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Croatian Army to Enlist Serbs

The Zagreb authorities must overcome Croatian Serb reluctance to serve in the republic's armed forces.
By Dragutin Hedl

Serbs in the Podunavlje region are to be enlisted for Croatian army service following the expiry this week of an agreement exempting them from conscription.


Podunavlje, comprising the municipalities of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, was controlled by rebel Serbs during the war with Croatia but peacefully reintegrated three years ago.


As part of the agreement signed in January 1997 by Croatia, Serb representatives from Podunavlje and the international community, the Serbian minority was exempted from military service for two years.


The post-Tudjman government of Ivica Racan extended this by a further year,


though this fell far short of the 15 years requested by the Serbs.


Milos Vojnovic, President of the Joint Council of Municipalities representing those areas with a majority Serb population, said a lengthy exemption was necessary for a generation in whose minds memories of the war remain fresh.


Such are the fears and frustrations of the Serb population that half the estimated three to four thousand youths eligible for military service are simply refusing to do it, according to Vojislav Stanimirovic, Croatian parliament deputy and president of the Independent Democratic Serb Party, SDSS.


"I'm afraid," said eighteen-year-old Dalibor Puaca from Dalj. "I heard that the HV (Croatian army) officers maltreat soldiers. What will they then do to us, Serbs?" His reaction is typical.


Most of Puaca's peers are equally reluctant about serving in the Croatian army, saying that they are worried about widespread reports in the media about homosexual scandals, drug use, and other unsavoury stories.


The most recent incident involved an accidental explosion at the Ogulin army barracks on 16 November last year which left five soldiers seriously wounded.


Serbian youths from Podunavlje, particularly those studying in Serbia, prefer to do their military service in Yugoslavia, even though conscription there is one year - twice as long as they would soon be required to serve in the Croatian army.


it being twice as long as the six months required in Croatia (though this is soon to be increased to a year also)


However, as there is no agreement on dual citizenship between Croatia and Yugoslavia that possibility is ruled out.


Serbs can opt to forgo military for civilian service. On January 11 the government forwarded a proposal that the latter be reduced from the fifteen to eight months.


The procedure for choosing civilian over military service is actually quite straightforward. Since the option was introduced in 1992, only nine requests out of 2,230 have been turned down.


Indeed, the numbers opting for civilian service is on the rise. Last year, 667 requests were submitted, a threefold increase on previous years. It is realistic to expect numbers will continue to rise, especially following the end of the Podunavlje military service exemption.


Both Serb and Croat communities have, meanwhile, proposed other conscription options.


The Mayor of Vukovar, Vladimir Stengl, launched an odd initiative proposing Serb refuseniks be conscripted into work brigades to clear up Vukovar's rubble. But this proposal smacks of punishment, since the Serbs would doubtless feel they were "paying" for the attacks sustained by the town during the Yugoslav People's Army siege in 1991.


Milos Vojnovic says the Croatian authorities have agreed that men over the age of 27 will be exempt from military service. He added that negotiations are underway with the defence ministry to recognise prior service in the JNA or in the army of the former Serb Republic of Krajina.


Serbs have also suggested that local youths could serve in the Podunavlje barracks of Beli Manastir and Vukovar, and not elsewhere in Croatia. The Croatian authorities have yet to respond to the idea.


Spokesman for the Ministry of Defence Dusan Viro said that for now all men from Podunavlje who are fit for military service will be enlisted on 15 January.


At least for Sinisa Petrovic, due to be called up on February 26, this will not pose a problem. "I'm not afraid of performing my military service in the Croatian army," he said stoically. " It has to be done some day."


Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor


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