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The Serbian Bunker

With public support draining away from the Milosevic government, the time is ripe for international initiatives in Yugoslavia

By Janusz BugajskiJanusz Bugajski is associate director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He recently visited Serbia. / June 17, 1992



THE Yugoslav war has finally come home to Serbia. The shortsighted policies of the nationalist socialist government of Slobodan Milosevic will have tragic consequences for the Serbian people. International diplomatic isolation and the imposition of economic embargoes by the United Nations will drive Serbia into prolonged crisis and give impetus to political, regional, and nationality conflicts within the republic.

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In the short term, international isolation may play to Belgrade's advantage and reinforce its bunker mentality. The looming economic crash, resulting from a disastrous fiscal policy which has diverted scarce funds to the military and bureaucracy (the backbone of Mr. Milosevic's support), will be blamed on the West. Serbian television, a party-state monopoly, continues to have widespread influence among ordinary people, while the democratic opposition has few means to reach the masses to explain Belgrade' s disastrous economic policies.

Milosevic could use the cover of international isolation to crack down on the opposition or to deal violently with Serbia's restless minorities. With his back against the wall, Milosevic may also attempt to internationalize the crisis by drawing Albania into war, flooding the Balkans with refugees, provoking a conflict with Hungary over Vojvodina, and carving up Macedonia with Greek assistance. Attention could thereby be deflected from his own culpability, and the West would lose its cohesion as the cris is spreads.

But as internal problems mount, Milosevic will be faced with a serious loss of public tolerance. He could then initiate a dialogue with the fractured democratic opposition movement and offer various concessions in Bosnia. Ironically, any compromises over "Serbian national interests" could embolden even more extremist nationalist forces with militia units at their disposal. They could precipitate a military coup with the support of hard-line clergymen in the Orthodox Church who have lambasted Milosevic in

recent weeks for his allegedly conciliatory policies.

Serbia is also bracing itself for its own regional and ethnic conflicts. Minority activists in the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo are expecting imminent bloodshed if Belgrade proceeds with its policy of "ethnic cleansing." Although Serbs have a 60 percent majority in the breadbasket of Vojvodina, the province also contains over 300,000 Hungarians, nearly 100,000 Croats, and a dozen smaller nationalities. Thousands of Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia have already been resettled in the province ami dst reports of the forcible expulsion of minorities. Moreover, the free rein given to paramilitary formations by Milosevic and the return of demoralized solders from Bosnia could lead to disorder and increasing ungovernability.

Kosovo is even more explosive following the recent "illegal" Albanian elections and the mass boycott of the federal assembly balloting. The Serb minority, forming under 10 percent of the population, is feeling increasingly embattled, and substantial quantities of arms have reached radical Serbian political groups in the province.

Belgrade's record in the past two years demonstrates that Milosevic cannot be expected to initiate meaningful domestic reforms or pacify the nationality conflicts in the region. Western policy must therefore be directed at weakening his position while promoting democracy in Serbia itself. Success will not be easy or imminent, but several critical steps must accompany the current sanctions.

First, the socialist media monopoly must be broken by directly assisting the growth of independent journalism and by increasing broadcasts of alternative Serbian programs from outside the country. Simultaneously, the Serbian people must be told that the sanctions are not directed against the nation but against the hard-line regime and its destructive policies in Bosnia. Moreover, the bloc of opposition parties that recently formed a coalition Movement for a Democratic Serbia and plan peaceful antiwar dem onstrations must be strengthened. Of course, the opposition itself must apply pressure on the government and take advantage of public distress and workers' protests, but it desperately needs resources with which to operate.

Second, the former Yugoslav republics that are committed to democratic and market reform must be aided and integrated into European institutions. Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia will need urgent reconstruction assistance, and Macedonia must be promptly recognized to afford it some protection against Belgrade's expansionist designs. The progress of these republics could in turn act as a catalyst for Serbs and Montenegrins.

Third, strong signals must be sent to Belgrade that any new bloodshed in Kosovo or Vojvodina will result in even more stringent sanctions and could actually legitimize separatist and independence movements in these provinces. Instead of a "Greater Serbia," Belgrade will then be left with a "Lesser Serbia." Preparations for peacekeeping units to both regions, and to Montenegro and Macedonia, must also be initiated. The possibility of direct military intervention to assure the passage of relief supplies to

suffering inhabitants cannot be excluded. Such an operation in Sarajevo to prevent mass starvation will show that the UN is serious.