BELGRADE — Belgrade. -- The daily war reports from Yugoslavia wrap one stark reality in a mist of battles and cease-fires, accusations, deaths and injuries. After more than four months of mad gunplay, one thing that can be said with certainty is that the country known for the past 73 years as Yugoslavia is no more.
Its disintegration seems to challenge the notion of a new world order supposedly born in the wake of communism's collapse.
What remains in Yugoslavia's place is yet to be determined. "We continue to deal with the country called Yugoslavia largely as a matter of inertia, convenience and pragmatism," said one senior Western envoy. "To do anything else at this stage would invite more conflict and violence."
After the events of past few days, even this fiction is becoming difficult to sustain:
* Yugoslavia's collective eight-man presidency has been hijacked by a "Gang of Four" clients of Serbia, Yugoslavia's largest ethnic group.
* Before the latest cease-fire was arranged, jets of the Serb-dominated federal army bombed the Zagreb office of President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, the second largest ethnic group. At the time, Mr. Tudjman was meeting with two Croats who hold the highest Yugoslav posts, Prime Minister Ante Markovic and Stipe Mesic, chairman of the federal presidency and as such Yugoslavia's titular head of state.
* Slovenia, the tiny Alpine republic which voted along with Croatia on June 25 to secede from Yugoslavia, began issuing its own currency and passports.
* Croatia's parliament again proclaimed independence, announced it was severing all ties with Yugoslavia and demanded the removal of all Yugoslav federal forces from Croatian soil.
Even though some Western politicians still insist that Yugoslavia could be preserved as a phantom confederation of sovereign states, it now seems virtually impossible to envisage Serbia and Croatia coexisting peacefully.
The civil war raging over the past four months has virtually destroyed Yugoslavia's infrastructure -- the joint system of banking, transportation, telecommunication and commerce -- not to mention political and defense institutions (Slovenia and Croatia have created their own armies.)
But the damage inflicted on the psyche of Yugoslavia's 23 million people is far greater. A vicious propaganda war conducted by the nationalist leaders of Serbia and Croatia has produced a climate of such hatred and intolerance that an eventual settlement could be reached only in international arbitration.
Until recently, the nations of the European Community, as well as the United States, have believed that a settlement could be reached by Yugoslav players. The Europeans in particular have sought to contain the poisonous Serb-Croat conflict and promote a political settlement.
The Europeans' concern was clear. If left uncontrolled, the internecine fighting could spread among other ethnic groups in this fragile federation as well as neighboring countries. It also could encourage secessionist movements in other European countries and foreshadow a frightening emergence of strident nationalism.
But the EC became quickly divided over ways to halt the Serb-Croat war and promote a political settlement, with Germany pursuing a policy of its own. According to senior NATO diplomats here, the Germans privately encouraged a confrontational policy of Croatia's nationalist government. Publicly, they called for the community to extend diplomatic recognition to Slovenia and Croatia.
Some allied policy-makers including the Americans reportedly were angered by Bonn's initial approach which, they said, strengthened the hand of Serbia's wily crypto-communist strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Mr. Milosevic, regarded by these diplomats as the driving force behind Yugoslavia's current crisis, was quick to exploit residual anti-German feelings stemming from Serbia's experience with the Germans in two world wars.
Having been powerless to stop the disintegration, the Europeans backed by the United States are now trying a different approach. Seven EC-brokered cease-fires were broken almost instantly by the two signatories whose armed forces mounted ever larger operations. The eighth was concluded this past week under the explicit threat of EC economic sanctions.
The last was a deal negotiated by the officers of the Serb-dominated federal army and the Croatian defense ministry. How long it will hold remains to be seen. But it is clear that the key actors in the Yugoslav drama are no longer institutions of the federal government.
It is equally clear to most European diplomats here that an eventual settlement would have to be forced upon the squabbling Yugoslav actors. So far, there are no serious plans for an international military actions. Rather, Yugoslavia may become Europe's leper -- gradually pushed out of Europe's economic, transport and monetary system, or as one Western envoy put it, "Let it exist and put it into a limbo."
Dusko Doder is a veteran foreign correspondent.