The disaster of 1991

Anthony Lewis

December 23, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

AMONG THE epochal international events of 1991 there was one unambiguous disaster. What happened in Yugoslavia has been a tragedy for its people and a monumental political failure for the United States and the European Community.

For months now, Serbian forces have been shelling, bombing and invading parts of Croatia. They have leveled one major city, Vukovar, and are destroying others. They have occupied a third of Croatian territory, and are settling Serbian families there.

Western policy has been to support the efforts of mediators to bring about a cease-fire and meaningful peace talks. Cyrus Vance has acted on behalf of the United Nations, Lord Carrington for the European Community.

One could not ask for more committed or courageous peacemakers than those two men. But they have been frustrated by Serbian political and military leaders, who have accepted successive cease-fires and then resumed firing.

What has been lacking is a political framework that put pressure on the Serbian hard-liners to stop the aggression. The U.S. and the Community took a detached position.

They refused to recognize the declarations of independence by Croatia and Slovenia. They did nothing to help Croatia against the Serbian-led federal army, which had most of the country's munitions.

The reason given for the detached posture in the face of military aggression was the principle of non-involvement in "domestic" conflicts.

It is generally a wise principle. But to term this conflict "domestic" was to beg the real question -- and ignore the reality that Yugoslavia had disintegrated.

Moreover, this "domestic" conflict had particularly dangerous international implications. Serbian leaders claimed they had to act to protect the 12 percent Serbian minority in Croatia. To accept that excuse would be to legitimize countless other potential aggressions -- Russian military action, say, against the Baltic countries, where the Russian population is far larger than 12 percent.

The unhappy truth is that only force or its prospect is likely to move the Serbian irreconcilables. As the frustrated E.C. monitors in Yugoslavia reported to their superiors, "(The army) must be aware that, if it shells a hospital, within 20 minutes of so doing it risks being obliterated."

The European Community has now taken the first necessary step to stop the aggression. It has agreed to recognition by Jan. 15 of the Yugoslav republics claiming independence.

Serbian leaders reacted to the Community decision by threatening to widen the war. They thus inadvertently made clear that the next international step must be military support for Croatia and any other republic attacked by the Serbs.

The aim must be, as Richard Nixon wrote the other day in the Wall Street Journal, "to create a balance of power on the ground."

(Nixon, unable as ever to repress the malice in his nature, added a crack comparing the Serbian communists to Mikhail Gorbachev -- whose great contribution to history was not using troops to preserve a crumbling empire. Nixon prefers his old chum Leonid Brezhnev, who crushed Czechoslovakia.)

Anyone who deals with the Yugoslav problem soon learns how deep the conflict between Serbs and Croats runs. A Serbian-American writes to tell how her grandfather was mistreated by Croats. Bitter feelings are understandable. But shelling hospitals cannot make things better.

It is pointed out that the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, an extreme rightist, has been an apologist for racism. That is true, and it is indeed a reason for Serbian concern about the fate of Serbs in an independent Croatia.

But again, military aggression cannot be the right answer. To take Croatian land and incorporate it in a Greater Serbia can only build more hatred. The solution must be political guarantees for ethnic minorities -- guarantees that the European Community has now made a condition of recognition.

In Serbia itself, many people are opposed to the war being waged by the communist president, Slobodan Milosevic, and his generals. We should be just as unambiguously opposed. The world is too dangerous a place to overlook military aggression because it bears the label "domestic."

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