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Yugoslavia: Croatia, Bosnia Hopeful Over Belgrade Changes

The ouster of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the rise to power of Vojislav Kostunica have sparked hope in Croatia and Bosnia for improved relations with Serbia. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports progress will not be easy and many issues stemming from the past decade's Balkan wars remain unresolved.

Prague, 13 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The fall of Slobodan Milosevic offers Belgrade's new leaders an opportunity to resolve a variety of disputes with neighboring Croatia and Bosnia.

These include the claim of whether the current Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia plus Montenegro) is to be the sole successor state to former Socialist Yugoslavia, as well as territory and property disputes stemming from five years of war.

Croatian president Stipe Mesic reacted favorably to the change in government in Belgrade, saying Milosevic's ouster should be greeted. But Mesic, who was democratically elected earlier this year following the death of Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman, also criticized Belgrade's past policy as "imperialistic" and "aggressive."

Serbia fought an unsuccessful war with Croatia in 1991 to prevent Croatian independence and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Serb and Croat hostilities continued in the subsequent war in Bosnia, and both sides harbor bitter resentment to this day.

Croatian First Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic met this week in Zagreb with Zarko Korac and Svetozar Krstic, representatives of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS). The DOS is a coalition of 18 opposition groups which backed challenger Vojislav Kostunica in his successful campaign to unseat Milosevic.

Granic characterized the discussions as being "open" and in a "good atmosphere."

He outlines how he sees bilateral negotiations proceeding:

"After the government and institutions in Serbia are constituted, we shall start resolving simpler, technical issues such as succession, the issue of Prevlaka -- which I believe will come quickly -- and some issues [concerning] transportation, electric power lines [and] economic cooperation. Finally, [we will discuss] the more painful issues such as the attitude of the new authorities in Yugoslavia and Serbia toward the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina."

The Kostunica government has already abandoned Milosevic's position that the current rump Yugoslavia is the sole successor state to the former Yugoslavia of six republics and two provinces, and is therefore entitled to its assets.

Control of the Prevlaka peninsula on the border of Croatia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro was left unresolved at the end of the Bosnian and Croatian wars. Yugoslavia wants the peninsula since it guards a deep-water fjord where the Yugoslav navy is based.

One of Kostunica's emissaries, Korac, says that coming to terms with the legacy of the war is a prerequisite to improved relations:

"We have to find answers to numerous questions about the war in order to enable relations to move forward. So at this meeting we discussed all the steps required to move relations forward between Serbia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Croatian state."

Cautious optimism is also felt in Bosnia, which during the 1990s saw the fiercest fighting in Europe since World War Two.

Outgoing Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic, who retires this week, says that with the changes underway in Serbia he is sure Belgrade no longer wants to interfere in Bosnia's internal affairs.

The Milosevic government never recognized Bosnian sovereignty. Milosevic sought instead to influence Bosnian affairs by controlling officials of the Bosnian Serb entity (Republika Srpska).

Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic, a Croat, favors establishing full diplomatic relations with Belgrade. So does his deputy, Husein Zivalj, but with the proviso that Bosnia cannot withdraw the accusation of genocide and aggression it filed against Yugoslavia in 1993 with the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

"We do not have excessively high expectations, knowing all that has happened in the last 10 years and [aware] of Kostunica's role in all the events. We know the backgrounds of Milosevic and Kostunica. Milosevic's background is Bolshevik Communist and Kostunica's is nationalist."

The prime minister of the Bosnian Serb entity, Milorad Dodik, was quoted this week as saying the opposition victory in Serbia would have a positive effect in the Bosnian Serb entity. But Dodik, who is considered a moderate, says he feels the victory is not complete and that Milosevic may try to make a political comeback.

The international community's High Representative for Bosnia, Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, says Bosnians should take heart from the recent changes in Belgrade and vote responsibly in their own local elections next month.

Petritsch also was quoted this week as saying he expects to meet with Kostunica soon and ask him when Belgrade will formally recognize Bosnian sovereignty.

He says he will tell Kostunica that recognition is the surest way of securing Kosovo, where he says Serbs have just as much right to live as ethnic Albanians. If Belgrade recognizes Bosnia, he says the international community will be honor-bound to ensure a future for Serbs there as was agreed under UN Security Council resolution 1244.