First Step in Bosnia


Contrived ambiguity is the hallmark of the first step in a Bosnian peace process now depending on American bombs and diplomacy. While U.S. officials deny there is a direct connection between the two, this is just another of the many fictions and fig leafs that will be required if the deadly enemies in the Bosnia's civil war are ever to stop fighting and live in uneasy tolerance with one another.

Under the accord put together by U.S. mediator Richard Holbrooke, the three-year-old nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was proclaimed with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, will continue to be recognized internationally within its present borders. But it will be a nation that consists of two separate "entities" -- one controlled by Bosnian Serbs, the other by a Muslim-Croatian alliance -- that will be free "to establish parallel special relationships with neighboring countries."

This means the Bosnian Serbs will be able to develop links, currently undefined, with the Republic of Serbia whose capital is Belgrade. Presumably what they will be unable to achieve is their main war aim of formal incorporation in a "Greater Serbia." As for the Muslims and the Croats, who were fighting one another only 18 months ago, their "entity" will have its own internal stresses. The Croat population still looks to the Republic of Croatia (capital: Zagreb) as the motherland.

A burning issue on which no agreement could be reached is the fate of Eastern Slavonia, a slice of Croatia captured and still occupied by Serbia. Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has withdrawn major support for fellow-Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, he probably cannot afford, for domestic reasons, to abandon Slavonia.

While other sides under the Holbrooke accord had to make concessions, the Bosnian Serbs took the biggest hit. They now control 70 percent of Bosnia; their share of the country is to be pared back to 49 percent. Just how the country is to be carved up in a form of unacknowledged ethnic partition has yet to be agreed. The prospects for dispute and even further hostilities are limitless.

Nevertheless, it is enough that the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, the later negotiating for the Bosnian Serbs, have been prodded to go this far. Many difficulties lie ahead, not least coercing the Serb military to withdraw their heavy weaponry from "safe areas" around centers of Muslim population. So far, they have remained defiant despite continuing NATO air attacks.

While the Clinton administration's decision to use force and diplomacy simultaneously in pursuit of a Bosnian peace has gone fairly well up to this point, it is a tricky strategy that can blow up at any time. The past and present chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. John Shalikashvili, have warned that such use of air power is of limited effectiveness. In the end, the task of making peace will have to depend on diplomacy, an art form that necessarily depends on papering over the irreconcilable.

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