Yugoslav Crackup

June 27, 1991

Yugoslavia is the world writ small. If its groups can learn to live in harmony, perhaps there is hope for us all. If they cannot, it is harder to be optimistic about the globe where the racial, religious and linguistic divides are so much greater.

The Slovenian and Croatian republics' declarations of independence are valiant, inspirational, wrong-headed and dangerous. They would go naked and alone into a world for which they are not economically or militarily equipped. Croatia lacks a united people and clear border; it contains a Serbian minority as indigestible as Croatians are for federal Yugoslavia.

Small wonder the family of nations opens no door to these foundlings on the doorstep. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is emphatic that they are not sovereign and that the United States does not recognize them. The European Community, which they see as the ultimate rescuer throwing out life rafts, is equally emphatic that it will not. To do so would fan nationalisms threatening EC member countries in such provinces as Catalonia, Ulster, the Basque country, Corsica and Flanders.

It is hard to imagine separate Yugoslav sovereignties at peace. The Slovenian and Croatian militias are no match for the Serb-officered Yugoslav federal army, and are left to count on ethnic tensions in the ranks. Should Serbs in Croatia secede, the Croatian militia might slaughter many but could not withstand the Yugoslav-Serb forces defending them. A truncated Serbian state would compete with Albania for Kosovo province (the heartland of medieval Serbia populated almost entirely by Albanians). The tyranny of Stalinist Albania has been more compelling than Serbian force in dissuading Kosovo Albanians from declaring adherence to Albania. Now that tyranny is fading.

The aspirations of admirable and anti-Communist Slovenians and Croatians, in the grip of Serbian-dominated and Communist Yugoslavian institutions, deserve sympathy. But so do the fears of Serbs in Croatia, remembering the coerced conversions, pogroms and genocide directed against their elders by the last independent Croatia, a Nazi puppet state in the 1940s.

The U.S. and European effort to convince the Yugoslavs to overcome their differences in a looser federation is the right policy. Their explosive quarrel may not touch off a world war as it did in 1914, because the superpowers and Europe are determined not to let it. But it is a menace to themselves.

Presidents Milan Kucan of Slovenia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia are great leaders of small peoples who are condemned by their successes to act as statesmen, a role for which experience has not prepared them. Their peoples can be saved the horrors of war and economic collapse if they regard the Slovenian and Croatian declarations of independence as bargaining positions. And get on with the bargaining.

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