What Belgrade's Protesters Are Telling the West

Milosevic's cards, including Kosovo, have all been played - and lost. His day is past.

It is time for the West to begin planning on a Yugoslavia without Slobodan Milosevic, and the core of the plan must be a peace conference like the post-World War II Potsdam Conference, one that will deal not just with Bosnia but with Serbia and Montenegro and Croatia as well - with the whole of the former Yugoslavia.

There are some who say that, realistically, the Serbian president's control of his country's military and its media dooms the opposition that has been so spectacularly brought into Belgrade's streets by his annulment of last month's municipal elections. But such realism is like the realism that once saw Mikhail Gorbachev as untouchable in the Soviet Union. Mr. Milosevic, Europe's last old-style communist strongman, cannot last much longer.

The wonder is that he has lasted this long. In early 1995, at a time when the Serbs were about to suffer a crushing military defeat by the Croats, the irreversibility of Serb victory was endlessly announced by tough-minded diplomats of the same stripe as those who now believe that political resistance to Milosevic is futile. The Serbs had won in Croatia, the realists said. Further resistance to Serb victory in Bosnia would only prolong the agony.

Time ran out for Serbs

But the Serbs had not truly won in Bosnia any more than they had won in Croatia. Their opponents outnumbered them. Their overwhelming early advantage in materiel was eroding by the week. The morale of their overextended armed forces was such that having failed to win fast, they were in danger of losing big. Time was not on their side.

Time was, above all, not on Milosevic's side. In supporting the Dayton peace accord, he was not seeking peace but only halting a Croatian advance that would surely have ended in his own overthrow. Commentators who disagree on much agree that Milosevic finally has no agenda but himself. He is, if you will, not even a sincere fascist. Serb militants among the Belgrade demonstrators have good reason to be unhappy with the Dayton accord, for its one completely assured result is that in any future outbreak of fighting, the sides will be closely balanced. In the next round, if it comes, the Croats and Muslims will be at least as combat-ready as the Serbs were in the first round.

Rather than worry, then, about losing Milosevic's support for the Dayton accord, the West should assume that he will fall, assume that the Serbs will be as nationalistic and militant without him as with him, but assume as well that they will be prevented by the new strength of their opponents from the kind of precipitous action they undertook in the earliest, most violent period of Serb expansionism. What impends is a period of military stalemate with continuing political instability.

This is a prospect that cries out for a new Western political initiative seeking, among other things, free elections not just in the three sectors of Bosnia but also in Yugoslavia and Croatia, with due protection for minority voters in all three states. And in this connection, no minority is more important than the Albanians of Serbia and Montenegro.

More numerous than either the Slovenes or the Muslim Slavs of Bosnia, the Albanians are the third-largest ethnic group now living in the former Yugoslavia. Only the Serbs and the Croats outnumber them. Under Tito, the autonomous province of Kosovo, with its 90 percent ethnic Albanian population, functioned virtually as a seventh republic. After Tito's death, Milosevic found a demagogue's way to power by inflaming Serb resentment at Albanian dominance in this region, which in the Middle Ages had been the cradle of Serbian culture.

But when he took the further step of abrogating Kosovar autonomy altogether and instituting a policy of ruthless Serbification, the Slovenes, fearing the same sort of repression in their own republic, declared their independence, triggering a chain reaction that in short order brought down the entire federation.

Blaming the Albanians

Today Milosevic is trying desperately to play the Albanian card again. His charge is that Zajedno ("Together"), the sudden and massive Belgrade protest movement, is the tool of Kosovar separatism. The Kosovars, to be sure, have every reason to secede and every reason to regard any enemy of Milosevic as a friend of theirs, but can this brutally oppressed minority muster a throng of 100,000 to march through the streets of their oppressor's capital?

Serbia is accustomed to swallowing what a state-controlled press feeds it, but with its economy as ruined as its international reputation and its battlefield defeats staring from the faces of its thousands of refugees, will it not finally choke on a headline like the recent "Albanian Mafia Finances Demonstrations"? The lie that made this tyrant may yet unmake him.

The South Slavs are not the Swiss. Their future will be one, no doubt, of armed camps and endless monitoring. But even if a comprehensive peace must involve a mix of segregation and integration, the segregation can be made more workable by a modest redrawing of borders, and the integration - given that intermarriage makes complete segregation a physical impossibility - can be made more bearable by guarantees for minority populations.

To imagine all this is indeed to imagine something like a Potsdam Conference for the former Yugoslavia, a prospect that will strike many as wildly unrealistic. Unrealistic it may well be, but how realistic is it to link Western policy in the Balkans to an accord that requires the support of a demagogue who has become a captive in his own capital? When every available move is a gamble, let us at least gamble on democracy.

Jack Miles is director of the Humanities Center at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

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