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  Yugoslav Regions Assert Independence

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 26, 1991; Page A01

LJUBLJANA, YUGOSLAVIA, JUNE 25 -- The Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia, driven by nationalist ardor and the conviction that the six-republic Balkan federation is an economic millstone, formally declared themselves today to be sovereign and independent states.

The Yugoslav legislature reacted immediately to the secession announcements by asking the federal army to "undertake measures to prevent the division of Yugoslavia and changes in its borders." The federal Executive Council, composed of Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic and a number of senior cabinet ministers, began an emergency meeting tonight, but it was unclear what steps the body could take in the face of Croatian and Slovenian resolve to go their separate ways.

Markovic warned on Monday that he would use "all legal measures" to keep the country's squabbling republics together, but he said specifically that he would not use force to keep Croatia and Slovenia in the federation. As has been the case in all the seemingly countless political crises and outbreaks of ethnic violence in Yugoslavia this year, it was uncertain tonight if the federal government has the authority or the will to call out troops.

Under Yugoslav law, the federal army is controlled by the collective federal presidency, an eight-member body representing the country's six republics and two provinces that in the past two months has been incapacitated by the same ethnic disputes that are dismembering the federation.

What was clear today is that the parliaments of the two richest and most Westernized of Yugoslavia's republics have signaled the end, at least in its present form, of the chronically troubled Balkan federation, which was formed in 1918 at the urging of Slovenia and Croatia as the "Land of the South Slavs."

Neither the United States nor the European Community has been receptive to the idea of new independent mini-states in the Balkans, a region whose feuding peoples triggered World War I and used World War II as an occasion for ethnic butchery. The Western powers have repeatedly urged the Yugoslavs to work their problems out peacefully and have warned both Croatia and Slovenia that they would not be recognized as sovereign states or be eligible for economic assistance if they declared independence.

The underlying conflict that prompted today's secession announcements reaches back centuries and is a product of the same ethnic enmity that has bedeviled Yugoslavia since its inception, namely, fear by Croatia and Slovenia that Serbia, the largest and most populous Yugoslav republic, was dominating the federation and bleeding resources away from the more prosperous republics.

Ethnic hostility was merely repressed, not resolved, during the 35-year reign of communist leader Marshal Tito, whose death in 1980 unleashed a groundswell of nationalist passions in the federation, which peaked first in Serbia in 1988. Last year, as part of the first multi-party elections in Yugoslavia in four decades, nationalism infected the rest of the country and became the preeminent concern of political leaders in all the republics.

Serbia, which emerged from those elections with the last hard-line communist government in Eastern Europe, has resisted demands by Croatia, Slovenia and two of the three other republics for a fundamental weakening of the federal structure and its transformation into an association of sovereign states. In addition, Serbia is a staunch opponent of country-wide free-market reforms that the governments of Croatia and Slovenia both have endorsed.

Ethnic fighting between Croats and Serbs, of whom there are 600,000 living in Croatia, has claimed at least 22 lives this year, and Serbia has threatened to go to war to prevent the Serbs of Croatia from becoming "unequal" citizens of another country.

Complicating the ethnic tangle is a plan by the Serbs of Croatia, who already have declared themselves independent of Croatian rule, to join their self-proclaimed autonomous territory on Friday with that of Serbs living in the adjacent Yugoslav republic of Bosnia.

In a speech here tonight, Slovenian President Milan Kucan acknowledged that the course chosen by his small Alpine republic of 2 million is not an easy one and that it will face "a difficult path" in winning international recognition. He insisted, however, that Slovenia, which has Yugoslavia's highest per capita income, could no longer remain part of a country controlled by "obsolete ideological formulations" and "hegemonic ambitions," references to the policies and perceived ambitions of Serbia and its Marxist president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, in an address to that republic's parliament in Zagreb, appealed to the international community to reconsider the cold shoulder it has given Croatian and Slovenian independence aspirations, saying that Croatia had no alternative but to separate itself from the "terror and barbarism" of Yugoslavia.

"We cannot remain within the country, due to the continuing threats and aggression and hatred against anything that is Croatian," said Tudjman, in another reference to Serbia. He added that Croatia is ready to form "a union of two independent states" with Slovenia.

Legislators roared their approval of Tudjman's peroration, while outside the parliament bells in Zagreb's numerous churches rang out and people uncorked bottles of champagne to celebrate the proclamations, which came a day earlier than scheduled in an apparent effort to preclude any move by the central government to intervene.

Although both Slovenia and Croatia used broad language in their independence declarations, there were important differences in what the two republics actually did. Slovenia's proclamation was by far the more dramatic, asserting that the republic "will no longer be a part" of Yugoslavia and that federal laws no longer have any validity here. Slovenia previously had approved measures creating a central bank, taking over customs operations, border police and air-traffic control, and it plans to issue its own currency within eight months.

But despite its scope, the Slovenian declaration was notably conciliatory, pledging that all practical steps toward independence "will be carried out gradually and in agreement with the other republics of former Yugoslavia." The republic said also that it would pay its share of the Yugoslav foreign debt and would negotiate payment for its takeover of the federal infrastructure inside the republic, such as roads and communications facilities.

Kucan said the 20,000 members of the Yugoslav army in Slovenia will be allowed to stay, pending negotiations with the central government on their withdrawal. Slovenia's declaration also said explicitly that the republic "is prepared to continue negotiations on possible forms of association" with the other republics of Yugoslavia.

In Croatia, the rhetoric was far tougher than the immediate practical effect. While its independence proclamation said that the republic is "a sovereign and independent state," Croatian officials were at pains today to explain that they still consider their republic to be part of Yugoslavia, at least for the time being.

"The Slovenes are taking their declaration literally," said a senior adviser in the office of Croatian presidentTudjman. "We are aware that {the Croatian declaration} cannot be taken literally. It is just a declaration." Still, both Croatia and Slovenia will withdraw their representatives from the federal legislature, a non-democratically selected remnant of the country's communist past.

The principal reason for the ambiguity is that Croatia, with hundreds of thousands of Serbs among its population of 4.5 million and a Croatian minority of about 800,000 living among dominant Serbs and Muslims in neighboring Bosnia, cannot easily extricate itself from Yugoslavia without triggering a civil war. Slovenia, by contrast, is ethnically homogeneous.

The Serbs of Croatia have been armed and funded by the Serbian government and have carved out for themselves a 90-by-30-mile strip of territory along the Serbian and Bosnian borders called "Krajina" that they claim is self-governing.

Although the Croatian government denies the existence of Krajina, it has tolerated the Serbs' assertions for the most part, fearing that large-scale intervention by Croatian police to impose their authority in the region could provoke an attack by Serbs on Croats in both Croatia and Bosnia.

Today's declarations followed popular referendums on independence earlier this year in both Slovenia and Croatia. In each republic, the vote margin was more than nine to one in favor of abandoning Yugoslavia.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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