BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Yugoslavia's simmering civil wa entered a new stage this week as a European Community-brokered peace plan provided a fig leaf for the warring parties to catch their breath and prepare for the next stage in the long-term and violent disintegration of Yugoslavia.
As a 10-member European Community delegation discussed the practical details of sending teams of observers to monitor a cease-fire in Slovenia as part of the plan, sporadic Serb-Croat violence continued. So did war preparations.
The preliminary talks focused on the scope and duration of the mission of the multinational monitoring team and the terms under which its members would be granted diplomatic immunity and freedom of movement and communications.
According to the agreement, the monitoring team consisting of lTC up to 50 civilian and military officials is to "supervise the situation in Yugoslavia, especially in Slovenia, and perhaps also in Croatia." It seems unlikely that Serbia would agree to allow Croatia to internationalize its independence quest in this way.
The whole exercise seems increasingly questionable with the leaders of Yugoslavia's two largest ethnic groups embarked on a course reminiscent of times when this region was referred to as the Balkans tinderbox. They seemed to be threatening to light an ethnic fuse that would set off explosions in other ethnically troubled areas of the country.
Amid escalating propaganda salvos, Slovenia may well prove just a warm-up sideshow for the main war between Serbs and Croats.
Perhaps the best illustration of their hatreds came when Yugoslavia's titular head of state, Croatia's Stipe Mesic, publicly denounced Serbia's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, as Europe's "new Hitler."
The last functioning central authority is the Yugoslav high command, which itself is under severe attack. The military-supported political party -- known as the League of Communists-the Movement for Yugoslavia -- began organizing its own paramilitary units throughout the country yesterday as a measure "to assist" the armed forces.
At the same time, Croatia's leaders formally demanded the dismissal of key Serb generals, including the chief of staff, Gen. Blagoje Adzic.
As the week went on, violence escalated in the Serbian enclaves in Croatia -- where 700,000 Serbs live on approximately one-third of Croatian land. The violence also erupted in Serbian villages in the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Residents in the enclaves say that ethnic tensions have been stirred up from outside in recent months and that the territory is on a war footing.
The forces mobilized by Serbia in its province of Kosovo are the territorial defense units. The Serb-dominated federal army has also placed its forces on combat alert for fear that the 2 million ethnic Albanians there would stage an insurrection in the event of a war with Croatia. Albania also placed its forces on combat alert.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Muslim citizens are refusing to respond to an army call-up of reservists. Thousands of desertions have been reported. (Muslims make up 48 percent of the republic's 4.5 million people.)
Most critical is the situation in eastern Croatia. Yugoslav army troops and tanks have already entered the disputed area to prevent bloody Serb-Croat clashes. Thousands of Serb women and children are fleeing and crossing the Danube River into Serbia, but their armed menfolk remain to guard their villages. Croatian officials said the exodus was a prelude to a Serbian attack on the area.
A curious movement of mothers traveling in organized groups around the country to collect their sons who are serving in the army appears to be manipulated by nationalists on both sides to bring about the collapse of the army.
"To quit the army is an honorable act," said Zarko Domljan, Croatia's parliamentary president.
Serbian politicians led by ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj are saying that the army should be turned into a Serbian army "since Slovenes and Croats have left it anyway."
It seems only a matter of time before the army begins to disintegrate along ethnic lines and fragments into different armies for the warring republics. Diplomats here believe that could come soon, perhaps later this summer.
With chaos, lawlessness and violence the order of the day, factories have come to a standstill in many parts of the country. Travel is difficult -- impossible in some cases -- because of numerous roadblocks manned by various ethnic militias. Trains are stopped and searched by armed groups. There is virtually no public transport around key Croatian industrial cities such as Osijek, in the east, and Sisak, in central Croatia. Croatian radio said all traffic was blocked around the Serb enclave of Krajina, from the towns of Petrinja and Glina in the north to Knin and Benkovci in the south.
Western diplomats said Yugoslavia's economic situation was catastrophic. Tourism, one of the country's principal sources of hard currency, has been virtually wiped out by the unrest. Compounding the problem is the collapse of the banking system, resulting in the loss of another major source of hard currency -- remittances from Yugoslav workers employed in Western Europe.
The third profitable part of Yugoslavia's economy -- agriculture -- is also severely endangered. Croatia's Information Minister Hrvoje Hitrec said the Serbian leaders from eastern Croatia have proposed a 15-day truce for harvesting. There was no immediate Croatian response.
Thus the stage appears to have been set. Slovenia has virtually won its independence, but not Croatia. Serbia said that Croatia could be allowed to secede but that those people who did still want to be part of Yugoslavia should have the same right of self-determination as Croatians.
This means that all the Serbs living in Croatia (as well as the ethnically mixed republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina) would be allowed to join with Serbia. Most observers believe that this could not be accomplished without a bloody conflict.