SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Dr. Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, noted last week that the Roman Emperor Caligula once appointed his horse as a senator. "That horse," Dr. Karadzic said, "was more of a senator than Bosnia is a state."
This was a graphic way of making a point that Dr. Karadzic has been determined to prove for more than three years -- that Bosnia does not really exist.
Bosnia, of course, was recognized in 1992 by the United States and other Western governments, a move that set them on a collision course with Dr. Karadzic and his nationalist followers that has come as close as ever before to outright conflict since NATO bombed a Bosnian Serb ammunitions depot last week.
Dr. Karadzic, 50, confronted the crisis with typical bravado. He promised "a butcher's shop" if Western governments tried to rescue the United Nations hostages and declared yesterday that "the sooner American planes get out of our skies, the less they will be shot down."
A psychiatrist from Montenegro who has a reputation as an inveterate gambler and an indifferent poet, Dr. Karadzic loves to talk tough in pursuit of his vision of turning much of what is now Bosnia into an ethnically pure Serbian state.
But his penchant for purple prose does not exclude sober political calculation. Hence the Bosnian Serbs yesterday released 120 of the nearly 400 peacekeepers they had taken hostage -- a gesture designed to cool growing outrage in the West.
The move was consistent with two basic calculations of the Bosnian Serbs over the course of the Bosnian war. The first is that no Western government wants to fight for the multiethnic state that Dr. Karadzic wants to destroy, so even the consistent use of terror and hostage-taking will be excused if an occasional conciliatory gesture is made.
The second is that Bosnian Serb forces do not have the power to take all of Bosnia, so some sort of Western acquiescence is ultimately needed for the preservation of something close to the status quo -- that is, Serbian control of 70 percent of Bosnia.
Dr. Karadzic's argument that Bosnia does not really exist has many layers. Bosnia has no recent history as a sovereign state, he would argue. It was ruled for more than five centuries by the Ottoman Turks, the Austro-Hungarian empire, royalist Yugoslavia and then Communist Yugoslavia. The Serbs who made up one third of Bosnia's pre-war population had no wish to see such a state created.
Moreover, Dr. Karadzic would argue, the Muslims who now make up the relative majority of Bosnians are not really Muslims at all -- they are Serbs who converted to Islam under Turkish domination. Thus, as Dr. Karadzic often maintains, the Bosnian Serbs are fighting "Europe's last anti-colonialist war." That war, he says, is to avenge the persecutions and uphold the sacrifices of Serbs in the past.
After all, it was a Bosnian Serb nationalist who shot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo in 1914 to protest the empire's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, triggering the start of World War I. And it was the Serbs, mainly from northwestern Bosnia, who bore the great brunt of massacres by fascist forces during World War II.
These are the seeds of a contemporary struggle that, when mixed with Serbian myth, take on the tone of a heroic epic.
Today, the Serbs' enemies in Bosnia are Muslims, just like the enemies of Prince Lazar, the Serbian leader at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The prince was defeated. He died in battle. But his sacrifice became the defining element in the Serbs' vision of themselves as "a celestial people" battling the world's incomprehension.
The reality of the Bosnian war has, of course, been much more sordid than the myth. Dr. Karadzic's forces have slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslim civilians. He has thrown out more than 700,000 Muslims from the 70 percent of Bosnia he controls. He has used concentration camps to sift populations and kill prominent Muslims. He continues to plot a divided Sarajevo in which an ethnically pure Serbian city would be built where the airport now stands.
In all this, he has been true to his word. Before Bosnia opted for independence in 1992, he stood in what was then the assembly of the Yugoslav republic and warned that the Muslim people could "disappear" if they did not choose to remain in a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.
The reason for this warning was clear: the Muslims must go because they stood in the way of a Greater Serbia extending west of the Drina River into land never previously ruled by Serbs.
As this destructive drive has unfolded, the United States and its allies have wanted it both ways. They want to preserve Bosnia, but they do not want to take on the man and the movement intent on destroying it.
As the war has demonstrated, this policy is incoherent and cannot work. Despite the military and diplomatic agitation of recent days, this impasse is likely to persist.
It will be prolonged in part by the fact that Dr. Karadzic has not entirely succeeded in his basic aim: there are still increasingly well-armed and implacably determined Serbs, Croats and Muslims on the government side of the lines who believe in the hybrid society called Bosnia whose existence Dr. Karadzic has never quite grasped.