US Role in the Balkans

THE United States has consistently treated the civil war in Yugoslavia as Europe's problem, and on Jan. 15 the European Community responded by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia as independent states, following Germany's lead.

Yugoslavia has, like Humpty Dumpty, broken apart. Some 10,000 persons have died in the war between Serbs and Croats. The political reality - validated by the EC - is that diplomats can't put Humpty together again.

The US, heeding United Nations envoy Cyrus Vance, has not recognized any of the Yugoslav republics, hoping to avoid a Serb-Muslim-Croat blowup in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Neither Bosnia nor Macedonia wants to be part of a Serbian rump Yugoslavia, and they have voted to secede.

The US position all along has been to minimize bloodshed in the Balkans. EC recognition of the breakaway republics, however, has created a new dynamic - one coinciding with the domestic weakening and international isolating of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Mr. Milosevic is backing off his "Greater Serbia" ambitions. He supports UN peacekeepers and is trying to cool down hotheaded Serb leaders in the self-proclaimed autonomous region of Krajina, within Croatia.

So far, Bosnia has not blown. The cease-fire is holding better than any of the previous 15 efforts. Since the US has not recognized Slovenia and Croatia it may find a way to be an honest broker in the dispute.

The parliament of Bosnia is scheduled to vote today whether to hold a referendum on recognition. How the question gets phrased is important. The US properly supports the current Bosnian borders. The Serbs talk of changing them - as, oddly, has Croat President Franjo Tudjman, whose own borders are hardly assured since a foreign army occupies much of his land. Carving up Bosnia could be very destabilizing.

As it is, Yugoslavia is a colossal mess. Reports last week confirm that the Yugoslav Army carried out a campaign of butchery and plunder in Croatian villages.

It has always been assumed in the State Department that the US would recognize Croatia and Slovenia if the EC voted to do so as a bloc. Given sentiments in Europe, the US must now think in terms of when to recognize. If the cease-fire doesn't hold and the UN peacekeeping forces aren't deployed, the US will be supporting a failed policy.

Macedonia and Bosnia should also get recognition. The EC arbitration committee found Macedonia more deserving than Croatia. The Greeks blocked the vote, however, saying the name "Macedonia" implied historic claims on Greece.

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