Defiant Serbs prepare to reap the whirlwind

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The Independent Online
HAVING sown the wind, Serbia yesterday began reaping the whirlwind. Less than six years after Slobodan Milosevic took power in Belgrade, armed with a vision of Serbian national greatness, the Serbs face economic ruin, military confrontation with the West, and potentially violent disputes between rival Serbian factions.

The critical moment arrived soon after 5am London time yesterday, when the Bosnian Serb assembly rejected the Vance- Owen peace plan for Bosnia- Herzegovina. The vote triggered new United Nations sanctions against the rump Yugoslav state, comprising Serbia and Montenegro, and produced fresh calls in the West for air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets.

Belgrade's civil-defence chief, Zoran Stojanovic, said last week that city authorities should prepare thousands of air-raid shelters in case the West struck Serbia itself. 'The question of protecting citizens is becoming vital in an atmosphere of increasingly serious threats of military intervention,' he said.

The sanctions ban the shipment of goods, except humanitarian supplies, through and to rump Yugoslavia. Yugoslav vessels are forbidden on the Danube outside Yugoslav waters, and Nato is to enforce a 12-mile exclusion zone barring ships from the Yugoslav coast. The world is also freezing overseas funds held by Yugoslav authorities and Yugoslav-registered firms. In Cyprus, where Western officials believe the Serbs have set up a sophisticated network of front-companies to circumvent UN sanctions, the Central Bank yesterday said it would freeze the assets of three Yugoslav banks and up to 100 companies.

The sanctions take effect at a perilous time for Serbia's economy. Monthly inflation soared to 227 per cent in March, and the average monthly wage has fallen to pounds 12. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs are out of work, and output slumped by 40 per cent in the first two months of this year. Serbia must also feed and supply its client states set up in Bosnia and Croatia after the Yugoslav wars broke out in June 1991. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, warned his assembly yesterday that, if it rejected the Vance-Owen plan, 'we must be ready for the people to have little to eat . . . You have the most difficult task in history to decide.'

The vote exposed sharp divisions between the Bosnian Serbs and the Belgrade leadership, already at odds over the Bosnian Serbs' decision to merge their assembly with the Serbian assembly in Croatia. Reluctant to court more Western hostility, Serbia wanted the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan, which would divide Bosnia into 10 autonomous provinces, mainly on ethnic lines.

'This is not a time to compete in patriotism. It is a time for a careful, far-sighted and courageous decision. An unnecessary war can bring nothing but evil and suffering,' said a letter from three leaders - Mr Milosevic, President Momir Bulatovic of Montenegro, and President Dobrica Cosic of Yugoslavia.

The assembly ignored the appeal but agreed that the Bosnian Serb people should vote on the Vance-Owen plan in a referendum on 15 and 16 May.

Other cracks are appearing in the facade of Serbian unity. Montenegro is unhappy about the growing danger of a clash with the West. But a powerful nationalist politician, Vojislav Seselj, who leads the Serbian Radical Party, has denounced Mr Milosevic for not fully supporting the Bosnian Serbs and the goal of a Greater Serbian state. He said last Friday that, even if the Serbs were no military match for the West, 'in order to defeat us, they will have to deploy their ground troops, and they are not ready to do that'.