Balkans Backsliding Challenges US

Massive antigovernment protests in Serbia and Croatia during the last week pose a serious dilemma for the Clinton administration in its efforts to preserve peace in the Balkans.

The demonstrations were triggered by autocratic moves made by the leaders of the two former Yugoslav republics despite their many pledges to promote democracy.

The backsliding puts pressure on the Clinton administration to prod Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia back onto the path of political reform. Such a policy, however, carries potential risks for the US.

The cooperation of these two erstwhile communists is vital to the success of the US-brokered 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And interference by the Clinton administration in their internal affairs could prompt them to orchestrate actions that could jeopardize the Dayton accords or the safety of thousands of US troops in Bosnia with the NATO peacekeeping force.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have been marching in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, to protest the invalidation by Milosevic-controlled courts of municipal election victories by the opposition. Last Thursday, some 100,0000 people gathered in Croatia's capital, Zagreb, to denounce a government bid to close the country's only independent radio station, which ironically helped Mr. Tudjman in his rise to power but is now critical of his policies.

The Clinton administration has been working quietly to persuade Mr. Milosevic and Tudjman to reconsider their actions. Tudjman's government has said it is reviewing its decision. But it was only on Nov. 25, after almost a week of antigovernment protests, that the US issued its first strong criticism of Milosevic.

The lack of quick public US criticism of Milosevic and Tudjman appears to underscore the administration's policy that, as distasteful as they are, it must continue to rely on them to help keep peace in Bosnia.

But some analysts call the policy shortsighted and say the US must take tough action.

"We should not be hostages to these tin-pot dictators," says Dusko Doder, a Balkans expert at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace who rejects the possible retaliation against US troops.

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