Investigation of Kurt Waldheim's murky, wartime past is not only opening old wounds in Austria. It also is stirring an explosive and painful debate in neighboring Yugoslavia. As a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht, the Austrian President served much of the time in Yugoslavia, and some of the more damaging material allegedly linking him to war crimes has been uncovered here. Yugoslav historians and journalists accuse Mr. Waldheim of acquiescence in the killing and deportation of civilians in the Montenegrin town of Pljevlja in 1942 and the Croatian town of Kozara in 1943.
The revelations refuel explosive memories. After the war, the victorious communists created a myth of a united Yugoslavia driving back the Germans. In reality, the struggle involved a bitter civil war between partisans under Communist leader Josip Broz Tito and Croatian fascists linked to the Nazis.
``Nothing was black and white,'' says one Western diplomat. ``Of the 1.5 million Yugoslavs who died during the war, the Germans killed about 300,000. The rest were Yugoslavs killing each other.''
But since Tito's death in 1980, antagonisms among national ethnic groups have sharpened. Serbian journalists now have taken the lead on the Waldheim affair, and some observers fear that their articles are a veiled attack against Croatia for collaboration with the Germans.
``The Serbians are pushing the affair and the Croatians are trying to put on the brakes,'' notes Helene Despic-Popovic, a Yugoslav journalist. ``It adds to our already tense national problems.''
The Yugoslav government realizes these domestic dangers, and does not want to endanger relations with neutral Austria, where a substantial Slovene minority live. When Waldheim's wartime past first surfaced two years ago, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Stanic declared that the affair was an internal Austrian affair.
``We decided we wouldn't be the historian or prosecutor,'' explains one Yugoslav diplomat. ``We have friendly relations, very good relations, with Austria, and we didn't want to interfere in their choice of President.''
This position gradually became untenable as the affair escalated. Other countries including the United States began shunning Waldheim; the Yugoslavs responded by banning their ambassador in Vienna from any contact with him.
A decisive change took place in February, when a commission of historians charged with investigating Waldheim's wartime involvements published their results. Public pressure mounted on officials to end their silence, and spokesman Stanic declared that his government intended to press for ``the complete truth.''
``When all the historians started investigating, there was lots of publicity and lots of emotions were stirred,'' explains the Yugoslav diplomat. ``We had to respect these emotions of our people.''
With the change of official policy, journalists say resistance from their editors evaporated. An outpouring of press and television coverage suddenly began dealing with the issue of wartime atrocities in general and Waldheim's actions in particular.
The Communist Party newspaper Borba printed a 56-page special edition containing the names and ages of half of the 23,000 children killed by German and Croatian fascist troops at Kozara, where Waldheim was stationed. In another Belgrade daily, Politika, journalist Bozidar Dikic published documents and eyewitness accounts suggesting that Waldheim was the sole German officer in Pljevlja when Italian troops killed 71 civilians and deported hundreds more. The evidence did not make Waldheim responsible for the killings, but it does document his presence at the scene of the crime.
Some of the reporting proved scurrilous. Journalist Danko Vasovic sold to the West German weekly Der Spiegal a photocopy of a telegram signed by Waldheim which requested the deportation of 4,000 civilians to concentration camps. Historians quickly declared the telegram a forgery, and Vasovic is being prosecuted.
Despite these dangers, Yugoslav journalists say they intend to press on. They believe further compromising revelations are hidden away in Yugoslav archives.
``I believe many more unpleasant revelations about Waldheim in Croatia are going to surface,'' says Dikic.