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While Yugoslavia faces an election crisis that will determine its relationship with the West, one of its former republics is courting America through military exercises along the Balkan coast.

Croatian voters ousted their nationalist party earlier this year. Now, Croatian soldiers fire weapons alongside U.S. Marines in maneuvers near the seaside city of Split. U.S. military officials deny the joint exercise has anything to do with election tensions in nearby Yugoslavia. They do, however, say it will promote Balkan stability.

Croats “want to become members of NATO,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a 6th Fleet spokesman in Split. “They are members of Partnership for Peace.”

Partnership for Peace is a collective of countries participating in NATO exercises with hopes of joining. Though this week’s exercises are not sponsored by NATO, U.S. officials believe Croatian participation bodes well for its future with the organization.

The exercise began Monday and ends Friday. About 400 U.S. Marines are training with about 400 Croats from the 4th Army Brigade, a coastal defense unit. Together, they made an island landing Tuesday, with Marines both attacking and defending the beach. They will fire small arms together Thursday.

Balice said it allows both nations’ troops to familiarize themselves with each other’s weapons.

Tuesday marked the first time U.S. and Croatian troops have practiced storming a beachhead together. Croatia has no dedicated landing force of its own.

The drills — called “Phiblex 2000” — come at an interesting time. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic admits he lost Sunday’s election to opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica. But Milosevic also claims his margin of defeat was too narrow, and he now demands a runoff.

The opposition rejects the idea and has urged Yugoslavs to protest in the streets. The party planned a massive Belgrade rally for Wednesday evening. America watches, but its public critique of the election has been reserved.

“I think we are waiting for the results now, but it’s very clear by our policy what we think of that government,” said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart during a Tuesday press briefing. “I believe our policy speaks in a way that’s much more effective and certainly as loudly as rhetoric.”

The Navy maintains the Croatian operation is not aimed at cowing Milosevic, or dousing any smoldering troubles before October elections in Kosovo and Bosnia.

“The exercise is not in response to, or directed against, a specific threat in the region,” said Capt. Steve Honda, the Navy’s top spokesman at its European headquarters in London.

Instead, Honda labeled Phiblex 2000 a “clear and visible example of Croatia’s commitment to regional stability.”

Balice said the Navy initially planned the maneuvers in March, shortly after the Croatian elections made them possible. Croatia joined Partnership for Peace in May.

“The bottom line is, we’ve been planning these exercises since March, well before the [Yugoslav] elections,” Balice said.

Some news reports were skeptical. U.S. forces have drilled in or around the Balkans during critical events before, such as Milosevic’s refusal to withdraw troops from Kosovo, eventually resulting in NATO’s air campaign.

“Most multinational exercises are intended to make some political point. That’s a given,” said John Pike, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, a military think tank. “It certainly wouldn’t be merely coincidental. The whole area is obviously at a very critical juncture.”

The ship that taxied the Marines to Croatia, the USS Austin, has steamed just 150 miles off Yugoslavia’s pro-Western republic of Montenegro. Still, one Navy official dismissed as preposterous the idea that the Austin and 400 Marines were enough to spin the wheels of Yugoslavian politics.

Whatever the case, Pike does not believe Yugoslav election chaos will result in American or allied intervention.

“We’re pretty much leaning on [Yugoslavia] as much as we can,” Pike said. “There are obviously limits to overtly influencing the elections.”

He believes the key to seeing Serbia follow the course of Croatia rests in the wallet, not the holster. Pike said instead of waving a weapon at Serbia, Clinton waves a carrot: Dump Milosevic, we drop trade sanctions.

“Our influence over them is much more in the carrot direction.”

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