From- US NEWS & WORLD REPORT ----- 9/26/91

By David Lawday

The war between Serbs and Croats may mean no one can put Yugoslavia together again

Each day at noon, in flamboyant red and gold uniforms of Habsburg splendor, soldiers guarding Croatia's presidential residence in the heart of Zagreb go through a nifty change-of-guard routine to the sound of pipes and drums, as if they had been doing it for centuries. In fact, they have been at it for only a couple of months -- since a theatrical design firm created their uniforms anda local choreographer worked out their steps.

The fancy guard is a nose ceremoniously thumbed at the ghost of Yugoslavia and in particular at Serbia, Croatia's deadly rival. But new customs cannot turn the tide in beleaguered Croatia's punishing civil war to secede from Yugoslavia. And the battle over Serbian militants' seizure of Croatian territory -- the first war in Europe since 1945 -- is going disastrously for Zagreb. As the European Community launched a peace conference in the Hague in the forlorn hope of taking the violence out of Yugoslavia's breakup, Croatia had lost control of a quarter of its territory and seen itself effectively split in two in the east by Serbian militants and their federal Army protectors.

New recruits. In the thickly forested mountains overlooking Zagreb from the north, volunteers for Croatia's new National Guard, created after Croatia and neighboring Slovenia declared independence June 25, receive only a few weeks' training before being sent into the firing line. An ex-instructor from the French Foreign Legion, a Croat, helps toughen up new volunteers. Why do they join? ``To defend my country,'' comes the well-rehearsed chorus from recruits. Anti-Serbian propaganda permeates Croatian television.

One news anchorman wears battle dress. Former special police units provided the foundation of the poorly financed new Army, which now may field close to 100,000 men in camouflaged combat fatigues with Croatia's red and white emblem on their berets. Some 10 percent, officers say, are Croatian deserters from the federal Army.

Troop strength seems to be governed largely by the quantity of weapons Croatia can obtain through the clandestine international arms market. ``We don't need tanks like the federal Army,'' one captain boasts. ``One tank costs $1 million, and one rocket-propelled grenade costs $500. We can destroy a tank with one rocket.'' But the federal Army not only is pressing at the Croatian Guardsmen from outside but is stationed inside the republic, with barracks in Zagreb itself.

A series of ``cease-fires'' has only escalated the violence, and even if the EC peace conference moves ahead, a settlement for 23 million Yugoslavs is likely to look very different than it would have before the civil war. Then, Croatia and Slovenia, Western-minded and better off than larger, more populous Serbia, were ready to turn Yugoslavia into a confederation of independent states -- a proposal also favored by the republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

But hatred stirred by war may now rule out that solution, which Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic argued took no account of the many Serbs living outside Serbia. The 600,000-strong Serbian minority in Croatia is the spearhead of the neo-Communist Milosevic's effort to create a ``Greater Serbia'' before Yugoslavia is officially pronounced dead.

With Slovenia, Croatia may now opt to secede entirely, like the Baltic States from Russia -- if it can do so without losing territory. It knows that Germany is first among the EC countries eager to give it recognition. But Europe also demands safeguards for the rights of the Serbian minority in Croatia, and it may be too late for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to provide them.

Protest as he will that today's Croatia is no successor to the Nazi-puppet Croatia that massacred Serbs during World War II, he is in a bind.

A firm offer of local autonomy to resident Serbs a year ago might have had some credibility.

But the nationalistic election campaign that brought Tudjman the presidency deepened the Serbs' fears about being cast adrift in an independent Croatia. Their response was to set up autonomous zones from which insurgents are now attacking Croatia.

Looming in the distance, many Croats conjecture, is a population shift within the Balkans. This has happened before, to enduring resentment, between Greece and Turkey. It would logically involve the changing of the frontiers that Croatia's new Army is desperately trying to defend. Unofficial and unpublicized scenarios being discussed in Zagreb and in Belgrade, the Serbian and federal capital, center increasingly on carving up Bosnia, where Serbs and Croats now live in somewhat lesser numbers with Muslims. That done, the former Yugoslav republics might form some new association, though Croatia and Slovenia would want to do so only under the EC's wing.

Yugoslavia's bloody turmoil, and Europe's inability to halt it, is a warning to the dissolving Soviet Union: When ethnic tensions explode into civil war, it is almost impossible to put out the fires.