What to do about Yugoslavia? US officially silent, but unofficially

American officials say little about the subject in public. Indeed, there was not a word on it in President Carter's 75-page State of the Union message released earlier this week.

Yet Yugoslavia is a subject very much on the minds of all the Carter administration's foreign-policy makers.

There is a question mark over this important European country, partly because of the illness of President Tito and partly because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Once Yugoslavia's patriarch and great unifying symbol is gone from the scene, might the Soviets invade there, too?

Strategically, Yugoslavia is important because of its deepwater ports, its command of the Adriatic coast, and its position astride land and air routes connecting Europe and the Middle East.

Most experts predict a relatively smooth post-Tito political transition and stiff Yugoslav resistance to any overt Soviet aggression. Thus, the Soviets are not considered likely to attempt any military intervention for some time to come -- if at all. The best guess is that instead they will work through political, economic, and secret means to try to influence this ethnic mosaic of a state of 22 million people.

Should the Soviets attack, the US and its NATO allies do not rule out coming to the aid of the Yugoslavs. But it also is clear that should this happen, NATO would not likely be able to come to the Yugoslavs' aid with ground forces. The West could dispatch weapons, food, and other supplies by sea and possibly by air. But the Yugoslav's defense of their freedom would depend primarily on their own resistance, and this is clearly the way they want it.

Yugoslavia is no Afghanistan. The Soviets have no territory contiguous with Yugoslavia. To get there they would have to dispatch at least some of their tanks across Hungary or independent-minded Romania. And, unlike landlocked Afghanistan, Yugoslavia has access to the sea. Its regular army is small but professionally trained. Its population is armed and prepared to fight a long guerrilla war.

"Afghanistan is not going to be the Soviets' Vietnam," says Steven Burg, a specialist on Soviet and Eastern European politics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. "But Yugoslavia certainly would be."

In the view of Professor Burg and a number of other specialists, however, Yugoslavia's main problems may turn out to be economic. Unemployment and the gap between developed and underdeveloped regions are persistent problems. This would allow Western nations, including the US, a chance to use economic and financial means to help it preserve its independence. The European Community recently has accelerated moves to create a more favorable trade relationship with Yugoslavia.

But, according to Professor Burg, this requires a fine sense of balance and perspective. If the West moves too far too fast in warming up relations with Yugoslavia, it could create suspicions not just among the Soviets but also among the Yugoslavs themselves. If the West raises too loud and alarm in its concern for post-Tito Yugoslavia, this might provide the Soviets a pretext for accusing the US and its allies of meddling in that country's internal affairs.

The US seems to have struck the right tone with the Yugoslavs by issuing, through the State Department, a reaffirmation of its support for Yugoslavia's territorial integrity. This has the benefit of keeping the Soviets guessing about possible US moves to counter any aggressive move on their part. But it also shows the Yugoslavs that the US is not interested in backing any pro-Western dissident nationalist group that might want to break away from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs have long feared the US might do just such a thing.

President Carter has clearly come a long way since 1976 when, still a presidential candidate, he made what was widely regarded in the US a blunder in a statement concerning Yugoslavia. Mr. Carter ruled out the dispatch of American troops in the event of a Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia. Perhaps even more significant, he said that in case of such an invasion, "I don't believe our national security would be affected."

For the Soviets, too, Yugoslavia is hardly an unimportant country. Marshal Tito's break with the USSR in 1948 provided a precedent for other Eastern European states to assert their independence from Moscow.

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