BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Packers began moving into ambassadors' residences in the up-market Belgrade suburb of Dedinje this week. And with them came a realization in Serbia's establishment that the first steps of international isolation were under way.
In and of itself, the gesture of withdrawing the ambassadors of the European Community states, the United States and several other countries may not force Serbia to retreat from the bloodletting it is assisting in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the gesture was backed up by the apparent determination of virtually all European nations to ostracize Serbia as a pariah, expel its representatives from international organizations and back up thosesteps with other political and economic sanctions.
"There's little doubt that we are going to throw the book at Mr. Milosevic," said a Western diplomat, referring to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
The moves this week have hit Mr. Milosevic where it hurts.
Mr. Milosevic is desperate for international respectability. Serbia together with Montenegro, its sister republic -- has created the "new Yugoslavia," claiming to be the successor state to the old Yugoslavia. It wants to inherit Yugoslavia's embassies, its seat in the United Nations and other international organizations, its assets and its perks.
For months, the master of the art of brinkmanship has been told by visiting senior foreign officials that he would be held personally responsible if ethnic fighting broke out in volatile Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was urged to control the Serbian-led army and Serbian paramilitary forces as well as his colleague Radovan Karadzic, who leads Serbs in Bosnia.
Mr. Milosevic clearly did not expect threats to translate into action. He undoubtedly expected that he would continue to talk and protest his innocence and his lack of power over any Serbs outside Serbia.
The pattern set during the war with Croatia would undoubtedly work again: The European Community and the United Nations would broker truce after truce and negotiate agreement after agreement, all of which would end in tatters. Eventually, the United Nations would send in a peacekeeping force that would do little more than hold Serbian-captured enclaves, which, Mr. Milosevic hoped, would eventually be accorded to Serbia or to local Serbs in protracted peace talks.
The latest withdrawal of ambassadors coincides with the departure from Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, of most foreign relief workers and EC peace monitors. A departure of the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters from Sarajevo is expected within days. Moreover, there are moves afoot in various international bodies to oust Belgrade's representatives.
The Helsinki Human Rights Commission appears to be challenging the very legitimacy of Mr. Milosevic's new Yugoslavia with its report that the forthcoming parliamentary elections do not meet CSCE human rights standards.
There has been no clear official reaction here to the latest developments. But shortly after EC foreign ministers announced the withdrawal of ambassadors, Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina declared a unilateral truce. They said it was aimed at getting a resumption of EC-sponsored peace talks -- even though the organizers of the talks had accused the Serbs of sabotaging them.
But even if Serbia now tries to stop the ethnic blood bath in Bosnia-Herzegovina, are Serbs in Bosnia prepared to listen to the leadership in Serbia proper?
The new Yugoslavia, Mr. Milosevic declared this week, has no claims on surrounding territory. Yet there are Serbian-commanded federal troops in Bosnia. He can exert pressure on the army to withdraw. He can also issue appeals to Serbian leaders and fighters in Bosnia to stop the bloodletting.
It is by no means certain that the splinter groups will listen to the master who created their political identities and encouraged them with talk of a Greater Serbia in which all Serbs would live.
"Perhaps we should form an exclusion zone, a sort of cordon sanitaire around the whole lot of them, and let them fight it out. Then return in about five years or so when they may be in a better mood for reasonable negotiations," said one diplomat. He was only half joking.