Why Yugoslavia's Trouble Is Europe's Nightmare


August 08, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA. — Salzburg,Austria -- The crisis in Yugoslavia is the great preoccupation of Austrians, while still emotionally remote from the rest of Western Europe, which is preoccupied in August by sun, sea and sex. War is not what people want to hear about.

Austrians have good reason to worry about war in Yugoslavia, on their southern border. If Serbia succeeds in annexing the Serbian-populated regions of Croatia, which it looks very much like doing -- given the fragility of cease-fires and the failure to date of the European Community's attempt to mediate -- this will be the first successful act of military aggression in Europe since World War II.

The symbolic and political implications of this would be very great. The postwar achievement of ''Europe'' rests on the repudiation of war as an instrument of national aggrandizement. This was the purpose of the European Coal and Steel Community, and all the European Community institutions that followed. If this principle is successfully defied, the 46-year postwar period of European peace and reconciliation -- which one had thought a defining accomplishment of our times -- would end. Something new (and old) would begin.

Serbia's success would probably be followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina's partition. There would be a Greater Serbia, lesser and embittered Croatia and (for a time) an autonomous Slovenia on Austria's southern border. That border until recently was also ''Europe's'' border, the Cold War frontier between democratic Europe and non-aligned but Communist Yugoslavia and, beyond that, the Communist bloc.

Events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union since 1989 had seemed to lift that frontier and offer the prospect of an entirely democratic Europe. Serbia is reimposing the politico-moral frontier, which will result in Serbia's isolation.

The division since 1918 of Austria, with its Slovenian and Croatian linguistic minorities, from Slovenia and Croatia, former provinces of imperial Austria, was an arbitrary one. The historical frontier was that dividing Croatia from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, former Ottoman possessions. Serbia is reaffirming that border, to its own loss.

Austrian opinion overwhelmingly favors international recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence, as does German opinion. Naturally this has brought the riposte from Belgrade that it is not Greater Serbia that is an international threat but the prospect of a Greater Germany, a ''Fourth Reich,'' to quote the Serbian press.

Vienna might already have recognized Slovenian independence if the European Community had not warned the Austrians off this course in early July, so as not to complicate the crisis. The Community's fears were those also of the United States. If Yugoslavia violently disintegrated into autonomous but unviable states, would not European (and Soviet) borders and minorities generally be placed in question?

Germany's Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher observes that since it is Serbia that obstructed a cease-fire (now obtained) and fuels the crisis, Serbia must be held accountable. Sanctions against Serbia, however, are not particularly practical. Yugoslavia has been a single country and in essential respects a single economy.

There also are proposals for a European military intervention. This is thought impractical without risking direct involvement in the fighting. However the shock of a European military initiative would give a serious blow to the present government in Serbia.

The Serbian nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, does not have a united people behind him. Many patriotic Serbs see very well where Mr. Milosevic is taking their country, and think it will end in disaster. It would be useful to provide them with a practical demonstration that this indeed is so.

The crisis is considerably graver than most Europeans have yet recognized. I stress that it is a European crisis; this is not a matter in which the European governments have a right to look to Washington for solutions. It occurs in exactly the place where the European civil war of 1914-1945 began, with the same protagonist, Serbia, and the same issue, the clash of Serbian nationalism with an established but unsatisfactory Balkan political order.

The lesson that must be taught to end this crisis is that the European powers, acting collectively, refuse to tolerate national aggrandizement through military aggression.

It is the principle upon which post-1945 Western Europe was reconstructed and the European Community established. It is the principle of collective security, defended by all the Western powers since 1945. It is why the West European Union alliance and NATO were founded, and why the West intervened in Korea in 1950. It is the principle upon which a coalition was formed to intervene in Kuwait and Iraq earlier this year.

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