Yugoslavia: How Did It Happen? Where Will It Lead? West Stymied by Serbian Aggression

July 04, 1993|By RICHARD O'MARA

LONDON — London. -- For two years, war has ravaged the territories of the former Yugoslavia. It has destroyed thousands of lives, created millions of refugees. It has also demolished complacent notions born in the rush of optimism brought on by the end of the Cold War, notions cherished by Europe's leaders that they could control the destiny of their continent.

The war has thrown up questions that suggest the future might be darker than anyone anticipated.

How did it happen? Could it have been prevented? How far will it go? Will it ignite wars in other tinderbox regions in the world, or encourage the leaders of aggressor states?

It is no secret how the war that attended the break up of Yugoslavia began, or who prosecuted it first in Slovenia, then more determinedly in Croatia, and later apocalyptically in Bosnia-Herzegovinia.

Serbia is the aggressor. Its leader, Slobodan Milosovec, is a former Communist apparatchik born again in the visceral religion of nationalism and guided by a medieval vision of a Greater Serbia. He is the architect of this particular Balkan disaster, which will not reach its endgame in Bosnia.

The wars in the Balkans were permitted to develop by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Up until then, fear of the Soviets was the cement that held together the antagonistic states and ethnic groups of Yugoslavia.

Serbia, with that fear removed, deliberately set out to conquer and absorb the territory of the other national states that made up the Yugoslavia stitched together by Josip Broz Tito after World War II. Even before it attacked Slovenia in June 1991, Serbia had annexed Kosovo and Vojvodina, both autonomous provinces, and thus changed borders that were held inviolable under the Yugoslav constitution. Montenegro became a client of Belgrade.

Serbia has never been enamored of the idea of Yugoslavia, if only because the very word suggests a diminution of Serbian hegemony. Tito, a Croat, always managed to keep Serb nationalists off balance by sharing out powers and drawing borders in such a way as to frustrate those in the federation with Great Serbia ambitions. Kosovo, for instance, though the cradle of the Serbian nation, was made autonomous from Belgrade for this purpose.

Yugoslavism, as an idea, originated with the Croats in the 19th Century; it expressed the simple desire to unify all the southern slavs -- Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and some Bulgarians -- linguistically and culturally.

But it has nearly always foundered on Serb self aggrandizement or was undermined by Serb suspicion of anything emanating from Roman Catholic Croatia. This suspicion, in Serb minds, was vindicated by the apparent receptiveness of Croats to Nazi ideology during the German occupation of Yugoslavia in World War II. Even today Serbs will minimize the atrocities committed by their own when compared to the "ethnic cleansing" practiced by the Croats against the Serbs during the war.

The whole world knows Mr. Milosovec for what he is. Only David Owen, the envoy of the European Community in former Yugoslavia, the co-author of the Vance-Owen plan to divide Bosnia into separate ethnic enclaves, had the misjudgment to advance him as the man who held the key to peace in Bosnia. He persuaded some European leaders, desperate for some kind of settlement, to endorse that description of the Serbian leader.

Mr. Milosovec would, Lord Owen assured the world back in early April, restrain the Bosnian Serbs from pounding down the Bosnian Muslims. In the interest of peace and in the hope it might persuade the United Nations to loosen the sanctions against his country, he would hold back the very same people he had heretofore instigated and supplied.

It never happened. The pounding goes on. The Vance-Owen plan is dead, and in the view of many, including President Bill Clinton, should never have been put forth in the first place, since it appears to endorse the seizure of territory by force.

Everybody in the civilized world is supposed to be opposed to that. Hitler was the last one to get away with it in a big way, until he was finally stopped. The gulf war was fought in the name of the inviolability of international borders. Declarations asserting their sanctity are forever falling from the lips of Western leaders.

The most recent was unveiled this month when the leaders of the European Community, assembled in their semi-annual summit in Copenhagen, reaffirmed the sacredness of international frontiers while simultaneously pressuring the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic to surrender his, sign a cease fire and accept the partition of his country.

And Bosnia, it should be remembered, has been recognized by the EC as independent, with inviolable borders. It is a member state of the United Nations.

Could it have been prevented?

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