Danger in Yugoslavia

December 15, 1990

The end to the Cold War led too many people to assume that threats to the peace are over. Iraq's aggression disabused them. Yet many still take for granted that the possibility of war in Europe has ended. That, also, is unhappily untrue. The impending breakup of Yugoslavia may bring war between the Serbian Republic and its neighbors unless the emerging political leaders show greater statesmanship than they have.

Last Sunday's election in the Serbian Republic retained the Communist (now Socialist) government of Slobodan Milosevic, which has grafted Serbian nationalism onto the most orthodox relic of Titoist communism. A similar outcome obtained in Montenegro. The anti-Marxist opposition in Serbia denounced the result as fraudulent. In the autonomous province of Kosovo, where Serbian authority had suppressed local institutions, the Albanian majority boycotted the vote.

So Mr. Milosevic has a strengthened mandate to pursue those policies which provoke passionate opposition among the non-Serbian nationalities in Yugoslavia's six republics and two autonomous provinces. Slovenia, the wealthiest and Westernmost republic, holds a plebiscite Dec. 23 on independence. Serbia could let the two million Slovenes go. But that would encourage the other Western and prosperous republic, Croatia, to follow suit when it adopts a constitution.

As protector of Serbs outside Serbia, Mr. Milosevic has said that Serbia would reopen the border questions if republics secede from a centralized Yugoslavia. The conflict with the Albanian people of Kosovo is established, and the potential for conflict with Croatia is clear. There is also the chance of Macedonian secession in the south, and the mosaic of nationalities to shatter both Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Serbs are the largest group, about two-fifths, of Yugoslavs. They feel deprived of rightful dominance by the claims of the smaller nationalities. What impends is a clash of Serbs against all other Yugoslavs, regardless of how little Slovenes share culturally or politically with Albanians.

It was Serbian revanchism against Austrian imperialism in Bosnia-Herzegovina that touched off the horrors of World War I. Presumably the great powers Germany and Russia would not champion rival sides this time as they did then. But it is possible to imagine neighboring champions for the rival nationalities. A lot more than Yugoslavia is at risk if Yugoslavia breaks up.

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