A Moment of Reckoning

If Serbia continues to disregard norms of international behavior, it will face political and military sanctions and devastating economic isolation

WITH Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's fraudulent victory in the Dec. 20 elections, Belgrade is bracing itself for a political and economic crisis that could spark fratricidal bloodshed and the disintegration of the remnants of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Milosevic, the prime culprit in the Yugoslav wars, did everything to assure himself of victory at the ballot. He maintained a tight monopoly over state TV, used state property for election campaigns, and successfully played the various opposition groups off of each other. The democratic parties proved to be weak, lacking influence outside the large cities and unable to forge a unified bloc.

The millionaire eccentric, Milan Panic, appointed federal prime minister by Milosevic last July, decided to challenge the president. But Mr. Panic was outwitted by Milosevic, who delayed his registration as a candidate for the Serbian presidency and blocked his access to television.

In addition to regaining the Serbian presidency, Milosevic could gain a sufficient majority in the federal and republican assemblies to once again form a coalition government with the ultra-radical "loyal opposition." With this election exercise, Milosevic intends to neutralize dissent by quasi-legislative means, regain domestic prestige, and resist international pressures for change. But the results of his victory will prove painful for the country and catastrophic for its citizens.

International ostracism will escalate to total isolation as sanctions are broadened and more strictly verified along all Yugoslav borders. Land routs may be closed entirely, Serbian foreign assets and bank accounts frozen, communication severed, and all Western embassy staff withdrawn. Complete and enforced sanctions will push Serbia toward economic breakdown and social disorder. Milosevic has been able to buy off workers and farmers by printing money and giving temporary tax concessions. He has encourag ed the expansion of a vast black economy fueled by war profiteering, arms smuggling, and plunder from conquered territories in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But when the bottom falls out, living standards will plummet and goods will become unavailable.

Social turmoil will heat up political conflicts and spur a desperate struggle for power and privilege between the economic mafias, the radical paramilitary formations, and dispossessed workers and urban residents. If chaos and disorder become rampant, the federal Army could be drawn into the fray, leading to firefights between federal units, Serbian police, and paramilitary gangs. A military coup may then be the only viable solution.

FOR sanctions to be eased or stricter UN embargoes avoided, Milosevic will need to make some major concessions on the international arena. Serbia and Yugoslavia must recognize the independence and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a first step toward a political settlement in that republic.

Second, Belgrade must take steps to stop the conflict by cutting off all arms supplies to Bosnian Serbs, outlawing paramilitary and mercenary formations, and pressuring Radovan Karadzic, the main Bosnian Serb warlord, to enforce a ceasefire and desist from civilian massacres. If Milosevic can deliver, then the West can lean on the Croats and Muslims to abide with the ceasefire and dispatch UN/NATO forces to separate warring factions, feed desperate citizens, and monitor the peace.

Third, Milosevic must begin dialogue with leaders of the Albanian majority in Kosovo over the future status of this territory. Repression must be eased, the province demilitarized, and UN peace monitors dispatched. Milosevic could regain a modicum of Western confidence and spare Serbia from a nightmare; but if the government persists in disregarding all norms of international behavior, it then faces political and military sanctions as well as economic isolation.

Politically, the West could terminate Yugoslavia's participation in all international institutions and declare current Serb leaders war criminals. Conditions and ultimatums would be specified: Any ethnic massacres in Kosovo would result in the recognition of Kosovo's independence, and warfare in Vojvodina would lead to the acceptance of autonomy from Serbia. The isolated republic of Montenegro could be offered international recognition and a lifting of sanctions if it disassociates itself from Yugoslavia . Montenegro's leaders have already indicated that, if backed by a Western pledge of support, they would consider breaking with Belgrade.

Militarily, Western advisors could arm and train Bosnian Muslims to recapture lost territories. Peacekeepers and human rights monitors would move into liberated areas to minimize all opportunities for revenge against innocent Serbs and help restore the republic's economic infrastructure. Serbian airfields, ammunition dumps, supply routes, and military production facilities would be bombed, and the border between Bosnia and Serbia would be severed by the destruction of all road and rail arteries.

Even military targets in Serbia would not be excluded from UN/NATO operations. NATO Secretary-General Manfred Worner has already stated that with "surgical strikes" the "Serbian war machine can be crippled within 24 hours."

NATO must be given the primary military assignment in the former Yugoslavia; it is the only organization with muscle that Belgrade still respects. A successful NATO operation in the region will also contribute to its defining its mission in European trouble spots for the next decade. It is now up to Washington and its European allies to make a long overdue response to an escalating and increasingly dangerous crisis.

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