ATHENS, Greece -- Bosnian Serbs indicated yesterday tha they will conditionally accept an international peace plan for Bosnia with some face-saving amendments, although they seemed to be falling short of the "deeds" the United States has demanded to forestall possible military action in Bosnia.
Arriving here for the sudden resumption of the U.N.-European Community-sponsored peace talks, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said that he expects progress at the talks would enable him to "recommend" the plan to his Parliament.
Mr. Karadzic apparently has caved in to pressure from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who is also attending the two-day gathering. Mr. Milosevic is seen as having maneuvered Mr. Karadzic into his new position to get the negotiations going again in an attempt to forestall the U.S. bombing of Bosnian Serb targets that could drag Serbia itself into the conflict.
Mr. Milosevic's dramatic change of course has also come in response to tighter sanctions against Serbia that the United Nations put into effect last week. It also followed the Russian referendum, whose outcome --ed Serbian hopes that nationalistic hard-liners would defeat Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Dragan Rancic, a spokesman for Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic, told Serbian journalists here that Belgrade was hoping for successful conclusion of the conference" which, he said, would "remove the threat of military intervention."
Western diplomats at the conference believed a face-saving formula had already been worked out between Mr. Milosevic and Lord Owen, the EC mediator, who, with U.N. mediator Cyrus R. Vance, developed the peace plan rejected by Bosnian Serbs but accepted by Croats and Muslims.
The diplomats speculated that the compromise would pay attention to corridors that the Bosnian Serbs insist on controlling that would link them and the Serbian enclaves in Croatia and Serbia proper. The Bosnian Serbs also are expected to secure U.N. protection for themselves in areas they have "ethnically cleansed," as non-Serbs return.
If Mr. Karadzic conditionally accepts the plan, as expected, the next move will be to take it to a new session of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb Parliament May 5 -- the same Parliament that rejected the plan Monday. It will then go to a popular referendum May 15.
The key figure behind an emerging deal, however, is Mr. Milosevic. Analysts here said that he has apparently realized that he can push the war no further. He is thought to be behind the convening of the conference, which was organized by Prime Minister Konstantin Mitsotakis of Greece, who has been Serbia's only European ally. It is being attended by Lord Owen and Mr. Vance as well as Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and the leaders of the warring factions in Bosnia.
The developments of the last several days have been accompanied by a high-profile attempt by Mr. Milosevic to clean his political house of those who have most ardently pressed the objective of a Greater Serbia.
His change of course has been the subject of a propaganda campaign in the Serbian media reminiscent of the days of Communist rule that has blamed the Bosnian Serbs for failing to accept the Vance-Owen plan. Mr. Milosevic also has been removing the political proxies who had carried out his war policies, replacing them with others spouting the new line. There are signs that Mr. Milosevic may also try to remove Mr. Karadzic.
The presence of Mr. Tudjman at the conference is important. It gives Mr. Milosevic the chance to meet his archenemy face to face. Serbian-Croatian maneuvering has been taking place behind the scenes for some months.
The Serbs and Croats appear to have in mind an eventual carve-up of the region between them. That could involve exchanging land and populations.
Before he left for Athens, Mr. Tudjman said he would be prepared to discuss territorial exchanges with the Serbs.
However, the Bosnian Muslims, who are the largest ethnic group in Bosnia, may feel left out in the cold and may move to scuttle the talks here. They believe the Serbs are simply buying time and do not intend to follow through on the implementation of the Vance-Owen plan.
If Mr. Milosevic decides to remove Mr. Karadzic, his replacement would likely be the third man in the Bosnian Serb hierarchy, Nikola Koljevic. Mr. Milosevic appears to have been grooming him for the job. Mr. Koljevic has been repeatedly quoted in the Serbian press in the past week supporting the latest Milosevic line: that it is time to accept the plan and that the Bosnian Serb Parliament did not understand it or the consequences when it rejected it.
If Mr. Karadzic goes -- he has been looking for a house in the exclusive Belgrade suburb of Dedinje -- he would suffer the same fate as his counterpart in Croatia, Milan Babic. Mr. Babic was replaced as leader of the Croatian Serbs after he began challenging Mr. Milosevic, who decided to opt for the Vance peace plan for Croatia last year.
Mr. Milosevic also has been removing other political proxies who are no longer of use to him. He has been undermining the notorious hard-line Serb politician Vojislav "Red Duke" Seselj, until recently his right-hand man, whose militia has been carrying out "ethnic cleansing." Last week Mr. Seselj addressed the Bosnian Serb Parliament, telling it to take on the rest of the world and calling on Serbia to formally enter the war in Bosnia.
Mr. Seselj has now been denied access to state-run Belgrade television, which used to provide him with a forum. His position has been undermined by a media campaign claiming that his grandmother is a Croat and suggesting he may be a Croatian spy.
Other former close, hard-line advisers have been removed from the political scene, including Mr. Milosevic's former prime minister, Radoman Bozovic, who has been implicated in a corruption scandal. Mr. Bozovic has vanished from public view.
Whether this shift by Mr. Milosevic is only a tactical delay -- "a play within a play," as one veteran observer put it -- by the master of the Byzantine maneuver remains to be seen.
One Western diplomat seemed to sum up the fears of many when he said that "Milosevic may just convince the world enough -- particularly the United States -- that he has abandoned his dream of a Greater Serbia. The outside war machine would wind down, and Milosevic would live to fight another day."