IF ever there was early warning, it is here. A time bomb has been set in Croatia, and United Nations and Western diplomats are frantically looking for a way to defuse it.
On Jan. 12, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia notified UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that he was ordering the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, to leave by the end of June. UNPROFOR, some 14,000 men from 30 countries, was sent to Croatia in 1992 after the Serbs there started the war for a Greater Serbia with the full backing of neighboring Serbia and the intervention of the mostly Serb Yugoslav army.
The Serbs, who totaled 12 percent of the peacetime population, took over nearly one third of Croatia and proclaimed an independent Serbian Republic of Krajina. The UN and the European Community patched up a truce and, with Croatia's consent, inserted UNPROFOR into protected areas and between the ethnic regions to keep things quiet. They stipulated that Croatia would remain intact, that the Croats driven from their homes would safely return, and that the Krajina Serbs would be ensured full civil rights as they were resettled.
Three years later, the picture is unchanged, except that the defiant Serbs and the frustrated Croats have reduced UNPROFOR to impotence. Ironically, the Croats may have helped to bring on disaster by refusing the Serbs civil rights that might have mollified them early on. In any case, the Croats were unable to suppress the rebellion, and so they scoured the world's arms markets to build armed forces that Mr. Tudjman may now feel can break the deadlock. Without UNPROFOR, he has freedom of action.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali has warned repeatedly that withdrawal risks resumption of major conflict; UN planners have concluded that if UNPROFOR leaves Croatia, its 12,000-man contingent in Bosnia must also be pulled out, along with any restraints on war and genocide its presence has provided.
The first act of this new tragedy might well be a massive Croat operation to disarm the secessionist Serb minority and to deter intervention from Serbia. The so-called Contact Group - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia - has proposed a compromise in which the Krajina Serbs would be given unprecedented cultural and political rights in Croatia.
Both parties indignantly reject this idea, however, and there is no coercive will in NATO, the European Union, or the US (the same people with different hats) to make them accept.
Tudjman and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia appear to be on a collision course. No face-saving formula would conceal the fact that Tudjman was abandoning more than 30 percent of his country and inviting an assassin's bullet. On the other side, Milosevic is also a prisoner of the extreme nationalism that he used to gain power. To betray the Serbs of Croatia and to recognize Croatia's old boundaries would destroy his pretensions at home and his ambition of Balkan preeminence.
What might be done to avert this nightmare? In principle, the assertion of a higher moral authority or the threat of decisive force could stop the move toward the abyss. Unfortunately, the Europeans and the US have squandered political authority in endless dithering. NATO and the EU, straining to de-fine a new policy, have drawn a blank. Some, like the British, feel the Yugoslav problem will solve itself. They all face the bleak judgment of John Donne: ``Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.