As Yugoslav War Threatens to Spread, a Challenge in Serbia

December 06, 1992|By DUSKO DODER

BELGRADE — Belgrade.--A visitor to Serbia would be forgiven for believing there is no war in the region and no United Nations sanctions. The restaurants are full. Tourist agencies advertise cheap holidays in Africa and Australia. People stroll down Belgrade's Prince Michael Street in balmy winter weather in fashions that would not look out of place on Paris's Champs Elysees.

But the atmosphere of normalcy has an edge of the surreal. It has been carefully contrived by the government of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic prior to new elections scheduled for Dec. 20. Using government television as his personal propaganda machine, he has managed to mask a reality of economic chaos, rising unemployment and encroaching war.

This week, one man began a crusade to rip away the mask: Milan Panic, the Serb-born American millionaire who has served as prime minister of the rump Yugoslavia since July. He had insisted that he would not be a candidate for an elective office and that he wanted to help his native country end the war in Bosnia and regain its place in the international community. Now he has changed his mind, Mr. Panic said, because Mr. Milosevic has consistently obstructed his efforts to lift crippling U.N. sanctions and revive the economy, adding, "I am convinced that we will succeed only if Slobodan Milosevic is replaced."

Mr. Panic's eleventh hour decision to stand against Mr. Milosevic for the post of Serb president presents a most serious challenge to the Serb strongman who promptly tried to use a technicality in an effort to block Mr. Panic's candidacy. Mr. Milosevic's Serb legislature last month rushed a law on residency requirements for this purpose.

Mr. Panic's challenge provides the Serbian people with a clear choice. Serbia needs change, Mr. Panic says. Mr. Milosevic offers war, unemployment, inflation and international isolation, Mr. Panic argues. "I offer something different: hope for the future and a program of reconciliation and economic recovery."

The outcome is bound to have serious international repercussions. The Yugoslav civil war has already killed nearly 150,000 persons and displaced more than 3 million others from their homes. If permitted to continue, it could spread beyond the borders of ex-Yugoslavia.

Portents of a wider conflict were in the air. The plight of Bosnian Moslems, who are the greatest victims of the war, is bound to stir the Islamic world; such nations as Turkey and Iran are already vowing they will commit more money and arms to help their co-religionists in the Balkans. The conflict could spread to Serbia's southern province of Kosovo and Macedonia where more than two million ethnic Albanians live, eventually drawing in other Balkan states.

A Milosevic victory on Dec. 20, according to most foreign analysts here, would mean the continuation of war. As long as Serbia or Croatia are determined to covertly support their co- nationals in Bosnia, nothing can stop the killing.

A Panic victory, on the other hand, would offer prospects for a negotiated solution of most issues; he has already stated that all new states of former Yugoslavia be recognized within their existing borders.

But even if Mr. Panic defeats Serbia's Machiavellian strongman, the thorny question of Bosnia-Herzegovina will remain a source of instability in Europe for a long time.

U.N. specialists have been assessing the possibility of extending the U.N. peace-keeping role to Bosnia, but there is no peace to keep as Serbs, Moslems and Croats all fight each other.

Nor is it realistic to expect the warring factions to negotiate their disputes. One senior Western diplomat voiced the frustrations of most: "It is going to take years, if not decades, to settle this conflict. The boundaries will have to be redrawn, populations moved. The instability here will be with us well into the next century, I am sure of it."

It is a messy situation. The war is being fought -- on all sides -- in the name of ethnic tribalism. Partisan armed interventions or random air strikes at, say, Serb positions in Bosnia are likely to inflame things. Only military intervention by the United Nations and an imposed interim settlement on Bosnia could halt the drift to war, foreign analysts here say. But such action must be grounded in a pragmatic and equitable political program.

First, such action would have to avoid the appearance of being a punitive expedition against the Serbs in general and Bosnian Serbs in particular, even though they are the original aggressors. The fact is that they are not uniquely evil culprits; the international community so far has chosen to simply ignore Croatia's territorial conquest in Bosnia or atrocities against the Serbs who, in effect, are held hostage on territories controlled by the Moslems and Croats.

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