How the Serbs Hoodwinked U.S., NATO BETWEEN THE CROSS HAIRS


Various delegates to the U.N. General Assembly have said that the Bosnia fiasco may well prove to be the coffin for the United Nations, and if it is true, there are those among us who will not weep too long beside the grave.

Now, however, the continued viability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is in serious question. Before the damage goes any further, it would behoove the member states of the hitherto successful alliance to carefully examine how this came about.

The origin of the present Balkan fighting lies, quite simply, in the desire of the Communist regime in Belgrade to unleash war as a means to maintain itself in power.

The Yugoslav Federation in the late 1970s went through a precipitous economic decline. The 1980s saw the rise of various ethnic tensions which had been dormant.

The most critical was in the Kosovo region within the Republic of Serbia, where conflicts between the Serbian minority and the 90 percent Albanian majority reached a flash-point in bloody riots in 1981.

At first, the Communist elites in all the six constituent republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia) agreed broadly on a policy of gradual reform and heavy repression that kept the problem from boiling over. It was successful to the extent that the other ethnic conflicts in the federation were played out in the normal constitutional framework, unaffected by the spirit of outright revolt.

Then, in 1987 and 1988, Slobodan Milosevic ousted the previous leader of the Serbian Communist Party, assumed control of the republic and embarked on an effort to reverse the effect of the 1974 constitution by centralizing political power to the extent of practically establishing a unitary state.

That constitution, while leaving in place a Serbian hegemony due to Serbia's size and domination of the army, intelligence services, diplomatic corps and banking system, sought to balance the interests of the various nationalities by devolving substantial powers to the republics without in any way allowing a challenge to Communist control.

The vehicle for this centralization program was Serbian nationalism, which Mr. Milosevic whipped into a frenzy through his control of virtually all Serbian media.

Tales of the timeless Serbian martyrdom filled the airwaves and newspapers. Typical of this propaganda campaign was a tour of the villages of the Serbian countryside featuring a young Serbian woman allegedly raped by numerous Albanians. Last year, she confessed to the theatrical nature of her "rapes."

After tensions with Croatia escalated, the propaganda machine featured endless film footage of the hideous massacres of Serbs by the Nazi-allied puppet state in Croatia during World War II. The propaganda failed to mention the Serbian massacres of Croats, or the Muslims who suffered the worst losses proportional to their population of any ethnic group during that time.

The propaganda assault went hand-in-hand with the government's embrace of a Serbian chauvinistic thesis that the internal boundaries of Titoist Yugoslavia had been drawn in such a way as to exclude from the Serbian Republic large areas which were properly hers.

These areas, almost none of which had ever been part of any Serbian state even in the Middle Ages, contained some districts with Serbian majorities. The question of large non-Serbian minorities within Serbia was not addressed.

All this stimulated much understandable fear of Serbian designs and aroused nationalist sentiments in the other republics -- except for Montenegro, which is mostly Serbian.

The alarm at the intentions behind this Serbian state-orchestrated hysteria intensified in 1988 when Mr. Milosevic ousted the leadership and in 1989 abrogated the constitutional autonomy of Kosovo and the largely Hungarian province of Voyvodina.

In the spring of 1990, Slovenia and Croatia held the first multiparty elections of the Communist era of Yugoslavia, which were won by non-Communist, nationalistic parties.

At first the new governments in these westernmost republics did not seek independence but rather made declarations of "sovereignty," which upheld the primacy of the central government's law over the constituent republics.

They then entered into negotiations with Belgrade to formalize a "confederal" alternative to the Serbian drive for complete centralization. Belgrade responded to all proposals by flatly stating that any change would mean war.

The mostly Serbian-inhabited areas of Croatia, acting directly under Belgrade's orders, escalated their demands for cultural autonomy within the Croatian state to an insistence on something very close to full independence.

These demands were quite properly refused by Croatia. Then Mr. Milosevic arranged, supplied and managed a full-scale rebellion against the the unarmed Croatian state as a prelude to the federal army joining the war.

It is at this juncture that Western and especially U.S. policy made its first tragic mistakes.

Instead of making clear to Mr. Milosevic that a war of anti-democratic, Serbian chauvinism against the other nationalities of the federation would be unacceptable, Washington led him to believe that any measure taken to preserve the federation would be acceptable.

It would have been one thing to try to avoid the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, but the Bush administration went further than that.

Part of the reason was an unseemly closeness between the architects of Washington's Yugoslav policy and the Serbian regime, including Mr. Milosevic himself.

Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1977 to 1981, subsequently became director for the U.S. branch of the Ljubjana Bank of Yugoslavia and also of Global Motors, the American distributor of the Yugo car.

He also helped to found Kissinger Associates, the public policy consulting and lobbying firm. One of the firm's largest accounts was the Yugoslav government.

To what extent U.S. policy was affected by these personal and business affiliations, and to what extent it was the result of a mind-set that saw Yugoslavia as an indispensable bulwark against the Soviets, is something we may never know.

But the result of U.S. policy was disastrous.

When Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and some close political advisers visited President Bush in Washington to make their case in 1991, they asked National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, also a former member of the Kissinger firm, whether official U.S. disapproval of Yugoslavia's breakup would tolerate massive Yugoslav army repression in Croatia.

They were told it would.

This pattern of weak-spirited and dishonest appeasement of the aggressor and bullying of the victim has been the main feature of both U.S. and European policy in the Balkans throughout the war.

Early last summer, Lord Owen, the European Union's chief "mediator," was on the Charlie Rose TV talk show explaining why the Bosnian government should accept the deal being offered.

The plan allocated 51 percent of Bosnia to the Muslim-led government and 49 percent to the Serbian rebels, who are recruited locally but depend completely on Belgrade for military, food and technical supplies.

Lord Owen explained how each time the Bosnians had shown reluctance to concede territory to the rebels, they had ended up having to settle for even less at subsequent negotiations -- from the London conferences, the Vance-Owen proposal, to the plan presently on the table.

Leaving aside the fact that Lord Owen did not clarify how the Serbian nationalist side had waged a war of carefully planned genocidal aggression, his message was an incredibly dishonest attempt to deceive the American people into thinking the Bosnian side had been inflexible, whereas it had, in fact, under heavy pressure from the West, agreed to each of these compromises.

It was the aggressor who refused to compromise in each instance. Western promises to punish the aggressors if they did not sign came to nothing. Each time, Lord Owen blamed the victim.

All of which brings us to the present sorry state of affairs in the Balkans.

Despite the irresolute performance of the Clinton administration, Congress has made noises and taken actions that make the West's disgraceful breaking of its promises even more embarrassing than it already was.

NATO cannot, it seems, order the punitive airstrikes without the permission of the U.N. peacekeeping forces, mainly British and French troops.

The result, among other things, has been the bombing of an airfield without destroying the warplanes on it and the bombing of an armored vehicle whose crew had been warned to leave in timely fashion.

After the near overrunning of the Bihac "safe haven," U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali resolved to present the Serbian rebel army with "rock bottom" conditions for continued deployment of U.N. forces in the country.

Sen. Bob Dole's declaration stating the obvious -- that the British and French vetoing of airstrikes makes for a "complete breakdown" of NATO -- has provoked outrage from British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, who thinks that Americans lack the moral standing to say such things when they have no troops on the ground in Bosnia themselves.

Luckily, we have a little moral standing to spare, having put forth an effort on behalf of Europe's defense over the past half-century commensurate with Europe's own.

To make matters even worse, European sages appear on "Nightline" to inform us that, for the first time ever, America is being spoken of with contempt on the streets of London and Paris, which comes as some surprise.

Besides this extravagant show of ruffled feathers in European capitals, another alleged reason for continuing our policy of appeasement is the notion that anything else will disturb Russian national sentiment so violently that Moscow's progress to full-blown democracy will be derailed.

Actually, the whole media hullabaloo about the eternal and passionate bonds of friendship between the Russian and Serbian peoples is the creation of Western diplomacy and its endless search for fig leaves.

In fact, Russian political patronage of this or that Balkan state over the past 150 years has been a mighty flexible program, always subject to the dictates of raw political opportunism.

At various times Russia has backed Bulgaria against Serbia and Greece, Serbia against Bulgaria, and Bulgaria and Yugoslavia against Greece.

However, the constant chorus of voices raised in support of the myth of unbreakable Serbian-Russian fraternity has bred an unwelcome reality of its own.

The Russian diplomatic posture of two years ago was decidedly standoffish toward the Balkan war, whereas now it insists that the area be treated as something like a co-sphere of influence.

It was not necessary or advisable to hand over to Moscow this considerable quantity of unearned political capital.

The effect of doing so within Russia has been to strengthen the hand of those factions that are frankly imperialist and weaken the hand of those who are the most sincere reformers.

The official and overly optimistic Western assessments of the Russian situation are partly driven by wishful thinking. There is no constituency for a return to the Cold War.

Of course, they are driven as well by Western business interests that are eager to invest and turn a profit in the former Soviet Union, preferably the old-fashioned way, with the pot nicely sweetened by taxpayer subsidies and loan guarantees.

However, the irrefutable, rarely mentioned reality is that the old Soviet military and political aristocracy, while in some disarray, is still in a controlling position.

NATO was credited with collapsing the will of this aristocracy. But recent Russian interventions in the Caucasus proves it has retained some capacity for malevolence. We can be sure that Western paralysis in the Balkans is a temptation for every criminally minded political adventurer in a region bristling with arms and wracked by economic crisis.

If in these circumstances NATO cannot at least enforce the principle of no violation of internationally recognized borders in south central Europe against an aggressor of totalitarian Communist antecedents, it has become nothing more than a vehicle for its member states to avoid responsibility for their collective commitments and their individual national interests.

It may be that its dismantlement is a bad idea whose time has come.

Alan Potter is the former director of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Information Center.

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