The world's most diverse empire managed a mighty coup and counter-coup with a handful of fatalities. During it, Serbs and Croatians went right on killing each other. Yugoslavia stands as the Soviet Union writ small, a warning of the ethnic strife to which the Soviet Union might yet descend.
Since the Aug. 7 cease-fire between Croatia and federal Yugoslavia, fighting has been endemic. At least 500 people have died, more than 20 over the weekend. Serbian insurgents hold about one-fifth of Croatia. Croatian troops fighting them also engage the Yugoslavian federal army, which claims to be keeping the peace. In the interest of that peace, federal planes bomb Croatian villages.
Most of the Serbian area declaring independence of Croatia is not contiguous to Serbia. It does, however, adjoin Bosnia-Herzegovina. And therein lies another trouble. In that Yugoslav republic, Slavs of Muslim religion form the largest ethnic group, with Serbs second and Croatians third. All three are arming militias. The leadership is Muslim, and committed to a loosely federal Yugoslavia.
What is emerging as "The Plot," ascribed to Serbian boss Slobodan Milosevic, is for Yugoslavia to allow Slovenia, Macedonia and most of Croatia to secede. This would leave a smaller Yugoslavia that would be a Greater Serbia. Serbs would be the dominant ethnic group, about two-thirds. But this would be against the will of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Hungarians of Vojvodina and the Albanians of Kosovo, not to mention the Croatians of Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia.
The weekend fighting, in which Yugoslav forces coordinated with Serbian insurgents against the Croatian militia, spilled over into Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbian aggression was so pronounced as to provoke Germany, Italy and Austria to the brink of recognizing the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, which would end the common European policy and internationalize the war.
Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, harbors national groups that defiantly cling to their traditions. Like the Soviet Union, it has few obvious internal borders that would cleave the nationalities neatly and without pain to people on the wrong side. In the Soviet Union, as in Yugoslavia, ethnic groups that may be politically entitled to independence have no discernible economic future outside the larger market.
To Soviet citizens preoccupied with their own affairs, the melodrama being played out in Yugoslavia is a worst-case scenario of their own future.