A Vote for Panic, in Serbia's Election, Is a Vote for Peace


December 17, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Budapest. -- It is simple but catastrophic in implication to deal with Yugoslavia in terms of ''the Serbs,'' ''the Croatians,'' and ''the Muslims.'' That plays the game of ethnic politics, the logic of which leads to genocide.

''The Serbs'' did not invade Croatia and Bosnia to create Serbian homelands and expel their Croatian and Bosnian inhabitants. The Yugoslav National Army did that under the instructions of the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. The war in Bosnia now is carried on by a regime and army composed mostly of Serbs native to Bosnia, supported and directed by the Milosevic authorities in Serbia.

But there are a great many Serbs who think all of this has been a criminal enterprise, which will end in further horrors in Serbia itself. Their time to act now has arrived.

On Sunday, Serbia can rid itself of Slobodan Milosevic, end the war in Bosnia and reverse the terrible course of the past year and a half, saving Serbia's honor and restoring it to the community of civilized and democratic nations.

The political and economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, and the moral condemnation by the democracies can be thrown off, according to the results of the election that will take place for the presidency of Serbia.

Mr. Milosevic seeks re-election and endorsement for the bloody course upon which he has set his nation. He is challenged by Milan Panic, the California industrialist who returned to his native Yugoslavia to serve as the prime minister of what now is the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro, the entity which survived the breakup of the old Yugoslavia in 1991.

Mr. Panic promises to stop the war in Bosnia, end Serbian support for the ''autonomous'' Serb forces prosecuting that war, stop ''ethnic cleansing'' and bring those committing it to justice, invite those driven from their homes to return, and restore the frontiers that existed before the war. He seeks a reconciliation among the Yugoslav peoples.

Has he a chance to succeed? The answer is yes, a chance.

Mr. Panic has temporarily united what until now has been an ineffectual and divided democratic opposition, including leaders

of the Orthodox Church.

He has the support of Serbian industrialists, who understand the lasting damage the war is inflicting on the economy and living standard of Serbia's people. He and his allies are supported by the surviving organs of a free press and now are able to make their case by radio and local or student television in most parts of the country.

Mr. Panic was initially looked upon as a well-meaning amateur who had blundered into a political drama of sordid intrigue, reckless violence and genocidal war. He came back to Yugoslavia at Mr. Milosevic's invitation, assumed to be a political nonentity who would provide plausible international public relations cover for Serbia.

Mr. Milosevic had vastly underestimated his man. Mr. Panic was aware of what he was getting into and has struggled with great courage to make peace and restore justice in his native country. This is an affair not without personal danger for him and his associates.

Mr. Panic has tried to get the U.N. to call off its economic boycott on grounds that hurting ordinary people would not shift the government's policies. The U.N. has justifiably replied that the Serbian people must answer for the policies of the government they put in place. If they wish the U.N. and Western powers to lift the boycott and renounce intervention, they must change Serbia's policies by giving it a new government.

According to the Milosevic authorities -- an alliance of former Communists like Mr. Milosevic with extreme and reactionary nationalists -- anyone who is against expansionist ethnic war is against Serbia. That is their attack on Mr. Panic.

He has had few cards to play, since the office of Yugoslav prime minister has little power, but he played them well enough to prevent the Milosevic forces from getting rid of him. Now, despite their furious opposition, he is on the ballot and has a chance to win.

Mr. Panic represents sanity in a situation where Yugoslav state television and the principal newspapers are controlled by Milosevic allies. All of them preach hatred and fear of Croatians and Muslims as peoples, insisting that Serbia is the victim of aggression by a preposterous coalition of American ''imperialists,'' German and Austrian ''fascists'' (in control of the European Community) and Muslim fundamentalists allied with the Pope.

The Milosevic forces warn of civil war if they don't win. Civil war is more probable if they do win, since a struggle with the Albanians in Kosovo and Sandzak thereby comes closer, and with that the likelihood of international war. For this reason a boycott of the election by Serbia's Albanian population would be madness.

The Serbian people have been told lies for years, and it is possible that the Panic campaign comes too late. His allies are a mixed and politically divided group, with conflicting interests of their own and limited resources.

The army, on the other hand, has stayed out of the struggle, which has weakened the Milosevic camp.

The prudent and pessimistic forecast is that Milan Panic will lose on Sunday. But in Serbia, prudence is not a virtue universally admired, and the unexpected can happen.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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