The Yugoslavia Watch

IN 1914 disputes among the fractious Balkan states pulled Europe, and eventually the United States, into World War I. Fortunately, Yugoslavia no longer carries that level of strategic importance. What country in 1991 wants to get embroiled in the inscrutable ethnic battles of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and the other Yugoslav republics? Conditions in Yugoslavia, like a bad soap opera, continue to get worse. The country is sleepwalking into a serious conflict. Serbia and its tyrannical President Slobodan Milosevic are due most of the blame.

Serbia and Croatia, the two strongest republics, remain in a standoff, with federal troops deployed in Croatia ostensibly to protect minority ethnic Serbs, who, unlike the Croats, have been allowed to arm themselves. Since May 15, Yugoslavia has had no president. Yugoslavia's presidency rotates among the six republics; but two weeks ago Serbia blocked the appointment of Croatian Stipe Mesic, a conciliator, to the chairmanship of the federal presidency. Even quiet Slovenia, located beneath Austria and th e

most Western of the Yugoslav republics, last week had a minor showdown with federal military authorities over the army's arrest of a local Slovene lawmaker who, the army charges, mistreated two drunken soldiers.

Add to this list the ongoing mistreatment of ethnic Albanians in Serbia's Kosovo province, which last week the US State Department condemned as an "extremely grave" human rights violation. And top it off with the resolve of both the Slovenes and the Croats to leave, against Serbia's will, the current Yugoslav federal state - and one has the necessary ingredients for chaos.

In fact, the West has a stake in keeping the lid on in Yugoslavia. The refugees of a major crisis will create tension in Central Europe. If Slovenia secedes June 26, instead of simply declaring independence, the example could sweep across the Soviet Union, possibly triggering more bloodshed in the Baltics, Soviet Georgia, and Moldavia.

When Serbia blocked the federal presidency rotation, the US suspended aid. Last Friday, the US wisely modified that position. Washington has restored aid, but only on "a selective basis choosing to support those at the federal level who are supporting democratic reforms. Britain and the other EC nations ought to take similar steps. Serbia must be isolated and forced to the conference table. The threat of such action may have already borne fruit - as the republics Monday agreed to end an internal trade w ar.

The next question in Yugoslavia is: What shape will the army take? Will it keep the peace? Or bend to Serbian influence?

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