Serbia's Pyrrhic Victory

September 15, 1991

As the bloody battles of recent days have shown, Serbia will win. It will outgun and carve up Croatia. Then it will let Slovenia, which has pretty much wrested independence, go free. And the severed rump of Croatia. And very likely Macedonia, whose people voted for independence last Sunday. And then the Serbs will be the unchallenged majority in a country consisting of the current Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. And then what will the triumphant Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian nation have? Hatred, poverty, strife, possible war, no allies, no respect, the contempt of Europe.

What a hollow victory the Serbian leaders driving the Yugoslav government and army will have bought themselves. Their game will be up. The Serbian people will see that the aggression against Croatia was a ruse to distract from the Communists' (now Socialists') authoritarian incompetence to improve their lives. Yugoslavia will have alienated its people best equipped for economic growth -- those in republics seeking independence -- and deprived itself of any chance of aid or even sympathy from elsewhere.

Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia will also have set up the likelihood of international tension or conflict: with Albania over the rights of the majority in Kosovo, with Hungary over minority rights in Vojvodina, with Austria and Germany over its treatment of Croatia, with Turkey and Arab countries over the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Most Eastern Europeans, detached from their Moscow moorings, want incorporation into the supranational institutions of Western Europe, for human rights guarantees, for political stability and for prosperity. Most of the people of Yugoslavia want this, not just the Slovenians and Croatians.

But Serbia, by its brutal conquest of parts of Croatia, will be denying itself a place in that house of Europe. It will be ostracized. It will get no aid, no credit. Is that what Serbs want from their government? Mr. Milosevic is misleading his people.

Their last chance is the peace conference that started Thursday in the Peace Palace at the Hague under the guidance of the British elder statesman, Lord Carrington, with three arbitrators from the European Community. A sign of the odds against it was the inability of federal Yugoslavia to produce the two arbitrators it was assigned to provide. Until now, Mr. Milosevic has used peace conferences to amuse his critics while the Yugoslav army and Serbian guerrilla allies proceed with war.

Still, hope persists that Lord Carrington, who is traveling to Yugoslavia to meet with the warring parties before reconvening the conference next Thursday, will find grounds for compromise before it is too late.

Serbia can "win," but it can win only a victory that Serbia and all Yugoslavia cannot afford.

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