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Clinton's Reaction to Serb, Croat Dictators Too Slow, Too Mild

'Where our interests are clear and our values are at stake, we must act and we must lead." So reads the foreign-policy gospel according to President Clinton, enunciated in a pre-election statement on Oct. 21.

Certainly our democratic values, if not our interests, are at stake in Serbia and Croatia, whose dictatorial presidents refuse to accept the verdict of elections and who monopolize their news media. In Belgrade, Serbia, the only independent radio station has been shut down. Also in Belgrade, push is coming to shove with President Slobodan Milosevic threatening a police crackdown on citizens who have been demonstrating by the tens of thousands for nearly two weeks. The threat remains, although Yugoslav foreign minister Milan Milutinovic has promised not to use force.

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The specific demand of the demonstrators is that the government respect the outcome of municipal elections in which the opposition won 13 of the 18 biggest cities. Fawned upon by the West for helping to nudge the Bosnian Serbs and Croats toward acceptance of the Dayton peace accords, presidents Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman felt emboldened to strengthen their positions by repression at home.

What neither of these leaders nor their Western patrons took into account was that oft-neglected factor: the people and their yearning for freedom. And now Belgrade begins to look like Prague and Bucharest in 1989, where popular protest overwhelmed repressive regimes. The question is whether Belgrade will resemble Prague, where the overthrow was mainly peaceful, or Bucharest, where the end was bloody and President Nicolae Ceaucescu was executed.

EUROPE is trying to bring the dictators to their senses before chaos descends. At the European Security Summit in Lisbon this week, speakers urged Milosevic to accept the election results. At a Bosnia peace conference in London later this week, Serbian and Croatian delegations headed into a much chillier reception than they got in Dayton a year ago.

The Clinton administration was a little slow and initially a little mild in expressing America's feelings. The State Department said Serbia would have to improve its human rights record to be accepted by the international community. Then, playing catch-up with Europe, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said outright that "The Serbian government stole the election," and he held out the possibility of reimposing sanctions if the Serbian government uses force to crush the popular protests.

The Clinton administration, which likes to take credit for a year of peace in Bosnia, only reluctantly comes out swinging against the Serbian and Croatian dictators who helped nudge their compatriots in Bosnia into accepting the Dayton accords.

But if the president means anything about acting and leading where American values are at stake, this is the time to show it.

Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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