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by Morton I Abramowitz

The West may be approaching a turning point in Croatia and Serbia. Popular dissatisfaction with the authoritarian leadership of Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic is rising. Demonstrators in Zagreb and Belgrade are protesting their leaders' latest obscenities against democracy. The side we Americans take in the emerging struggle between the two dictators and their own peoples could determine the fate of the Dayton agreement.

Dayton will never work if Serbia's rulers remain utterly opportunistic and corrupt, its media under rigid state control and its economy a catastrophe. Nor can Dayton survive if virulent nationalists continue to hold sway in Croatia. An exclusive emphasis on Bosnia ignores the fact that it is Serbia and Croatia that will largely drive events in Bosnia, that only a prosperous and democratizing Serbia and Croatia can counteract the nationalist virus in both countries and reduce the risk of their absorbing most of Bosnia when allied forces depart.

We and our allies have refused to face that fact. Instead we have coddled Mr Milosevic and Mr Tudjman because they were seen as crucial to achieving the Dayton accords and carrying them out. That might have been justified if they delivered. But they haven't. They have largely lied to us since Dayton, frustrating the return of refugees, manipulating electoral processes and harboring indicted war criminals.

Mr Tudjman and Mr Milosevic have not helped peace survive; the West has helped Mr Tudjman and Mr Milosevic survive. We have invited them to international tatherings and fawned over them, lending them domestic political cachet to bolster their waning popularity.

We have made Croatia into something of a regional power house. Mr Tudjman wields a lot of sticks while we force-feed him carrots. And almost weekly since Dayton, US officials have carried their red carpet to Belgrade, giving Mr Milosevic every reason to think he holds the key to our Balkans policy. The British have been even worse in playing up to Mr Milosevic. In Belgrade, their ambassador is widely regarded as his handmaiden.

Meanwhile, the Germans have concentrated on courting Mr Tudjman, overlooking his authoritarian indiscretions - like virtually eliminating the independent media and protecting indicted war criminals, such as Dario Kordic, who lives in a Zagreb apartment - and pushing stubbornly ahead on Croatia's admission to the Council of Europe. When it comes to European allegiances to various Balkan countries, as one unusually candid American official put it, 'we're back to the beginning of the 20th century'.

While the West remains mired in old-think, many people in Serbia and Croatia increasingly realize what we do not - that Mr Tudjman and Mr Milosevic are albatrosses, that they are ruining their countries and that political change is necessary.

Serbian citizens are fed up with the pervasive corruption, mendacity and statist policies that have led to drastic declines in living standards; they sense they are not likely to get out of their rut if Mr Milosevic stays. When last week Mr Milosevic went about the familiar process of stealing another election, the public did not take it lying down; people took to the streets. They are still there. Meanwhile, the aging autocrat Tudjman, beset with stomach cancer, continues to block duly elected officials from taking office in Croatia and terrorizing the media.

By counting on Mr Tudjman and Mr Milosevic, the West wasted a year. The moment has come for our leaders to make it publicly clear that we support the people of Croatia and Serbia who are demonstrating for accountability, democratic elections and free media.

Beyond our usual rhetoric, the United States and its allies should get serious about lending greater political and material assitance to help democratic forces in both countries. Strengthening the independent media is crucial. The state-controlled media, particularly in Serbia, are monstrosities - sources of endless lies and hate-mongering. Economic assistance to Croatia and Serbia should be conditioned on their governments' compliance with Dayton; any aid should be channeled through the non-governmental sector only.

Democracy has a long way to go in the Balkans. Corruption is pervasive, and ethnic animosities are great. Not all of the political opposition is democratic. Mr Milosevic has a number of ultra- nationalist rivals. In Croatia, many anti-Tudjman elements are sympathetic to his blocking of the return of Croatian Serb refugees. But clearly a large portion of the Serbian and Croatian people want something better than their current fare.

A true policy of Realpolitik in the Balkans must rest on the recognition that peace in Bosnia cannot be maintained without reforms in Serbia and Croatia. Otherwise we will see our troops staying there far beyond 18 more months.

The above article appeared in The Washington Post, and was reproduced in International Herald- Tribune on 27 November 1996. The writer is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Washington DC, and is an active member of the Action Council for Peace in the Balkans.