WASHINGTON — IN BELGRADE earlier this summer, a prominent Western diplomat stationed there summed up the dangerous new accommodations that are being hammered out in Yugoslavia by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
"What does Milosevic want?" the diplomat asked. "He wants to destroy Yugoslavia and pick up the pieces in a Greater Serbia. That is the only theory that explains all the facts.
"For the last few years, most of his actions were against the unity of Yugoslavia. He gave aid to the autonomous Serbs in Croatia. He tried twice to destroy the Yugoslav presidency. He formed and unified groups of Serbs in Bosnia for autonomy.
"Even when the Croats and Slovenes were willing to work out a loosely federated Yugoslavia, Milosevic said that's not Yugoslavia, and so then Serbia should look out for the Serbs." He shrugged hopelessly, then added, "And so now we find ourselves where we are today."
While the eyes of the world have been riveted to the incredible and tragic drama in Moscow of a great empire disintegrating, the other drama, in Yugoslavia, has both speeded up and clarified its nature. Even while a resurgent Boris Yeltsin was taking power from Mikhail Gorbachev, the long-incipient war between Serbia and Croatia had become an all-out war with 300 dead since June, major military engagements and all-out bombardments of Croatian cities.
Moreover, as the diplomat in Belgrade realized months ago, the game has begun to reveal its rules. The breakup of the six republics of Yugoslavia, we can now see, was far from accidental.
Serbian volunteers are now fighting in Croatian towns on the side of the Serb minority in Croatia and handing out Thompson submachine guns to fellow Serbs. In dark grottos and across the hills of southern Croatia, Serbs are systematically digging up hundreds of Serb bodies murdered by pro-Nazi Croat militias in World War II in order to feed the mood of vengeance instilled by Milosevic.
Meanwhile, on the equally macabre and bizarre political front, Serbia and Croatia have been holding secret talks on the re-drawing of Yugoslavia's internal borders. Even while the two republics were fighting each other, Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman were talking about incorporating the Serbian parts of Croatia into Serbia and dividing up a third republic, Bosnia Herzegovina, between them.
And in the south of what is left of Yugoslavia, Milosevic has also been tightening his grip for the ultimate creation of his Greater Serbia. In the southern province of Kosovo, which was historically the heartland of Serbia and is largely inhabited by ethnic Albanians, Milosevic has been putting through measures to bring the local councils, formerly administered by Albanians, under Serbian control. He is doing the same with the local media.
In short, diplomats and analysts in Belgrade believe that Milosevic plans to form a mini-Yugoslavia consisting of Serbia, Montenegro in the south and parts of Bosnia Herzegovina. But this re-drawing of the map, even if it could be done in any reasonably stable manner, will almost surely unleash still more disintegration outside.
The southern Yugoslav province of Macedonia, for instance, has now scheduled a referendum on independence for Sept. 8 and is expected to follow Slovenia and Croatia, which declared their independence in late June. This act would introduce still further dangers because neighboring Bulgaria considers Macedonians "Western Bulgarians," Greece still claims a portion of Macedonia as well, and roughly 20 percent of Macedonia's population are Albanians, many of whom want to join predominantly Albanian Kosovo.
The only lessons here seem to lie in humanity's stubborn drive to fight neighbors on behalf of ethnic myths and to further power for oneself.
Are there forerunners in Yugoslavia for what might come next in Russia? Surely there are. We are seeing acted out day after day in Yugoslavia a preview of the breakdown, in the Yugoslav case planned and orchestrated by the ambitions of Slobodan Milosevic, that now faces the Soviet Union.
In both cases, there is virtually nothing the outside world can do ++ to prevent it.