Croatia's Gathering Storm

Croatia's decision, announced Thursday, to terminate the U.N. peacekeeping operation on its soil is a bad omen on two counts. First, it portends a new Serbo-Croatian war over Croatian territory seized by the Serbs after Croatia declared independence in 1991. Second, it bodes ill for the establishment of a U.N.-brokered Bosnian peace like the one that has just broken down in Croatia.

Croatia's decision arises from its conclusion that the nearly three-year-old presence of U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops in southern Croatia had served only to ratify Serb conquests. Those conquests were accomplished with the heavy participation of the Yugoslav Federal Army, the Serb-dominated armed forces of the original Yugoslav federation. At the time, the fledgling Croatian state was poorly armed. Now it is better armed and apparently prepared to take back by force the territory that international mediation has been unable to reclaim from Serb control.

The Croatian charge that the United Nations has ratified a Serb conquest is one that, from a weaker military position, the Bosnian government also brings. The "Contact Group" of five major powers--having tacitly abandoned its own erstwhile take-it-or-leave-it internal partition plan for Bosnia--is now urging an indefinite cease-fire like the one now rejected by Croatia.

The Contact Group partition plan, rejected by the Serbs, had assigned the Serbs 49% of the country. The emerging alternative would allow them to retain more of the 70% they now hold and to unite in some way with Serbia proper, with the new arrangement policed by the United Nations. But Bosnia, which accepted the 51%-49% partition plan, now refuses to trade it for open-ended negotiations and a peace such as that turned down by Croatia.

Croatia will permit the United Nations to maintain its Balkans headquarters in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, but time may be running out. The already tattered Bosnian cease-fire that Jimmy Carter brokered expires May 1. Croatian permission for UNPROFOR ends on July 1. If Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia are headed for all-out war, simple prudence would dictate that preparations begin now for a U.N. withdrawal from Bosnia. Now it is still possible. Later it may not be.

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