BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The latest Yugoslav peace plan brokered by the European Community has bought time for political leaders to settle the details of Slovenia's secession, but does nothing to resolve the unreconcilable differences impelling the Croats and Serbs toward ethnic war.
The principles of the EC accord sound wonderful, just as have those of past accords that Yugoslav leaders have trampled into the dust in their steady march toward self-detonation.
But this time there is a difference, with the plan implicitly recognizing that it is now impossible to force Slovenia to remain part of the federation.
Although it retained a three-month moratorium on Slovenia's June 25 independence declaration stipulated by an earlier EC-brokered accord, EC negotiators added a provision leaving a decision on Yugoslavia's future to its people, an acknowlegement of a Dec. 23 referendum in which Slovenes overwhelmingly decided on secession.
Despite comments to the opposite, the Yugoslav People's Army has given its imprimatur to Slovenia's departure, withdrawing its troops to their barracks and declining to reinforce them, while federal Defense Minister Veljko Kadijevic says he will accept any solution achieved without more bloodshed.
Implicit approval also has come from Serbia, the dominant republic, its Communist President Slobodan Milosevic saying that the Serb- dominated federal military should defend only those whose wish to remain in Yugoslavia.
All that remains are for the details of the break to be worked out.
Said a Western diplomat: 'As far as Slovenia is concerned, unless they do something increadibly stupid and provocative, the Slovenia thing may be over. The next agenda item is Croatia, especially with all that is happening on the ground.'
His comment referred to near-daily clashes pitting Croatian security forces and vigilantes against rebel Serbs vehemently opposed to independence for Croatia because of fears of repression by the republic's extreme nationalist government of President Franjo Tudjman.
The Serbian uprising is widely regarded as being fomented by Milosevic to force Croatia to hand over its Serbian-dominated areas if it insists on pursuing an independence declaration issued hours before Slovenia announced its own.
Milosevic's demand obviously sticks in the craw of Tudjman and his extreme nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, which politically is unable to concede an inch of territory and is bolstered by its own referendum for independence.
Nowhere does the EC-brokered plan hold any promise for a resolution of this dispute.
Milosevic justifies his stand by casting his regime as the protector of Yugoslavia's 8.5 million Christian Orthodox Serbs, its largest ethnic group. But at play is actually an impulse that has helped unleash the torrents of blood spilled in countless wars among Balkan despots for centuries.
In the Asia-Europe land bridge of limited space and seething ethnic competition, land means power. And the more land a leader controlled, the more power and prestige he amassed.
With Yugoslavia poised on the brink of dissolution, Milosevic wants to retain as much of it as he can, calling on the Serbs to prepare to defend Serbia and Serbian enclaves outside its borders. Tudjman has the same ideas.
Besides Croatia, Tudjman's party has entrenched itself in areas populated by Roman Catholic Croats in the ethnically mixed central Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Serbian Democratic Party, widely seen as a puppet of Milosevic, has organized the Serbian areas of the republic, while Bosnia's Muslim majority has fallen behind its own political organzation.
The three factions have tried to rule the republic in a coalition since none won a majority in November multi-party polls. But they have been paralyzed by their ethnic rivalries.
What could happen in Bosnia-Hercegovina if a territorial struggle erupts between Serbia and Croatia is best illustrated by the atrocities that occurred in a civil war that paralleled World War II.
Even the Nazis were forced to step in to halt progroms by pro-German Croatian extremists known as Ustashi, who butchered hundreds of thousands of Serbs in a bizarre plan to establish a pure Roman Catholic state stretching from Croatia, through Bosnia to the banks of the Danube near Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
Now, many Serbians are saying there should be 'a settling of accounts.' The chances of there being one grow by the day.