Why Europe Can't Put Out The Fire In Yugoslavia

While the empire of the czars and commissars crumbles, a nasty war in Yugoslavia is flashing warning signals throughout the former East bloc. The danger is that more old rivalries will erupt into conflicts between newly liberated nations. Fighting between Croatians and Serbians, who are backed by Yugoslavia's Serbian-led national army, is "the tip of the iceberg," says Stephen Larrabee, an expert on Eastern Europe at Rand Corp. "I think we are going to see many more of these problems."

The European Community is trying to settle the Yugoslav conflict, without success so far, in a crucial test of the EC's ability to wield its collective power outside its borders. Truces arranged by EC ministers on June 28 and July 7 quickly broke down. But on Aug. 27, the EC threatened tougher measures if the fighting doesn't stop by Sept. 1. One action could be to take the dispute to the U. N. Security Council, a step aimed at making Serbia an international pariah. By contrast, the U. S. has been watching from the sidelines.

At stake in Yugoslavia is the same issue triggering the Soviet Union's sudden breakup: demands by individual republics for greater autonomy from a Marxist federal government's heavy-handed rule. Yugoslavia's dominant Serbian Republic, Europe's last hardline Communist regime, is using military power to try to annul the June 25 declarations of independence by reformist Croatia and Slovenia. Beyond ideology and politics, the conflict is fueled by deep ethnic and territorial disputes. The Serbs seem likely to seize one-fifth of Croatia, an area with sizable ethnic Serbian minorities. The EC warns, though, that it won't recognize borders resulting from military action. "There is no reward for conquest," says German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. A successful territorial grab by Serbia, it is feared, could inflame other nationalist disputes from Moldavia--once part of Romania--to the Caucasus to Lithuania, Poland, and the Ukraine.

The U. S. may have missed a chance to damp down the Yugoslav conflict, critics say, because some Washington policymakers feared Yugoslavia's disintegration could set a dangerous precedent for the Soviet Union. Thus, Secretary of State James Baker III, on a June 21 visit to Belgrade, angered Croatians and Slovenians by calling for the continued unity of Yugoslavia instead of encouraging negotiations for a looser federation. "The breakup of Yugoslavia was inevitable," Larrabee says. "The question was whether it would be by negotiation or violence." Ironically, the Soviet Union's dissolution has now far outrun Yugoslavia's.

LITTLE LEVERAGE. To prod the Yugoslavs toward a settlement, EC members are delaying recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as independent states in hopes of mediating another ceasefire and negotiations. However, Germany, with long-standing links to the Croatians and Slovenes, is urging recognition. But France and other countries, partly out of fear of widening German influence, want a solution that maintains a Yugoslav confederation.

Although the EC's leverage in Yugoslavia is limited, in the absence of any superpower influence its diplomacy is the only game in town. To maintain pressure for a settlement, the EC has few weapons but to persuade the rest of Europe to isolate Serbia, while insisting on fair treatment for all Yugoslav minorities--and no boundary changes.

What the Yugoslav crisis shows, once again, is that the EC's foreign policy clout is limited even in its own backyard. To wield more influence, it will have to surmount internal suspicions and find the will to back up diplomacy with the threat of military force. Such a prospect is still a long way off.

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