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Serbia: Analysis From Washington--Internationalizing The Conflict In Belgrade

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - The continuing conflict between Yugoslavia's authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian people who seek greater democracy has spilled over into the international arena.

On the one hand, the United States has spoken out ever more forcefully in support of the goals of the Serbian demonstrators. On the other, Russia increasingly has come to the aid of Milosevic, blocking any call for greater democracy in Yugoslavia by the OSCE summit in Lisbon.

This division has effectively internationalized the conflict in Belgrade and reflects both longstanding differences and current political calculations.

And that in turn has raised the stakes there, further complicated discussions about NATO expansion, and highlighted divisions in Europe that have yet to be overcome to make the continent "whole and free."

In Belgrade, each side is likely to be encouraged by this outside support and to act accordingly. To the extent that each does so, the next week may bring even larger public demonstrations against Milosevic in the Yugoslav capital and other cities and a greater willingness by Milosevic to respond with force.

And such a turn of events would inevitably have an impact not only in Yugoslavia itself but further afield as well.

That is even more so because of yet another division between East and West that occurred in Lisbon. In addition to blocking OSCE criticism of Milosevic, Russian diplomats also vetoed Western-backed language criticizing the increasingly authoritarian government of Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Moscow's support of such regimes in the name of either traditional ties or stability will inevitably disturb the fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And they are likely to press even harder for some Western protection, including in some cases, membership in NATO.

The language such countries are likely to use in pressing their cases will only exacerbate the debate on NATO expansion.

Moreover, this Russian support for authoritarian regimes in Yugoslavia and Belarus might lead some groups in these countries to conclude that they might be able to enlist Moscow's support to reverse the democratic changes that have occurred already.

And such developments would inevitably destabilize Eastern Europe as a whole.

But in addition, by highlighting the differences between East and West on what each side considers most important, the events in Belgrade call attention to just how divided Europe remains.

Whatever compromises Western democracies have made in the region in the name of stability and whatever commitments the Russian government has made in the name of democracy, the latest standoff shows that the two sides continue to view the world in very different terms.

And these differences are far deeper and likely to last longer than the current debates about NATO expansion or CFE modification that arise from them.

Some political leaders and analysts in both Moscow and the West will naturally seek to downplay these continuities either in the hope that they can be overcome or out of a fear that they will not be.

But the events in Belgrade, like those in Minsk, underscore how dangerous it could be to ignore these underlying divisions.

A great deal was at stake when the only contestants in Belgrade were Milosevic and the Serbian people; a great deal more is at stake now that the international community has taken sides.