Yugoslavia on the Brink

July 04, 1991

In a prudent mid-course correction of policy, the Western democracies now perceive the avoidance of all-out civil war as more important than preserving the Yugoslav federation in its present form. It took bloody fighting in Slovenia, with provocations on both sides, and clear defiance of civilian control by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army to force this reassessment. And it comes just in time, or perhaps too late.

There is a real danger that full-scale battles, in Slovenia and Croatia, could break out as early as today as federal tanks move jTC into crack-down positions. Western authorities, jolted out of their ritualistic invocations of Yugoslav unity and territorial integrity, now see ethnic bloodshed as the greater challenge to stability in post-Cold War Europe.

Italy and Austria have all but said they are prepared to recognize Slovenia and Croatia as sovereign nations if civil war is unleashed. Germany's foreign minister has accused the Yugoslav army of "running amok." Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, his own nation under pressure from Slovakian separatism, declared recourse to force in Yugoslavia would be "absolutely inadmissible."

Perhaps the most dramatic switch of policy is evident at the State Department. Only two weeks ago, on his first visit to Yugoslavia, Secretary of State James A. Baker III warned against the breakup of Yugoslavia, saying Washington would not recognize Slovenia and Croatia. But as the situation worsened after these states declared independence last week, the new American line was that "we do not support the use of force to preserve Yugoslavia's unity." The various republics of that multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious nation were advised to work out their own destiny so long as it is peaceful.

Whether this burst of outside pressure can influence hardline Communist elements in the Yugoslav military to relent from an armed solution is a matter of conjecture. Gen. Blagoje Adzic, the army chief of staff, got the world's attention by warning that "we have to accept war because we cannot accept giving up." His defiance of civilian authority in the person of Stipo Mesic, a Croatian currently in charge of Yugoslavia's collective presidency, left Mr. Mesic to fret that a military coup was "not yet a reality, although there have been threats."

The immediate need is to secure and keep a cease fire. If the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe could bring this off, it would be a noble precedent for avoiding mayhem elsewhere. Realism dictates, however, that Yugoslavia cannot return to the state it was before this crisis, with a still-Communist Serbia trying to dominate republics intent on becoming part of European democracy. It will have to be a looser confederation, perhaps (if this is not stretching things too far) a prototype for the peaceful evolution of the Soviet Union. The first order of business, though, is the avoidance of war, and on this point the prospects are far from encouraging.

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