Treasures under siege

Anthony Lewis

November 05, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

Boston SUPPOSE THAT at this moment Venice were being shelled and bombed in a civil war, its treasured monuments menaced, its population starved. Would the Western world be silent? Of course not. It would react in outrage. It would intervene to stop such a crime against history and humanity.

But across the Adriatic today another historic jewel of a city, Dubrovnik, is being bombed, its population strangled by blockade. Where are the world's protests? Where is any effective action to stop the crime?

George Bush has not been reluctant to condemn aggression in the world, or to play an active peace-making role. But in the Yugoslav conflict the American voice has been muted. Why?

The answer to the puzzle must lie in part, I believe, in memories of what happened in Yugoslavia during World War II and afterward. Political memory has inhibited our recognition of, and willingness to deal with, a new Yugoslav reality.

During the war Tito and his partisans fought courageously against the occupying Nazi armies, while Croatian fascists set up a pro-Nazi puppet state. Afterward Tito, as president of a communist Yugoslavia, broke with Stalin: the first such defiance in the communist world and one that won Yugoslavia much admiration and support in the West.

That past must help to explain the cold shoulder that Croatia and Slovenia got from the United States and other Western countries when they declared their republics independent earlier this year. Otherwise, one would have expected sympathy for democratic movements seeking independence from a communist-dominated central government.

The tragedy that has overtaken Yugoslavia is the direct result of the ambitions of the Serbian communist leader, Slobodan Milosevic. Over the last four years he has schemed to impose Serbian domination -- and his own -- on federal Yugoslavia. When he could, he brutally suppressed opponents, such as the Albanian majority in Serbia's province of Kosovo.

The Milosevic grab for power aroused in other republics opposition that was both ethnic and democratic --anti-communist -- in character. When Croatia declared its independence on June 25, Milosevic responded with war. His instrument is the federal army, whose officers are mostly Serbs.

In the attacks since June 25 the federal army has captured about a third of Croatia's territory. It has used planes to bomb Croatian villages and cities, as well as shells and mortars and infantry attacks.

The attacks on Dubrovnik best illustrate the nature of Milosevic's war: its punitive nature. Dubrovnik is at the southern end of a thin strip of Croatia running down the Adriatic coast. It does not block the way to anything, and it is hard to see what military value it has as a target. It seems, in fact, to have been targeted for psychological and cultural reasons.

Dubrovnik is a Renaissance port, beautifully preserved, a gem ,, not only of Croatia but of all Europe. The United Nations has declared it a cultural landmark. Right now bombs are falling on the city every day. For nearly a month the federal blockade has cut off regular supplies of food, water and electricity.

The European Community has tried to act diplomatically, appointing Lord Carrington as its crisis representative. He has brokered cease-fire after cease-fire, but Milosevic pays no attention to them. Lord Carrington, despite his great abilities, is reduced to deploring the attack on Dubrovnik as a "criminal act."

It is a criminal act; but nobody does anything serious about the criminal, Milosevic. It is true, and understandable, that the United States is ordinarily reluctant to assist the ethnic breakup of other countries. But we are well past that point now.

There is no Yugoslavia anymore. There are republics as independent in their feelings as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There is an attempt to impose on them by force either Serbian domination or a Greater Serbia enlarged with territory seized from its neighbors. That use of force may have wider reverberations.

"The danger that is coming from Yugoslavia may be deeper and longer than the international community has realized." President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia said that during his visit to Washington two weeks ago. It is time to listen, and to act.

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