Yugoslavia at the Brink

March 19, 1991

A full measure of the crisis facing Yugoslavia might best be taken by glancing at the Soviet Union. President Mikhail Gorbachev seems to have won a very lukewarm vote of approval for his formula for preserving the union of 15 Soviet republics as a unitary state. His main opponent is Boris Yeltsin, president of the huge Russian Federation, who favors a much looser confederation with the right of secession underscored.

Now imagine Mr. Yeltsin as a Communist Party hardliner with close ties to the army and the KGB (though he is, in fact, quite the opposite -- a politician who has declared Communism dead and pushes for democracy and a capitalistic free market.) Imagine, too, that Mr. Yeltsin is a revanchist Russian nationalist intent on expanding his own republic and dominating other republics (though, in fact, he has championed the right of secession by all republics and has threatened none). Imagine, finally, that the central government in Moscow is a weak, non-ideological collective presidency (though, in fact, it is becoming increasingly hard-core Communist with the backing of the military).

Put all those imaginings together, and the result is post-Tito Yugoslavia, a country whose troubles are as deep as and perhaps even more urgent than the Soviet Union's. Yugoslavia, a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces which form a mosaic of Balkan tribalism and ethnic rivalry, stands today at the brink of dismemberment or civil war.

The main protagonist in this struggle is Slobodan Milosevic, president of the large Serbian Republic, whose preference would be a tight, hardline Communist union controlled from Belgrade by a Serb-officered army. His current tactic is to try to undermine the collective presidency. But there is reason to suspect Mr. Milosevic's real aim is to provoke a Croatian-Serbian clash that would rally the army to his side, with the end result the "Greater Serbia" Mr. Milosevic has long championed.

The trouble with such plotting is that it often leads to strife and to results that had not been contemplated. Because of a plummeting economic situation, Mr. Milosevic hardly commands the kind of solid popular support from his Serbian people that he would like to have. This was shown when crowds took to the streets of Belgrade last week not to cheer him but to condemn him. The protest led to two deaths, a number of injuries and Mr. Milosevic's having to loosen his control of the media and fire his interior minister.

It was in that context that he had a Serbian ally, Borisav Jovic, resign as head of the collective presidency, and the representatives of three other constituencies do the same, thus denying the executive unit a quorum. And it was in that context that he came close to having Serbia secede, a move that must have Josip Broz Tito rolling in his grave.

Yugoslavia is described as being in its "death agony." No doubt the Soviets are watching closely for a clue to their own future.

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