Quagmire bubbling in Balkans

Yugoslavia: Slobodan Milosevic might be off the front pages, but he remains the biggest obstacle to stability in the region.

March 12, 2000|By Dusko Doder

THERE IS a whiff of quagmire coming from the Balkans. The flashpoint is the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, just a few miles south of the border with Serbia proper. The prospect of NATO troops -- Americans in particular -- getting bogged down in a Belfast-type cycle of ethnic terrorism during an American presidential election year has raised alarm in Washington.

The mining town of about 80,000 is divided by a river. The Serbs are north of the river, the Albanians south, with French peacekeepers in between. American troops, recently deployed to assist the French in curbing ethnic violence, were forced to beat a humiliating retreat when an angry Serb crowd attacked them with stones, bricks and bottles.

Two reasons make Mitrovica a particularly intractable problem. Its northern part and the villages stretching to the border with Serbia proper comprise the last significant Serb-held enclave in Kosovo and the only place where Serbs can escape the wrath of revenge-seeking radical Albanians.

If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is to have any leverage in the province (Serbia and Kosovo are the only two republics left in his country), Mitrovica is his best hope. Mitrovica is also crucial for Albanian nationalists who demand independence for Kosovo. Mitrovica is Kosovo's key economic asset; substantial deposits of zinc, gold, lead, silver, cadmium and bismuth are under the hills outside the city. But the mining complex lies in the Serb area. Without Mitrovica, Kosovo is not economically viable.

Predictable measures

President Clinton's aides have blamed Milosevic for the turmoil and have advanced predictable short-term measures: more peacekeeping troops, more international policemen.

The outgoing NATO commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, has told Congress that he does not have enough troops to do the job. He suggested that a larger problem is the absence of a political framework.

The policy for Kosovo as a multi-ethnic autonomous province clearly has failed.

The obvious two alternatives -- partition or a mono-ethnic Kosovo -- have not been considered seriously. In an election year with a fading U.S. presidency, keeping Kosovo off the front pages seems the Clinton administration's only clear goal.

One encouraging development recently was the victory of moderate politician Stipe Mesic in Croatia, who replaced the late nationalist strongman Franjo Tudjman. After years of Tudjman's rabid anti-Serb propaganda and ethnic cleansing, Mesic has suggested that nearly 500,000 Serbs expelled from Croatia should return home. He also urged an end to the international sanctions against Serbia.

More importantly, Mesic promised an end to Croatia's meddling in Bosnia. Tudjman (along with Milosevic) not only plotted the destruction of Bosnia but prevented the evolution of the post-Dayton Bosnian state by practically annexing its Croat-controlled section. A change in Croatia and an expected strengthening of the Bosnian state make this a favorable moment in the politics of the region.

But, as Clark stressed in his congressional testimony, Milosevic remains the biggest impediment to stability in the Balkans. He has strengthened his grip on power in the eight months since the end of the NATO victory in the war against Serbia. The Serb people have not, as predicted, risen up and removed him; Milosevic has used the NATO bombing campaign to foster the Serb people's sense of victimization. The war also provided him with an excuse for the staggering failures of Serbia's economy.

Milosevic has survived the winter with help from China, Iraq and Russia. He is counting on growing disarray in NATO ranks. Many European nations are opposed to Washington's hard line on isolating Milosevic, because it is damaging to many European nations. Danube traffic has been halted. Transit routes to the Mideast no longer function.

Several of America's NATO allies advocate a change of policy toward Serbia. Perhaps it is time to hear them and try a new approach toward Milosevic. Clearly, sanctions have not achieved their stated aim of removing him, just as they have failed to remove Cuba's Fidel Castro or Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Milosevic's options

In his international isolation, Milosevic has been able to crack down hard on the independent media and his people. His main objective is to save his political and physical life. If he leaves his country, he is likely to be arrested and taken to the Hague for trial. If he remains in his country, but not in power, he faces many enemies.

What is the worst that could happen if sanctions were removed and a policy of constructive engagement created, as with China? He would be forced to behave more democratically, as he has in the past when given the carrot of membership in international clubs.

Perhaps his repressed people, given a more decent life and access to the outside world, might find it in themselves to rise up and overthrow him. They are certainly not inclined to do so now, as they struggle for mere existence while facing Draconian repression. They dislike NATO countries as much as Milosevic for dropping bombs on them, demonizing them and bringing them misery through sanctions.

Dusko Doder is the author (with Louise Branson) of "Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant." This article first appeared in Newsday.

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