Serbia at the Brink


Two developments in the outside world brought the mad Bosnian Serb politicians to the U.N. conference table in Athens today.

One was the Russian election. It --ed the hopes of Serb leaders that Boris Yeltsin, who has responsibly agreed to U.N. sanctions, would fall. They wanted Russian nationalists to come to power grandstanding sympathy for Serbia. They counted on, at the least, a weakened Yeltsin parroting Russian nationalist foreign policy. It did not happen. The greatest danger inherent in an American policy of restraining Serbia -- confrontation with Russia -- has receded.

The second development, which the Russian election made easier, was President Clinton's tougher rhetorical policy. This included backing stronger sanctions and thinking out loud about arming the Bosnian regime or bombing Serbian artillery positions in Bosnia. The message seems to be getting through.

Especially to Serbia's strongman president, Slobodan Milosevic, and to his people. Their economy is shot. Their notion of living in comfort, oblivious to atrocities committed in the name of their nationalism, is gone. It is Mr. Milosevic, whose steel will has driven this catastrophe forward, who lurches to the moderate end of the Serbian spectrum. He signed on to the Vance-Owen plan for dividing Bosnia into 10 semi-autonomous provinces.

And it is Mr. Milosevic who gets through to the supposedly independent leader of Bosnia's Serbian minority, Radovan Karadzic. Dr. Karadzic's militiamen methodically murder, rape, torture and steal. Having arranged for the "Bosnian Serb parliament" to reject the Vance-Owen plan, Dr. Karadzic had second thoughts after Mr. Milosevic apparently threatened to suspend aid.

Commentator William Pfaff has expounded his theory that Croatia's and Bosnia's Serb parties are monsters created by Mr. Milosevic that grew beyond his control. That is probably as good a basis as any for understanding the convoluted politics. Mr. zTC Milosevic is trying to regain control, and Dr. Karadzic's "Bosnian Serb republic" lives only on Serbian aid.

President Clinton, after Boris Yeltsin's victory, helped to concentrate Serbia's mind. He has labored to bring European allies into agreement, a diplomatic challenge equal to President Bush's enlistment of Arab states against Iraqi aggression. The goal must be to pierce Mr. Milosevic's media curtain and inform the Serbs of the consequences of atrocities committed in their name. In the end it will be the Serbian people who will rein-in Mr. Milosevic and Dr. Karadzic. Mr. Clinton is helping them do it. No other Western statesman could.


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