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Balkan Woes

`THE despair of tidy minds." This expression has long summed up the slippery, protean politics of Yugoslavia and its ethnic and religious disputes. In the past year, Yugoslavia has out-Balkanized even itself. The country has been to the brink of collapse nearly a dozen times. To secede or not to secede has been the question nearly every republic has asked itself.

The most recent crisis follows efforts at political autonomy by the northern (Roman Catholic) republics of Croatia last summer, and Slovenia in February. These two want a loose Yugoslav federation, whereas the dominant republic of (Orthodox) Serbia wants tight Marxist centralization.

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Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic is the 800-pound gorilla in this scenario, known by detractors as the "Saddam of Serbia." Anticommunist students and intellectuals in Serbia have been making life tough for Mr. Milosevic. But he is still able to manipulate Serbian nationalist sentiments, and uses the complaints of ethnic Serbs in other republics to ill effect, especially in bordering Croatia.

In the past week, a major eruption of ethnic Serbs occurred in the 30-mile wide belt of Croatia known as Krajina. These Serbs vow to use whatever means necessary to secede from Croatia.

This clash is potentially explosive. It needs to be stopped. Krajina shares no border with Serbia. In the florid political rhetoric of the region, some Serbian officials threaten to invade Croatia to liberate their ethnic kin if Croatia actually does secede from Yugoslavia. An invasion would poison the well in the Balkans for years. The troops that federal Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic sent to Croatia must take care to keep the two sides apart yet stay out of the fray.

The dispute over Krajina is a major distraction from the diplomacy and developments needed in Yugoslavia. It distracts from Mr. Markovic's desperate efforts to keep the union together, attract IMF and World Bank loans, and strengthen trade relations with the West. Most of the West, including the US, supports Markovic. But his reasonable agenda does not serve the nationalist-based power aims of Milosevic, who is actively seeking Markovic's ouster.

Matters need to return to the upward road of 10 days ago when, in a surprise meeting with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Milosevic agreed to a series of dialogues with leaders of the other five republics. The agreement probably sprang from Milosevic's tarnished image at home. He'll no doubt try to use the new dispute in Krajina to polish that image. Let's hope the tactic backfires.

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