BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- After more than two years of seeing peace plans for Bosnia torn to bits by its warring parties, the latest Geneva proposal finally may be turning the tide. The parties are offered the stark choice between an imperfect solution or worsening chaos.
Skeptical diplomats now concede cautiously that they see a glimmer of hope. There are two reasons for this, according to senior Western diplomats:
* The plan has been endorsed unanimously by the world's major industrial powers and by Russia.
* Its incentives and punishments apply to all parties in the war.
Underlying the peace plan is a warning that if it is not accepted, key participants in the United Nation's current peacekeeping operations -- France and Britain -- would abandon Bosnia, removing the international safety net that has helped dampen the flames of war for the last two years.
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visited the region this week to underscore the message in talks with Serbian, Muslim and Croatian leaders.
In contrast to previous peacemaking efforts, the latest plan is better prepared and packaged. Experts who drew the map of territorial division clearly sought to be equitable and realistic. The warring parties were given sufficient time -- until July 19 -- to formulate their responses. Threatening rhetoric was curtailed. In fact, all sides are given room for face-saving.
But a failure to respond positively would set off strong punitive measures.
For the first time, these would be directed against the Muslims, too. If they reject the plan and the Bosnian Serbs accept it, the world powers would terminate the U.N. sanctions and international isolation imposed against Serbia two years ago for its role in the war.
If the Bosnian Serbs reject the plan, they are left no doubts as to what would follow: The embargo on arms shipments to the Muslims would be lifted and even more stringent sanctions would be imposed against the government of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.
Clearly these are trying days for Mr. Milosevic, who earlier had warned Serbian leaders in Bosnia and Croatia that Serbia would not bea "hostage" of their policies.
The first negative reactions by Bosnian Serbs to the latest peace plan brought a yearlong "guerrilla war" between Belgrade and Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, into the open. Belgrade newspapers this week quoted at length a Moscow newspaper " report that Mr. Milosevic has been trying to oust Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. This has been the topic of frequent rumors in Belgrade for more than a year, but was never previously reported in the press.
Mr. Karadzic, according to news reports, would be replaced by the more pliable Nikola Koljevic, a Shakespearean scholar. Mr. Milosevic has received Mr. Koljevic for a private conversation, an event that was given considerable publicity.
An editorial in the largest Serbian newspaper, Politika, written by its director, who is known for his links to the Milosevic family, reminded Mr. Karadzic and his supporters that Mr. Milosevic had warned them "in very harsh terms" to accept a Vance-Owen peace plan 15 months ago.
They had rebuffed him by hiding behind a referendum, Dragan Antic said. The rejection had brought tighter sanctions against Serbia, more war and suffering.
"Now the Bosnian Serb leadership once again says it is up to the people to decide," the editorial said.
"There was simply no alternative to the Geneva plan. The mistake made 15 months ago must not be repeated," it concluded.
The Muslims have indicated that they are prepared to accept the plan. It is virtually certain that they will attach some conditions to that acceptance, including a direct U.S. peacekeeping role in Bosnia.
The Bosnian Serbs have not reponded yet. The initial comment has been negative. This is in part a political problem. Some 300,000 Serbs -- most of them armed -- would have to be moved from areas the Serbs would have to hand over.
But given the heavy pressures on them, Belgrade clearly expects Mr. Karadzic and his men to accept the plan and, like the Muslims, demand some conditions. But these conditions, a Belgrade radio commentary cautioned, "must not be such that they could be interpreted as a rejection."
This way the peace process would be tied up for months, diplomatic observers say. And yet the general acceptance of the plan would avoid an escalation of the war and would open the way for diplomatic bargaining over minor adjustments.
Meanwhile, the warring sides agreed yesterday to extend their barely observed truce for a second month, until Aug. 10.