SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Calculating the limits of their ability to defy the world, the Bosnian Serbs stopped short of rejecting a new international peace plan for Bosnia yesterday and indicated a highly conditional readiness to work with the proposal.
With the plan already approved by the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government, the Serbian stance, however ambivalent, brings the possibility of at least a temporary peace in Bosnia closer than at any time in the 27-month war.
Such a peace, if it came, would probably involve the presence in Bosnia of U.S. ground troops to police and enforce the agreement.
After a two-day session of their self-styled parliament, the Bosnian Serbs staged a piece of diplomatic theater, sealing their response in a pink envelope and saying it would be delivered to the so-called "contact group" of U.S. and European diplomats in Geneva today.
Delegates at the meeting, who insisted on anonymity, suggested that the Serbs had come up with a "yes, but . . ." or a "yes, and . . ." in response to a plan that they do not much like. The plan calls on the Serbs to accept 49 percent of Bosnia, compared to the 70 percent they now hold, and gives the rest to the Bosnian government in federation with Bosnian Croats.
Before the meeting adjourned, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, veered away from the bombast he had served up over the past week, saying, "I hope we will accept the plan in some way."
It remains unclear whether the Serbs' apparent attempt at compromise will be sufficient to convince the "contact group" that the Serbs are serious about peace.
Moreover, if the "contact group" members -- the United States, Russia, France, Britain and Germany -- are perceived by the Bosnian government as giving too much latitude to the Serbs, the Muslims' acceptance could quickly begin to fray.
There is likely to be some tension in the "contact group." U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher has said that ambiguity in the Serbian response would, in the American view, be a rejection.
But Russia, tied to the Serbs through their shared adherence to Orthodox Christianity, is likely to want to show some understanding.
And Britain and France, worried by a potential escalation of a debilitating war in Europe and concerned over the future of their contingents in the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia, are also keen to engineer a settlement.
U.S. diplomats say that if the Serbs want to make any major changes to the proposed map for a territorial settlement, which calls on them to give up several major towns, then the "contact group" will have little choice but to say no.
But if the main Serbian conditions center on constitutional questions, which have scarcely been broached in the current proposal, then some latitude may be shown.
The only firm constitutional stipulation in the plan as it stands is that Bosnia-Herzegovina should remain a single state within its internationally recognized borders.
The Serbs, close to one-third of the Bosnian population before the war, have fought throughout for the right to their own state or union with Serbia, saying they never had any wish to secede from Yugoslavia, as Bosnia did in 1992. If they insist that their right to a state be accepted, then the proposed settlement seems certain to fall part.
But if the Serbs take a less radical stance -- accepting, for example, a customs and monetary union with Serbia -- then the "contact group" will probably choose to work with them. After all, the Muslim-Croatian federation has been given the right to form a confederation with Croatia; a similar right can scarcely be denied the Bosnian Serbs in their relationship with Serbia.
The United States and the Europeans are well aware that if they construe the Serbian stance as a rejection, the consequences could be dire.
They have said they will step up the pressure on Serbia by tightening trade sanctions, extending weapons-exclusions zones around several Bosnian towns, and eventually partially lifting the Bosnia-wide arms embargo to allow the outgunned Bosnian government to rearm.
If such measures are taken, Britain and France have already made clear that their soldiers in the U.N. force could be withdrawn. NATO would almost certainly have to take a more aggressive role in Bosnia.
And President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, seeing that the war in Bosnia is not about to end, could lose patience with the Serbian occupation of close to one third of Croatia, and renew the Croatian-Serbian war that ended in 1991.
All this is deeply unattractive to the international community, so some stretching from the "contact group" to accommodate the Serbs is likely. At the least, diplomats are likely to take a few days to review the Serbian position ahead of a foreign ministers' meeting tentatively scheduled for the end of July.
Already, however, there are clear signs that the United States is preparing to send soldiers to Bosnia shortly after any settlement is reached.
Gen. John Galvin, the former commander of allied forces in Europe and now the special U.S. military representative for the former Yugoslavia, arrived in Sarajevo yesterday and will tour U.N. military positions around Sarajevo today with the U.N. commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose.
Defense Secretary William Perry will arrive in Sarajevo on Friday, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Sarajevo since the war began.
General Rose has in mind a plan whereby U.S. and other NATO troops would initially complement the U.N. force here as they moved to take up positions between the rival forces along the 700 miles of front lines in Bosnia.
In this way, if the Serbs proved dilatory or obstinate about retreating to the positions on the proposed settlement map, NATO would be in a position to provide the necessary pressure.