Yugoslavia: How Did It Happen? Where Will It Lead? West Stymied by Serbian Aggression


London. -- For two years, war has ravaged the territories of the former Yugoslavia. It has destroyed thousands of lives, created millions of refugees. It has also demolished complacent notions born in the rush of optimism brought on by the end of the Cold War, notions cherished by Europe's leaders that they could control the destiny of their continent.

The war has thrown up questions that suggest the future might be darker than anyone anticipated.

How did it happen? Could it have been prevented? How far will it go? Will it ignite wars in other tinderbox regions in the world, or encourage the leaders of aggressor states?

It is no secret how the war that attended the break up of Yugoslavia began, or who prosecuted it first in Slovenia, then more determinedly in Croatia, and later apocalyptically in Bosnia-Herzegovinia.

Serbia is the aggressor. Its leader, Slobodan Milosovec, is a former Communist apparatchik born again in the visceral religion of nationalism and guided by a medieval vision of a Greater Serbia. He is the architect of this particular Balkan disaster, which will not reach its endgame in Bosnia.

The wars in the Balkans were permitted to develop by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Up until then, fear of the Soviets was the cement that held together the antagonistic states and ethnic groups of Yugoslavia.

Serbia, with that fear removed, deliberately set out to conquer and absorb the territory of the other national states that made up the Yugoslavia stitched together by Josip Broz Tito after World War II. Even before it attacked Slovenia in June 1991, Serbia had annexed Kosovo and Vojvodina, both autonomous provinces, and thus changed borders that were held inviolable under the Yugoslav constitution. Montenegro became a client of Belgrade.

Serbia has never been enamored of the idea of Yugoslavia, if only because the very word suggests a diminution of Serbian hegemony. Tito, a Croat, always managed to keep Serb nationalists off balance by sharing out powers and drawing borders in such a way as to frustrate those in the federation with Great Serbia ambitions. Kosovo, for instance, though the cradle of the Serbian nation, was made autonomous from Belgrade for this purpose.

Yugoslavism, as an idea, originated with the Croats in the 19th Century; it expressed the simple desire to unify all the southern slavs -- Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and some Bulgarians -- linguistically and culturally.

But it has nearly always foundered on Serb self aggrandizement or was undermined by Serb suspicion of anything emanating from Roman Catholic Croatia. This suspicion, in Serb minds, was vindicated by the apparent receptiveness of Croats to Nazi ideology during the German occupation of Yugoslavia in World War II. Even today Serbs will minimize the atrocities committed by their own when compared to the "ethnic cleansing" practiced by the Croats against the Serbs during the war.

The whole world knows Mr. Milosovec for what he is. Only David Owen, the envoy of the European Community in former Yugoslavia, the co-author of the Vance-Owen plan to divide Bosnia into separate ethnic enclaves, had the misjudgment to advance him as the man who held the key to peace in Bosnia. He persuaded some European leaders, desperate for some kind of settlement, to endorse that description of the Serbian leader.

Mr. Milosovec would, Lord Owen assured the world back in early April, restrain the Bosnian Serbs from pounding down the Bosnian Muslims. In the interest of peace and in the hope it might persuade the United Nations to loosen the sanctions against his country, he would hold back the very same people he had heretofore instigated and supplied.

It never happened. The pounding goes on. The Vance-Owen plan is dead, and in the view of many, including President Bill Clinton, should never have been put forth in the first place, since it appears to endorse the seizure of territory by force.

Everybody in the civilized world is supposed to be opposed to that. Hitler was the last one to get away with it in a big way, until he was finally stopped. The gulf war was fought in the name of the inviolability of international borders. Declarations asserting their sanctity are forever falling from the lips of Western leaders.

The most recent was unveiled this month when the leaders of the European Community, assembled in their semi-annual summit in Copenhagen, reaffirmed the sacredness of international frontiers while simultaneously pressuring the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic to surrender his, sign a cease fire and accept the partition of his country.

And Bosnia, it should be remembered, has been recognized by the EC as independent, with inviolable borders. It is a member state of the United Nations.

Could it have been prevented?

This was a war in Europe's backyard, and from the first shot it was assumed Europe would deal with it. It offered the perfect opportunity for the continent to exercise a new independence of action from the United States. France, always uncomfortable with American dominance in Europe's military affairs, was most eager to begin. It collaborated with Germany in the creation of a new joint military force outside the NATO structure. They all sought to activate the near moribund Western European Union as its military arm. The EC was to be the policy arm.

And why not? The job didn't look too big. Europe had the men. It had the military hardware. But did it have the will?

As fighting erupted in Slovenia, then spread to Croatia, and later to Bosnia, following recognition by those states by the EC and the United Nations, the EC dispatched peace delegations into the Balkans to broker ceasefires. These were always successful. The shooting stopped, at least until the envoys returned home to announce their success. Such successes followed one upon another, and more and more people died from them.

Refugees, driven from their homes by their former neighbors, were sent wandering through the hills and valleys seeking food, medical care, a place to live, even to lay their heads. The euphemism "ethnic cleansing" was added to the lexicon of war and aggression.

The tragedy unfolded on millions of television screens, and the United Nations organized its humanitarian project. Several European countries contributed troops to it. France, Britain and Spain sent the largest contingents, but many other countries sent people. In all, 23,000 civilian and military personnel are deployed in former Yugoslavia. But they are peace-keepers and aid people; they are not there to stem Serb aggression.

The Serbs were warned: They would be sanctioned; they would be isolated, maybe bombed; they were branded war criminals. Then they were warned again; the United Nations voted for economic sanctions. It did no good. They were tightened. Same effect.

The Serbs have not been turned back, and most observers by now realize they cannot be, except by force.

A question was raised at the EC summit in Copenhagen about "the collective sense of shame" that might be felt by the community's leaders. It went unanswered.

The EC's leaders might not feel deep shame over the way things have turned out in the lands where Yugoslavia used to be. But they clearly are confused, and perhaps by now they are coming to understand the limits on their powers to effect changes in their region.

How could they not? As strong as they are economically, militarily, with obvious right on their side, they have been unable to get their way against a squalid totalitarian state with a wrecked economy in possession of an obsolete military machine.

Now, even Europe's agreed-upon policy, which has been to keep giving humanitarian assistance to the war's multiplying civilian victims and to let sanctions bite ever more deeply against the Serbs, seems to be disintegrating. There have been moves to try something tougher, in particular, to lift the U.N. arms embargo to allow weapons to flow to the Bosnian Muslims so they might better defend themselves.

(In the breakup of Yugoslavia nearly all the heavy weapons fell to the Serbs, who controlled the Yugoslav National Army. The Bosnian Serbs, for instance, deploy 300 tanks; the Muslims have 40. The heavy weapons account for the Serbian successes in gaining territory against the Croats and Bosnian Muslims.)

Military experts believe lifting the embargo at this point wouldn't help the Muslims much. Truly heavy weapons, tanks and large artillery pieces, could not be delivered by air. Runways in Bosnia are not long enough to take the C-5 Galaxy needed to carry them, and ground access to the Muslim territories runs across Croatian- and Serbian-held regions.

By this point, most observers of events in former Yugoslavia in Europe have concluded there is only one way to check the Serbs: massive armed intervention into the Balkans, large numbers of troops deployed as an expression of the will of the "international community."

This realization provokes the most crucial question of all:

Who will be the first to fight?

It brings deep silence to the councils of state in Brussels, New York, Washington, even in Moscow, which is seemingly eager to associate itself with Western enterprises.

And why not? War is a serious business.

Historically, states have not been driven to war by sympathy, or in response to atrocities committed upon people not their own. The Allies did not fight Germany to save the Jews, Gypsies and other victims of Nazi homicide. States fight when they are directly threatened, invaded, their vital interests, as they perceive them, menaced. Or they aggress against weaker states -- as Serbia is now doing -- for advantage.

Dr. Jonathan Eyal, the director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute here, believes Britain, France and the rest of Europe will not fight Serbia because, as far as they can see, they are not likely ever to feel the direct pain of Serbian attack.

Usually, opposition political leaders and commenting journalists and academics beat the drums for interventions the loudest. That is what is happening now, in Europe and in the United States.

But these people have no responsibility for the consequences of the strategies they advocate. Britain's Prime Minister John Major, even French President Francois Mitterrand, who made a daring visit to the besieged Sarajevo, know that. Both are cautious, and extremely wary of deeper commitment in the Balkans. In the United States, the idea has almost no popular support at all.

What will be the impact of the wars? How far will they go?

Balkan scholars here expect Kosovo to be the next area of conflict, then probably Macedonia, formerly a part of Yugoslavia that has been trying to win recognition, an effort that has been frustrated mainly by Greek objections to its very name, which is the same of one of Greece's provinces.

"In most scenarios, Kosovo will be next," said Michael Clarke, head of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College.

Kosovo, the former autonomous province of Yugoslavia just north of Albania, is ruled oppresively by the 10 percent of its population who are Serbs. The other 90 percent, all Albanians (and Muslim), are more than restive, and sooner or later an explosion is expected, with the Albanians rioting against their Serb oppressors, probably with the aim of joining Kosovo to Albania.

"The message now is that it's all right to change borders by force. That's the message of Yugoslavia, of Bosnia," said Mr. Clarke. "It won't be lost on the Albanians."

It may even reach the ears of the leaders of other predatory states far removed from the Balkans.

"We reckon it will come some time before the end of this year," Mr. Clarke continued.

Kosovo is regarded as the Balkan time bomb. An explosion there would not only bring a furious Serbian crackdown on the Kosovan Albanians, but almost certainly involve Albania in their defense. This would inflame the large numbers of Muslims in Macedonia.

"Once the perception is abroad that Macedonia is going the way of Bosnia," Mr. Clarke said, "everyone will rush in to grab parts of it. Serbia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria."

Greece, an Orthodox Christian state, is sympathetic toward Orthodox Serbia. Its involvement against Muslims in Macedonia, or Albania, could likely draw in Muslim Turkey, a fellow NATO member.

The prognosis is for spreading disaster.

"It is not inevitable," said Mr. Clarke, "but that's the way we are going."

Slobodan Milosovec controls the government of Serbia, the organs of information to the public; he determines what politics are allowed in Serbia. He has created there what historian Branka Magas described as "a racially based, proto-fascist formation that can survive only by creating new sources of war and conflict."

The Serbian leader has been sanctioned, threatened and cajoled (especially by Lord Owen). Nothing so far has deterred him from his aim of creating Greater Serbia. His progress in changing the maps of Europe is more visible every day.

Perhaps he knows something. Perhaps he has the same low opinion of the "international community" held by Dr. Eyal, who sees it as an aggregation of states without the will to meet this most crucial test.

None of the leaders of the Western countries, he believes, has been yet convinced that "Yugoslavia is truly important to them. Not important enough to put troops on the ground."

Richard O'Mara is a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, based in London.

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