Yugoslavs Decide War Isn't the Answer


March 26, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

BERLIN. — To say that the situation in Yugoslavia is not as bad as it might be is not to say much. But at this moment it is possible to believe that in Belgrade the stage of disillusionment with war has been reached -- an essential one if this affair is ever to find a settlement.

There is disillusionment among Serbs that anything good can now come from more war, as well as apprehension at what Serbia may already have done to itself, since the Serbian public is now deeply divided and the possibility of an uprising in Albanian-populated Kosovo is real. Disillusionment also exists among the commanders of the Yugoslav National Army, whose belief that they could perpetuate their own and the army's autonomous power by collaborating with the dictatorial Serbian authorities has resulted in ''an army in self-liquidation'' (to quote Radio Free Europe's Ross Johnson).

Another emotion is also felt by many Yugoslavs, expressed by participants in a conference devoted to their country's crisis by the Aspen Institute Berlin last week: It is shame at what the peoples of Yugoslavia have done to one another. Yugoslavia had seemed the ex-Communist country closest to joining the European Community -- the democratic West. Instead it has been the first to demonstrate its unfitness to do so.

It is usual to say that the war was caused by old hatreds. This of course is true, but it was also a war made possible by ignorance and even by a kind of terrible political innocence that permitted Croatian autonomists to think that they could discriminate against Serbs and be protected by the Western powers against the foreseeable Serbian reaction.

Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, and the people around him, assumed that Europe in the 1990s was a place where national aggrandizement through military aggression was permissible. His election slogan had been: ''With us there is no uncertainty!''

The Serb leaders seem even to have convinced themselves that they had U.S. backing. American policy was actually to try to save Yugoslavian unity by persuading Yugoslavia's component nations to negotiate new terms of federation. Mr. Milosevic seems to have taken that as an endorsement of his plan forcibly to create a new Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.

He had already convinced himself that the sympathy in Austria and Germany for Croatian and Slovenian independence meant that a new ''fascist'' alliance had been created to dismember Yugoslavia. Washington's and the European Community's reluctance to follow Vienna and Bonn in recognizing the two breakaway states reinforced his belief that ''the anti-fascists'' backed Serbia.

That this was sheer delusion needs no saying. Even Mr. Milosevic knows that now.

The entire European Community has now recognized Slovenia and Croatia. The Community and the United States have together declared that they expect to recognize all the new states of Yugoslavia, including Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the latest to declare its independence -- and to ''coordinate their approach'' to a new union of Serbia (plus Kosovo) with Montenegro, with ''particular emphasis'' that this new state demonstrate respect for the integrity of its neighbors and the rights of its minorities.

The U.N.'s peace-keeping force has begun to arrive in what used to be Yugoslavia, and Lord Carrington's European Community peace conference goes on. Another EC group has drafted a minority-rights law for Croatia, an important precedent. There still are episodes of violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, but the evidence is that most Yugoslavs have no appetite for more war.

In Croatia and Slovenia a new dynamism has been created by independence. People say that such ''mini-states'' cannot survive economically, but this is not apparent, given that they already are members of a larger European trading system and can reasonably expect to become still more closely integrated into a prosperous Europe. If Denmark (less that 6 million population) and Luxembourg (373,000) can survive, why not Croatia (5 million), Slovenia (2 million), or Bosnia-Herzegovina (4.5 million)?

There are a number of proposals for a reconciled future, which the ''silent majority'' of Yugoslavs are said to want: a society of independent cantons, as in Switzerland; a new-model federation after dictatorship has ended in Serbia; a free-trade zone or other form of economic community; eventual association of the new states (those which are democracies) with the EC.

Each mitigates the risk that lies in the perpetuation of ethnic states. An Albanian in Kosovo can be a Yugoslav; he cannot be a Serb. The hundreds of thousands who are the products of ''mixed'' marriages -- Serb with Croat, Croat and Muslim, Slovenian and Macedonian -- can only be ''Yugoslav.''

The ethnic state is not, as many think, some kind of primordial political unit, but is a phenomenon of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The ethnic states appeared from the collapse of the multinational Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. Woodrow Wilson and the World War I allies made universal national self-determination a war aim.

The old nation-states of Western Europe are not ethnic nations, any more than is the United States. All the Western democracies have always been mixtures of ethnic and historical groups and communities. The ethnic state excludes those who do not belong to its ''nation'' or ''race,'' and rejects their claims to equal treatment.

It would be foolish to say that a solution to the Yugoslav crisis is in sight. One can see the form a solution might take. One also recognizes -- with relief -- that the war has profited no one, and that this fact has come home to most of those taking the decisions inside what used to be Yugoslavia.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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