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Belgrade counts cost of ethnic dreams

Their armies humbled, their leaders at each others' throats, their kinfolk streaming across the crescent of northern Bosnia, the Serbs were yesterday counting the bitter cost exacted by years of ethnic war.

Belgrade Radio said that the exodus of up to 200,000 Krajina Serbs was the greatest movement of people in the history of the Serbian nation. That was patent exaggeration - the Balkan War of 1912-13 probably brought even greater displacement - but it spoke to the visceral instincts and the apocalyptic religious undercurrent that grips discourse in Serbia.

The devoutly Orthodox have congregated to hear sermons preaching repentance and humility. Diehards have marched to demand revenge, but their only achievement so far has been to smash windows at the US and German embassies.

There is a more insidious way in which the faith of Serbs in their ethnic solidarity is being challenged. In the first flush of extreme nationalism during 1990 and 1991 the great slogan, was Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava - "Only unity can save the Serb." After the defeat in Krajina, with Yugoslav tanks massing north of Belgrade to repel any Croatian attack, theorists of ethnic purity and unity have seen their dreams unravelled.

How to explain the tales heard by journalists from the sad, shattered people of Krajina: stories of Bosnian Serb black marketeers demanding fantastic sums in marks for petrol to fuel their flight, bribes at checkpoints and the tale of a man who took all the cash from peasant women to carry them in a cart drawn by his tractor?

The tame Belgrade media have carefully attributed such behaviour to unscrupulous elements among Bosnian Serbs, contrasting it with scenes of selfless assistance proffered by the people of Serbia itself. But even this promotes differences where unity was paramount.

"The biological and spiritual existence of the Serbian nation is in danger," read a letter from the Bosnian Serb "parliament" to their counterparts in Serbia and Montenegro. But shrill calls for assistance have gone unheeded by Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, who is still immured in a country retreat, keeping a Delphic silence on the disaster overwhelming his supposed allies.

Mr Milosevic remains sole arbiter of domestic politics. But even the most assiduous students of his machinations cannot divine his response to the most awesome crisis since the start of the Serb-Croat war.

Yesterday, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, was fulminating about treachery, and denounced Mr Milosevic for "turning your back on the Serb cause". Political analysts in Belgrade believed the Serbian President could well have entered into a cold calculation to exchange the fallen Krajina for the rich lands of Serb-occupied eastern Slavonia, north-west of Belgrade. Some members of the Croatian government, however, have reiterated their desire to "reintegrate" that land as well.