ZAGREB, YUGOSLAVIA, JAN. 10 -- The slow-motion disintegration of Yugoslavia accelerated suddenly this week under the twin shocks of a billion-dollar banking scandal and a government order giving the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army the right to take guns away from civilians.
The banking scandal and disarmament decree were described by Western diplomats and politicians from Yugoslavia's various ethnic regions as crippling blows to the Yugoslav federation, which has been critically weakened in the past year by the fall of communism as a cohesive governing force and the rise of long-supressed ethnic hatreds.
"This monetary scandal is a robbery. It destroys not only the Yugoslav economic system, but also the government's free-market and monetary philosophy. . . . And the army has been given a blank check for terror," said Slaven Letica, a senior adviser to the president of Croatia, the second-largest of Yugoslavia's six constituent republics. Other politicians here suggested that the army may be planning to use the world's preoccupation with the Persian Gulf crisis as a cover for military action against two independence-minded Yugoslav republics.
The financial scandal stemmed from action last month by the Serbian legislature, which secretly passed a law allowing the National Bank of Serbia to appropriate $1.3 billion from the National Bank of Yugoslavia. The legislature is a rubber stamp for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, an old-style Communist strongman who has built his power on emotional appeals to Serbian nationalism.
The loan, which the Yugoslav central government said this week was blatantly illegal, was spent on increased pensions, benefits to farmers and payments to state-owned enterprises inside Serbia, the largest Yugoslav republic. Western diplomats said the money, amounting to half the funds planned for infusion into the Yugoslav economy in 1991, was used by the Milosevic government to buy voter support in the republic's December presidential and legislative elections, which it won.
Meanwhile, the leaders of all six republics met today in Belgrade in a long-planned attempt to find a peaceful way in which to manage change in a country that the U.S. CIA has said is tottering on the brink of civil war.
Belgrade radio reported that the six presidents agreed to have Serbia's Milosevic meet separately with his counterparts from the secessionist Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia, Franjo Tudjman and Milan Kucan, but no dates were set for these meetings. A senior Yugoslav official said that while the participants in today's meeting were civil to each other, there were a number of "irreconcilable differences."
Croatia and its neighbor Slovenia, the two most prosperous republics and ones in which Communist leaders were dumped in last year's multi-party elections, are pressing for a radical loosening of the Yugoslav federation. If Yugoslavia does not devolve into a loosely knit cluster of sovereign states, the two republics say they will secede.
Serbia, however, declared flatly today that the only way it would agree to the breakup of the nation was if the borders of the republics were redrawn. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs now live in Croatia and the republic of Bosnia, and Serbian leaders want them inside an expanded Serbia. Diplomats have said attempts to redraw the borders of the republics are likely to trigger civil war.
The money scandal and the disarmament order have both served to heighten tension between Serbia, on one side, and Croatia and Slovenia, on the other. "This banking scandal was a terrible thing to happen on the eve of negotiations for Yugoslavia's future," said a Western economist in Belgrade.
Economists said the likely effect of the huge illegal loan -- which, if it were drawn to the scale of the U.S. economy, would represent a $50 billion manipulation -- is the return of 1989's hyperinflation to Yugoslavia. They said it also is likely to disrupt Yugoslavia's relationship with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
The secret Serbian loan was discovered last Friday when someone anonymously mailed documents about it to Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Markovic, the architect of a tight-money and free-market reform program.
According to the central government officials, the loan "makes impossible the implementation of economic policy set for 1991. By creating false money, it threatens the country's currency reserves."
Both Croatia and Slovenia seem to have interpreted the loan as a straw that has broken Yugoslavia's back. "The republic of Serbia, so that it could finance the preservation of its regime, has destroyed the Yugoslav monetary and economic system by illegitimate means," the Slovenian government said in a statement. "A monetary and hard-currency system . . . based on a minimum degree of trust and honesty is not possible in Yugoslavia anymore."
Here in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, presidential adviser Letica said the Serbian loan has forced Croatia to speed up its move to pull out of the Yugoslav federation and accelerate plans to print its own currency.
The Serbian government this week admitted making the loan to itself and justified its action by saying that other republics have been doing the same thing. "It is true that a lot of republics have been skating on the thin edges of the banking law," said a Western diplomat here. "But what they were doing was just a 3 on the Richter scale of theft. What the Serbs did was a 7."
The order to use the army to disarm civilians was issued Wednesday in the wake of reliable reports that Croatia and Slovenia have been importing large quantities of automatic weapons for their rapidly expanding police and militia forces. But, like nearly every issue in this splintering country, deployment of the Serbian-led army set off ethnic alarm bells.
The decision to demand that citizens give up their guns within 10 days was made by the Yugoslav Presidency, a body made up of a representative from each republic. Its current leader is Borisav Jovic, a hard-line Serbian nationalist and close associate of Milosevic. The order was opposed by the representatives of Croatia and Slovenia, and it was approved while the Croatian representative was out of the meeting room.
Slovenia declared the order irrelevant, saying it had a legal right to arm its militia, and Croatia's Council for National Defense said today that it would oppose any army action on its territory.