The Fatal Habit of Living Together


July 08, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Vienna. -- The Yugoslav novelist Miroslav Karaulac has said of the people of Bosnia that they ''acquired the fatal habit of living together, a quality which the various armies now fighting one another are, by means of a bloodbath, attempting to correct.'' The correction is nearly complete, extermination near for the idea of a liberal politics in Yugoslavia, and for those who believed in it.

The collective presidency of ''Muslim'' Bosnia -- consisting of three Serbs, three Croats and four Muslims -- now is divided between the realism of despair and capitulation, and that desperate optimism that can be sought in history, ''a continuing story of the unexpected,'' as the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, has said to the press, even while acknowledging that there is no ''rational'' hope now for his government and people.

Both have been betrayed by Western Europe and the United States, not so much in cynicism as by stupidity and political cowardice. The question that remains for the Western governments to answer is whether anything has been learned. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's characterization of Bosnia as ''a long ways from home, in the middle of another continent,'' like Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd's remark about the undesirability of permitting the victims in Balkan wars an equal chance -- a ''level killing ground'' -- against their aggressors, suggests that the answer is no.

Both comments demonstrated a refusal to acknowledge, or possibly even to understand, that this affair has not been a discrete and isolated episode, which will have no consequences elsewhere. Yet if Mr. Christopher and the Clinton administration do not understand that, why is the United States deploying 300 soldiers to Macedonia's borders with Serbia and Albania?

Is this one more decision taken solely to deter critics and deflect the attention of the press, to be reversed as soon as a crisis arises? This seems entirely likely. Three hundred troops are not enough even to observe events on those borders in any systematic way. They are not themselves a deterrent to those borders' violation, nor does any deterrent exist. Washington and the European capitals explicitly have made it their policy not to intervene in Yugoslavia -- who can reasonably expect them to change that policy now?

Nonetheless one or more of the Western governments might have learned from this terrible experience, and could change. Here we arrive at what can be done now, if anyone has the prescience and courage to act. It still is possible to stop the spread of ethnic and national war in the Balkans and in South-Central Europe, where the existence of Albanian, Hungarian, Greek and Turkish national minorities in neighboring countries are a permanent source of tension and invitation to war.

First the situation and security of those minorities must be addressed, so as to deal with their legitimate anxieties about their own safety and cultural integrity, while addressing the equally legitimate fears of the governments under which they live that these minorities represent a potential threat to their sovereignty and territorial integrity.

We have the mechanisms to do this, if we will use them. CSCE, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, exists in order to protect human rights; it produced extraordinary results during the years of communism's decline and collapse. The states of the region are CSCE members (as are the United States and Canada) and have accepted CSCE obligations, which involve international observation and guarantees.

The Council of Europe exists to assure ''the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within [the member-states'] jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms.'' Since the Yugoslav crisis began there has been an attempt by several of the European states to provide a new institution of juridical guarantees and adjudication in contested rights cases.

At the same time we can establish a military barrier to further acts of aggression. This is eminently within NATO's capability. The need is urgent to redefine NATO's mission so as to deal with the threat to European security that exists right now. If not, we will lose NATO -- otherwise an irrelevant survivor of a Cold War now finished -- at a moment when European security is more seriously jeopardized than at any time since the 1950s.

But we have to act. We have today the possibility of an energetic two-track program -- diplomatic and military -- to halt new ethnic war in the Balkans. Can't some government, somewhere in the West, take the initiative? What about the Netherlands, or Sweden, or Italy, if France or Britain won't act? Why not France? There is a new and intelligent government in Paris that owes nothing to the appeasement policies of its Socialist predecessor.

What about Washington? If Washington will not lead, at least it would support a European initiative. Washington says the responsibility is European, and it is right. (It may prove small comfort to have been right.) Will no leader take action to spare modern Europe still another tragedy?

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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