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Croatian elections: Can Croats and Serbs live together in peace?

April 12, 1997

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ Six years after the outbreak of war in this former Yugoslav republic, Sunday’s nationwide elections are a crucial test of whether Croats and the Serbs who rebelled against their rule can live together in peace.

President Franjo Tudjman, who led his country to independence riding a wave of Croatian nationalism, made a rare conciliatory gesture during his campaign:

He offered the Serbs a common future with ``all civic and ethnic rights″ if they accept Croatian rule.

Still wary, however, are many of the estimated 150,000 Serbs in eastern Slavonia, a swath of easternmost Croatia bordering Serbia.

Serbs are expected to win in several of the 30 municipalities in the region in the vote for local councils and the upper house of parliament.

But many people are concerned that Serbs will leave the region if Croats win an overwhelming majority. Serbs also fear discrimination and reprisals from returning Croats when the area, now patrolled by U.N. soldiers, returns to Croatian control in July.

About 3,000 Serbs have already left, and only about half of those remaining have registered to vote.

Last month, Serbs threw eggs and bricks at candidates of Tudjman’s ruling Croatian Democratic Union.

A third of Croatia fell to Serb rebels backed by the Yugoslav army in a six-month war in 1991, in which 10,000 people died. Croatia regained most of the land in a summer 1995 offensive, but the return of eastern Slavonia was settled only in a 1995 November accord.

Tudjman is presenting the scheduled return as an election-year triumph. Already, he is urging Croats to ride a tentatively scheduled ``Freedom Train″ to Vukovar _ the eastern Slavonia town that gained mythic status in after the Serbs drove out Croat residents and nearly leveled it when they took it in November 1991.

The ailing Tudjman, a 74-year-old former general in the old Yugoslav army, has faced widespread allegations of corruption and cronyism that analysts say could cost him votes.

Using his near-monopoly on the media, he has run a relentless campaign to tar his opponents and portray himself as the only true patriot.

The Croatian Helsinki Committee, a local human rights watchdog, said the ruling party gets up to 70 percent of the television time allotted to political parties.

Tudjman left the fiercest outbursts to his satellite, the Croatian Party of Rights, which harks back to the Nazi puppet state in Croatia during World War II that was run by fascist leader Ante Pavelic. Its leader, Anto Djapic, has called for eastern Slavonia to become a Serb-free area.

In his campaign, Tudjman has put the fascist state in a historic line of Croatian attempts at independence. He has also tried to brand the opposition Social Democrats as unreformed communists, suggesting an association with the old Yugoslavia.

An election poster for the governing party showed two policemen, one with the red star of communism on his cap, hustling away a terrified man. ``Think about it ... remember,″ warns the caption.

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