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Serbia Remains Unmoved by Western Warnings

By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post


Western warnings that Serbia's aggressive actions in neighboring Bosnia could make it the pariah of Europe seem to have fallen on deaf ears, and diplomats here say they fear catastrophic civil war may soon engulf the former Yugoslav republic.

"One has the feeling of a kind of Armageddon coming," said a Western diplomat who has personal contact with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and leaders of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. "I don't know if the levers of economic and political isolation will be strong enough to stop them or if they care."

Other observers here expressed doubts that purely diplomatic or economic sanctions would dissuade Serbia from forcibly annexing vast tracts of newly independent Bosnia, where Slavic Muslims and Croats outnumber Serbs 2 to 1.

The United States warned Milosevic explicitly last week that Serbia could be denied international recognition as the successor state to the collapsed Yugoslav federation if its attempts to dismember Bosnia continue.

Milosevic was told that Serbia -- or the rump of Yugoslavia, which Serbian controls -- would be denied membership in the United Nations, as well as in other major international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But even that unusually blunt threat, coming from the world power thought to have the most influence in Serbia, appears to have had no effect.

The Yugoslav army and paramilitary units operating from Serbia continued to attack Muslim-majority towns in Bosnia this week, carving out a corridor of Serbian control along the border between the two republics. These attacks, during which Serbian militiamen worked hand-in-glove with army troops, forced tens of thousands of Muslims to flee their homes and left hundreds dead and wounded.

On Wednesday, following three consecutive days of harsh U.S. criticism of Serbia and the army, Washington proposed that Yugoslavia -- now reduced from a six-republic federation to an alliance between Serbia and Montenegro -- be expelled from the 48-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe if attacks in Bosnia were not halted by April 29.

The United Nations dispatched special envoy Cyrus Vance to Belgrade Wednesday for an urgent meeting with Milosevic and army leaders. Vance, too, is known to have delivered a tough warning about the international consequences of Serbian actions in Bosnia.

Threats of international isolation and the personal persuasiveness of Vance -- who earlier this year helped arrange a truce in the Serb-Croat war in neighboring Croatia -- appear to be the international community's final two cards in its efforts to head off wholesale ethnic carnage in Bosnia. American diplomats say there is no possibility that the United States would intervene militarily.

On the same day Vance visited Belgrade, Milosevic continued to play what diplomats here say is a familiar "two-tier" game. In public statements, he denied any territorial pretensions in Bosnia -- committing himself to U.N. peace efforts, denying there were any Serbian paramilitary forces in Bosnia, and pledging to do everything in his power to promote peace.

In private meetings with Western diplomats, Milosevic even acknowledged that the Serb minority in Bosnia is not under threat of persecution, or "ethnic genocide," as the Serbian government and state-controlled media have loudly proclaimed as the reason for Serbian intervention in Bosnia.

But on the battlefields of eastern Bosnia, where Serb forces were busy this week occupying the Muslim-majority town of Visegrad, Milosevic was playing on another tier. Thousands of Yugoslav army troops assaulted the town, supported by artillery and tanks. In the vanguard of the assault was an ultranationalist guerrilla group called the Serbian National Movement, which is based in Belgrade and which is supplied with arms and funding by the Serbian government.

In addition, key Milosevic lieutenants proclaimed a state of emergency inside Bosnia this week and ordered a general mobilization of all Serbs. Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb leader allied with the Milosevic government, was quoted in a Belgrade newspaper Wednesday as saying that Serbs will "liberate" Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, "either with an agreement or by some other means."

As international pressure builds on Milosevic, his regime has shown an increased reliance on paramilitary warlords and granted them astonishing media prominence. Militia commanders, including a well-known Belgrade underworld figure known as "Arkan," have taken the lead as regular army units move to "liberate" Muslim-majority towns in Bosnia. Such warlords often are later given extensive coverage in the Belgrade press as they chronicle their exploits.

Vojislav Seselj, a radical Serb nationalist whom Milosevic helped win election to Serbia's parliament, also has been granted extensive television coverage as he berates the supposed ethnic enemies of Serbia. Seselj gained widespread celebrity last year for advocating that Croats be murdered with rusty spoons. "We shall not kill you," Seselj said in parliament last week, referring to Croats living in Serbia. "We shall put you on trucks and trains" to Croatia.

Seselj, whom Milosevic described two weeks ago as his "favorite" opposition politician, appeared on state-run television recently to read a list of local journalists he said were unreliable and should be driven out of Yugoslavia.

"This is not fascism proper," said Milos Vasic, a well-known journalist from the independent weekly Vreme. "It is the symptom of a regime in panic, relying more and more on brute physical force and using phony political parties. Seselj and these other hoodlums are only as powerful as Milosevic wants them to be."

But despite such tough posturing, there is no disguising the crippling weakness in Serbia's economy. Hyperinflation is running at 50 percent a month as the army devours more than 90 percent of state spending, and Serbia last year confiscated all private hard-currency savings in state banks. Western economists say that Serbia, which has been subject to limited economic sanctions for more than six months, has no realistic hope of getting foreign support as a means of halting the economic slide and bringing inflation under control.

The army, the ultimate enforcer for the regime, is also finding it harder and harder to remain an effective force. The army's chief of staff, Gen. Zivota Panic, told parliament this week that "people do not respond to mobilization; when they do, after the first battle, they abandon their tanks and go home." Officials here say tens of thousands of skilled young people have fled Serbia in the past year.

Looming economic collapse and disarray in the army seem certain to accelerate if Serbia is subject to complete diplomatic and economic isolation, but even then there are few in Serbia who believe that Milosevic can be persuaded to bend to foreign pressure.

"Milosevic cannot be broken by economic sanctions alone; he is an absolute fighter," said Dragan Veselinov, leader of the opposition Peasants Party and a longtime acquaintance of the Serbian leader. "His regime will strictly limit information about Serbia's isolation; it will attack the whole world as wrong, as Khomeini did in Iran and Saddam Hussein does in Iraq."