively sketch the picture of what awaits Croatia after the elections in Podunavlje. In that sense, indicative is Vrkic's statement that the Croatian parties, same as the Serbian, should not run in the elections as a single national block. Vrkic thinks that it would be better if the parties run independently, since single party blocks could fiercely clash which could seriously affect the political situation after the elections. If it is known that it was precisely the Association on the Croatian Refugees, whose leader Mato Simic is under the control of the Osijek district-prefect Branimir Glavas and who is advocating the stands of the radical stream of the HDZ right, which insisted on a unified appearance of Croatian parties at the elections in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium, it is clear that regarding Podunavlje there is no official political stand.
Evidently, that battle is waged on a broad front within the HDZ and could in a simplified way categorized as a stereotyped division between the moderate and right wing sympathizers. On several occasions Klein warned the local extremist politicians of hampering the reintegration process that they will pose a threat in post-election times. There is no secret that he first had in mind the Osijek district prefect Glavas, but also Vlado Osust, prefect of Vukovar-Srijem district. In late January at the Zagreb Conference of District-Prefects, Ivica Kostovic, Vice-President of the Croatian Government advised the prefects of Slavonia - Glavas and Osust to behave "with extreme delicacy and tact" in the most critical period of peaceful reintegration which will ensue after the elections. It is indicative that Glavas did not come to that meeting, but used his party to send a proclamation to Serbs in the Danube valley that HDZ will best protect their interests.
When it comes to the elections to be held in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium and circumstances which will prevail after the elections - under the assumption that they will be actually held - so many unknowns are at play, which are interlinked with so different interests that it is impossible to say who will outsmart whom. Lately, Klein has been frequently photographed with an Indian pipe of peace which he is planning to smoke together with Croats and Serbs after the elections. However, he has overlooked but one thing - the buried war hatchets. Namely there are many chiefs which even Manito finds increasingly hard to control.