Intractable Yugoslav ethnic strife highlights European disarray

August 07, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The European Community seems crippled over Yugoslavia as the gap becomes more apparent between what it wants to see happen there and what it can do.

The community's members are not together, and that more than anything else limits their options.

This was never more evident than yesterday, when the foreign ministers of the community emerged from an emergency meeting in The Hague and called on virtually every other country in the world -- through the United Nations and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- to help them find a way to prevent the fighting in Yugoslavia from blowing up into a full-scale civil war.

The ministers agreed to ask the Western European Union to look into ways to bring about and preserve a cease-fire in Yugoslavia. The WEU, an interstate agency outside NATO and the EC,

designed to coordinate military activities of the European countries, is expected to meet here today.

There had been talk of a European military force for Yugoslavia, stimulated mainly by French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. No decision was taken by the European Community ministers on such a force.

Germany, for its part, has urged economic sanctions against Serbia. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said that Serbia clearly bore responsibility" for the continuing violence. EC aid to Yugoslavia -- well over $1 billion -- has already been suspended.

But Germany itself is constitutionally barred from participating in any kind of European "interposition force," as Mr. Dumas calls it, in Yugoslavia.

will not take part in any such planning, if it occurs," German Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg said in Bonn yesterday.

France and Germany are also not in accord on a diplomatic approach to Yugoslavia, despite the surface unity of yesterday's meeting.

France wants to keep Yugoslavia together. Germany favors recognizing the republics of Croatia and Slovenia, which declared independence June 25.

The Germans also seem determined to place the full blame for the fighting, which so far has killed 300 people, on Serbia and its leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

Britain, with its forces deeply entrenched in Northern Ireland, seems the most reluctant among the EC countries to get involved militarily in Yugoslavia. Douglas Hogg, Britain's deputy foreign minister, said yesterday, "We can't impose peace by military force. That is just not practical."

The Netherlands and Portugal support the British position.

The ministers called on the Yugoslav federal presidency to organize a peace conference.

But fighting continued in Croatia yesterday, despite a report of a cease-fire from the Yugoslavian news agency, Tanjug.

The EC's frustration and division over Yugoslavia grow out of the failure of its previous efforts at peacemaking and the tacit acknowledgment of some of its members that there is no legal basis, or precedent, for acting with military force in Yugoslavia.

This is all weighed against Europe's natural desire to prevent a blood bath in its own backyard, and its historical memory of purely regional crises dragging the whole continent into all-out conflagration. Not the least of these was World War I, ignited by the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist.

"There is nothing effectively that Europe can do directly to ensure that Yugoslavia stays together or not," said Robert Skidelsky, professor of political economy at the University of Warwick in Coventry.

"It has no basis for intervention as yet. Yugoslavia is not threatening its neighbors. Its internal disputes are not yet spilling over into its neighboring countries."

Mr. Skidelsky sees events in Yugoslavia as another consequence of the withdrawal of Communist dictatorial control over the whole region east of former West Germany, an outbreak similar to that between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Soviet Union, the continuing animosities between Slovaks and Czechs in Czechoslovakia, and others.

"It has always been a problem in Eastern Europe. Either you had a situation where one big power established an empire over the region and kept all national animosities under control, or you had a never-ending ethnic and religious strife."

Finding a legitimate and workable basis for national unity has always been a problem, he said.

"Many of the European states have been founded on the basis of a greater something taking over all the rest. If you want to unravel that, Italy was based on a Greater Savoy, Germany on a Greater Prussia, and in that sense it was always some major component that actually colonized the rest." Russia did it, he said. Even Britain.

"If you castigate these greater states," he asked, "what then is the basis for unity?"

At the outset of the Yugoslav violence, some European diplomats were under the impression that the political unity developed in the European Community during the Persian Gulf war could be reconstituted to deal with Yugoslavia, clearly a closer and more important crisis for Europe.

But those expectations collided with two unforeseen factors: the recognition that Yugoslavia's problem is still internal and the inability of the 12 EC countries to arrive at a solid consensus over whether they wanted to keep the country together or recognize its constituent parts.

"In the gulf it was a clear sort of case of one state invading another," said Mr. Skidelsky. "This is an internal conflict. Grounds for the intervention in the domestic affairs of another state would have to be established," he said.

In fact, the EC ministers, in reproving Yugoslavia yesterday, revealed what it was that caused their own inaction: "The community strongly condemns the continuing use of force and attempts of any republic to impose by force solutions on other republics."

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