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The Balkans Countdown

If the cease-fire between the Croats and Serbs fails this year, the chances of containing the regions's conflict could be all but erased

A FEW weeks after the elections in Serbia, problems in the Balkans seem more complicated than ever. Following a systematic war that devastated Croatia, and nine months of destruction in Bosnia, only the most stubborn optimist can believe a permanent solution is at hand.

The victory of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, the man considered by nearly everyone to be most responsible for the Balkan tragedy, has increased tensions in those territories affected by war. So has the election of ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serb paramilitary "Chetniks."

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Former prime minister Milan Panic and the rest of the Serbian opposition are too weak to effectively counter Mr. Milosevic.

The new year also brings new tenseness to Croatia. A third of Croatia is still under Serbian occupation. The United Nations Security Council sent forces to cordon-off the lines of conflict. Within the so-called Vance Plan, they ensured the cease-fire and separation of the warring parties. According to the plan, some 350,000 refugees were then to return to their homes, and there was to be a gradual return of UN-occupied territories to Croatia.

While the first part of the plan was realized, the return of refugees and the reinstatement of Croatian sovereignty are not in sight. The UN authorities say the main obstacle is that Serb leaders in Croatia will not agree to disarm their units or acknowledge Croatian sovereignty in the territories controlled by them.

It is hard to reconcile opposites here. Croatia asked for the return of its territories, and the international community recognized that request - provided the rights of minorities (read Serbs) are strictly observed. Only weeks ago, however, local Serb authorities proclaimed the unification of those parts of Croatia under their control into a "common state" with Serbs in the conquered territory of Bosnia. They intend to finally join these lands into a "Greater Serbia" - a plan carefully prepared in Belgr ade to achieve territorial expansion.

In a December letter to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman asked for action by UN forces in carrying out the Vance plan. The 12-part Croat proposal seems written to allow further negotiations and compromises. (Hence an unrealistic request that all Serb paramilitary units in Croatia be disarmed.)

Mr. Tudjman's letter includes serious warnings that Croatia will not agree to prolonging the UN mandate unless the Vance Plan is better realized. This raises a number of possible solutions in Croatia - all of which contain a degree of violence.

First, the world community, through the UN, could reinstate Croatian sovereignty by force. Second, the UN could withdraw - which would result in an immediate war between Serbs and Croats. Third, despite the UN presence, Tudjman, forced by social pressures and expectations, could decide to take the territory back by military means.

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It is hard to say which possibility is more likely. But it is easy to agree which would be the least destructive: a firm execution of the UN plan, reasonable terms for overcoming political and psychological consequences of the war, and a firm threat to anyone, Croat or Serb, who intends to endanger that process.

If this is not done, the pattern of territorial occupation, ethnic cleansing, and border adjustments by force will grow. The war in Bosnia will go on to mutual extermination - and spread to Kosovo and Macedonia. That opens a gloomy possibility of a total Balkan war, in which NATO would, paradoxically, be involved on the opposing sides: through a vehement conflict between Greece and Turkey.

Nor, ugly as such a scenario is, is that even the main threat. Consider the frequent visits of the Russian parliamentary radicals to Mr. Milosevic. Consider the visits of Russian extremists to the Serbian ultra-nationalist Seselj. Consider the recent severe warnings of the Russian minister of the exterior that Moscow could "in certain conditions" stand and defend Serbia. These are palpable threats.

Milosevic hopes and reckons that Russian nationalism will submerge Boris Yeltsin. He thinks that the cold war can be renewed. He overtly offers protection of "Greater Russia's" interest in the Balkans.

Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, has told the world that Serbs and their "Russian brothers" will, "if that is the price for the Serbian state," evoke a "world cataclysm."

With the rapidly worsening political situation in Russia, the question for the world is simple but crucial: Can "the butcher from the Balkans" be stopped before circumstances enable him to form a real alliance with his Siberian brethren?

This is more than a rhetorical question. Western analysts might be interested to know that Moscow has probably known about Milosevic's intentions for some time. During a state trip to Yugoslavia in 1989 before the break-up, Mikhail Gorbachev spent six hours in a meeting with the Serb president. No one knows the content of that meeting; there was no statement.

Let's turn back to the beginning. Milosevic won the recent elections, which means nothing will change in Serbia. Everything will have to be changed outside of it, though, if the world wants to extinguish the flames of war.

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