Yugoslavia The Flash of War

A hotbed of nationalism that sparked World War I, the Balkans ignite a new European crisis as Serbs and Croatians open full-scale civil war

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Not long ago, the reputation of the Balkans as the tinderbox of Europe seemed , to have faded. Now the region is once again in flames, igniting fears of a broader conflagration. For years, Yugoslavia was the acceptable face of communism: estranged from Moscow, a pioneer of peaceful coexistence with the West, a country whose rugged Adriatic coastline attracted tens of thousands of vacationers. But last week that idyllic image was irreparably shattered. After three months of ethnic skirmishing, hapless Yugoslavia erupted in the first full-scale war in Europe since 1945. The fighting between federal forces and breakaway Croatia gave Europe and the world beyond a stark reminder of the region's capacity for violence.

The Serb-dominated Yugoslav military threw itself into the conflict with a will. Federal gunboats boomed off the Croatian coast as warplanes and artillery opened fire on targets across the secessionist republic. A massive column of federal battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and 155-mm howitzers set out from Belgrade to assault Croatia's eastern wing, which borders on Serbia. In another action, two columns of federal reservists marched into Bosnia-Herzegovina, shattering the tense calm of that buffer state with its explosive mixture of Serbs, Croatians and Slavic Muslims. When an oil refinery blew up under attack in Osijek, Croatia's key city in the east, it became clear that a region long dormant had loosed a volcano of passions.

For the first time, the conflict was brought home to Zagreb, Croatia's capital, which howled with air-raid sirens and rattled with sniper fire. For the first time, too, the emergency came truly home to Western Europe. After the fourth attempt by the 12-nation European Community to arrange a cease-fire fell apart almost instantly, the U.N. Security Council considered an attempt at peacekeeping. There may be little time to waste. An old infection -- Europe's original sin of tribalism -- is once again raging out of control in the Balkans. Since the Continent's nationalist frenzies had drawn the U.S. into two world wars during this century, Washington sat up and took sharp notice as well.

In Yugoslavia's strife, the E.C. has been haunted by a feeling of deja vu. More than a century ago, Otto von Bismarck gazed on another Balkan crisis -- the collapse of the empire of Ottoman Turkey -- and shrank from getting militarily involved. In the Iron Chancellor's view, Germany had no interests there that "would be worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer." Though Serbian nationalism went on to ignite the First World War, the E.C. last week seemed to feel much as Bismarck had. At an emergency session in the Hague, the Community's foreign ministers rejected the idea of committing a "buffer" military force. The rejection prompted three other countries -- Canada, Austria and Australia -- to call on the U.N. to step in. When France and Germany joined the appeal, it seemed Europe was about to shirk a responsibility -- one that, in the end, might devolve on American leadership.

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