Troops Come To Prevlaka

Since 1992, the dispute over this uninhabited peninsula has remained low key but deadlocked, and talks got nowhere -- leaving Milosevic another card to play against Croatia and Montenegro. This week, he checked his hand.

Troops Come To Prevlaka

Since 1992, the dispute over this uninhabited peninsula has remained low key but deadlocked, and talks got nowhere -- leaving Milosevic another card to play against Croatia and Montenegro. This week, he checked his hand.

Friday, 23 April, 1999

Yugoslav soldiers entered a demilitarised zone separating Croatia and Montenegro on Tuesday, April 20 -- demonstrating that Belgrade still has plenty of potential to cause trouble away from the main theatre of Kosovo.

Since October 1992, Prevlaka, Croatia's southern-most peninsula, has been closed to everyone except 28 UN monitors. While Croatia's ambassador to the UN, Ivan Simonovic, has complained to the Security Council that up to 300 Yugoslav troops had moved into the DMZ, the UN monitors themselves numbered only 20.

This southern-most tip of Croatia lies about 40 kilometres south of Dubrovnik and only 2 kilometres from the border with Montenegro. A couple of kilometres in length and half a kilometre wide, Prevlaka projects part way across the mouth of the Kotor Bay, Yugoslavia's principal deep-water harbour.

Prevlaka had been a military base for decades before Croatia won its independence, and the Montenegrin headland on the opposite, southern side of the bay is riddled with military installations--allegedly including missile sites.

When Yugoslav forces withdrew from Croatia in 1992, they refused to abandon Prevlaka and its hinterland before they had secured an agreement to keep the area demilitarised, under UN supervision, until the two parties reached a final settlement to ensure security between Dubrovnik and Kotor.

The wider demilitarised zone agreed in 1992 stretches to a depth of 5 kilometres on either side of the Croatian-Yugoslav border, which extends for some 19 kilometres between Kotor Bay and the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In practice, neither side fully respects the DMZ. Yugoslav troops have never withdrawn from positions near the Bosnian border, while Croatian "special police" occupy bunkers beside Prevlaka, where they have no business being. Both sides probably retain heavy weapons near the border.

Nevertheless, the area has remained remarkably stable for a long time. Despite occasional minor incidents or provocations, no shot has been fired since 1995. Every six months, the Security Council reviews the situation for two or three minutes before authorising a further extension of the UN monitors' mandate there.

The main responsibility for the failure to resolve the issue lies with Belgrade, which has resorted to a variety of time-wasting tactics to forestall serious talks. Presumably, it has done so to retain potential leverage against both Croatia and Montenegro which it may be seeking to use.

Belgrade insists that Prevlaka is a territorial dispute to be solved by changing the international border--a position rejected by Croatia and the rest of the international community.

For its part, Zagreb has kept fairly quiet on the issue. This is partly because President Franjo Tudjman has previously entertained a possible land deal exchanging Prevlaka for territory in Herzegovina, behind Dubrovnik. But by putting paid to any such schemes to change Bosnia's border, the Dayton Peace Agreement effectively opened the way to serious bilateral negotiations. Despite this, Zagreb and Belgrade have agreed a statement in 1996 on normalising relations, but nothing more on the issue. Meanwhile the border remained closed.

This deadlock was disturbed by Montenegro's election results in 1998, which installed a leadership keen to rebuild commercial relations with Croatia. Late in 1998, encouraged by Podgorica's positive signals and pushed by US diplomacy, Zagreb tabled a sensible proposal to settle the disputed issue through bilateral demilitarisation. In January, the Security Council commended the move. Podgorica and Zagreb then agreed to open the main border-crossing, despite Belgrade's objections. Belgrade responded by excluding Podgorica from the Yugoslav team in the on-going Prevlaka talks.

This was how matters stood until earlier this week when Yugoslav troops took up positions on the last road junction before the border-crossing, close to the peninsula but still within Montenegro. Croatia promptly complained to the Security Council that 200 to 300 soldiers had moved into the DMZ.

It is more than likely that the incursion is intended only as a signal that Milosevic could indeed make trouble in this little-regarded corner of the Balkans, should he choose to do so. Although Prevlaka is still a minor sideshow, great vigilance should be shown by Croatia, by NATO, and above all by Montenegro, if Belgrade's symbolic act is not to result in a general heightening of tensions on all sides.

Mark Thompson, author of A Paper House: The Ending of Yugoslavia (Vintage, 1992) and Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Article 19, 1994), was a member of the UN mission to Prevlaka in 1997.

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