WASHINGTON. — Washington -- When the crisis escalated earlier this year, outside observers -- less than intimately familiar with the Yugoslav problem -- could plausibly argue that a contributing factor to war country was Slovenia's and Croatia's decision for independence. The State Department termed the action ''unilateral,'' hence unfit for American support.
Even then that notion did not withstand a thorough test; the country edged toward a bloody abyss not because two nations decided to leave a squabbling family, but because the communist masters who were will in charge did not want to admit their historic defeat. In Washington, this true picture of Yugoslavia was not to be portrayed -- for fear of having to adjust to a new era in which powers in Yugoslavia would be redistributed. And it has always been man's nature to hold off changes, unless and until they become inevitable.
Now the time for reconsideration has arrived. It is conclusive with whom the onus of aggression in Yugoslavia squarely rests. It rests with the federal army, the military establishment and the Serbian-dominated Communist Party.
Neither Slovenia, which was fiercely attacked in June, nor Croatia, which is now being clobbered by the Yugoslav army, ever initiated a single offensive military operation. Both have defended their statehood exclusively on their soil. Not a single soldier from Croatia or Slovenia has ever set foot on Serbian territory or any other remaining Yugoslav republic. This is not a dismissible detail from a war report, but a key element in judging the real aggressor in this case.
Half a million Croatians, so far, have had to abandon their homes as refugees. On the Serbian side of the firing line, the daily routine of the people is only disturbed by sounds of rocket launches on Croatian farms, schools, churches, hospitals and shelters. Not a single family has had to move anywhere, let alone had to fear for its life.
Croatia needs help, quickly and effectively. It is not enough to agree with Deputy Secretary of State Eagleburger, who claims that at one point the warring parties will find themselves too exhausted to continue the killing. This ''standing-on-the-sideline'' approach rewards the bad guys, because they will -- having the upper hand militarily -- kill to their possible extreme.
After that, having already occupied most of Croatia, Serbia will allow U.N. peacekeeping forces to come in to sort out the mess. It will be ready to negotiate Yugoslavia's future, but only from a position of obstinacy. The result of an accomplished territorial grab, however preliminary it is considered, can only be a demonstrated unwillingness to comprise.
The real resolution to the conflict in what has been known as Yugoslavia is simple and easy to follow: U.N. troops should be dispatched to the country immediately. Every day lost equals hundreds of deaths. Morally, this is an outrageous price to pay -- especially in a time and place characterized by enlightened cultures and rich societies.
As a second step, Slovenia and Croatia should swiftly be recognized as sovereign countries, as well as the other Yugoslav republics that may desire sovereign recognition. If the Ukraine (rightfully) deserves recognition as a sovereign state based on little more than the free will of its people (while the Soviet Union has not yet ceased to exist, whereas Yugoslavia has), then Slovenia and Croatia cannot be treated differently. The law of even-handedness must be applied.
Forget about Croatia and Slovenia being strategically unimportant, with no nuclear stockpiles on their soil, no oil reserves and small populations. The moral role of the United States as a world leader behooves it state to foster democracy in all corners of the earth.
Finally, pressure should be exerted on the Serbian leadership to renounce communism. If this cannot be done, then the groundwork must be laid to have Slobodan Milosevic voted out of power. Stability in the Balkans is a far-reaching goal, espoused by all reasonable parties. To secure it, communism must fall, as it has throughout Eastern Europe.
Peter Millonig is a free-lance journalist.