UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — SERB and Croat leaders think they have a good answer to the long search for a fair and workable peace accord in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The crucial question is whether or not the Bosnian Muslims would ever agree to it.
After a Wednesday meeting in Geneva called by United Nations and European Community mediators Thorvald Stoltenberg and Lord David Owen, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said a consensus was emerging that Bosnia should become a federal state of three parts.
He said that Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who had left the meeting early to protest continued Bosnian Serb shelling of the eastern Muslim enclave of Gorazde, planned to consult with his government. The leaders are to meet again next Wednesday.
Under the plan, Bosnian Muslims would get the territory around Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and Bihac. Croatia, President Tudjman said, would give the Muslims access to the Adriatic port of Ploce.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said he was willing to turn back some land under his control as a "sacrifice" for peace. Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic called the day's efforts "a substantial step toward peace."
But President Izetbegovic recently has urged UN diplomats and world leaders to step up their support for the so-called Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia, the original international peace plan that would create 10 semi-autonomous provinces in Bosnia. Each ethnic group would have a dominant role in three provinces. Sarajevo would be jointly administered. The new plan would eclipse Vance-Owen.
Early word after the Wednesday meeting was that the Bosnian leader intends to proceed with a planned trip to European capitals to urge a partial lifting of the UN arms embargo against Bosnia.
The Swiss meeting, held in a villa just outside Geneva, was cloaked in an unusual degree of secrecy. At a press conference the day before, however, Lord Owen stressed there would be no carve-up of Bosnia. "The world community will not accept this." He hinted there might be some adjustments to the Vance-Owen plan, however, such as a reduction in the number of provinces.
"The plan is not necessarily a static thing," explains John Mills, a spokesman for the mediators in Geneva. "It's a process which is the basis of the discussions."
Some analysts have long argued that the Vance-Owen plan could never work. Hatred among ethnic groups is too strong, they said. Whatever its failings, the plan has never won the support of Bosnian Serbs. UN economic sanctions against the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro were only somewhat persuasive in pressuring the Serbs.
Bosnian Serb military leaders continued their fight for more land and now control roughly 70 percent of Bosnia. The Vance-Owen plan would roll them back to 43 percent. Yet the major powers in the UN Security Council have been unwilling to use military muscle, through more ground forces and air-to-ground strikes, to try to force Bosnian Serbs to accept the plan.
"There's no reason for them to accept anything less than what they have already," comments V. P. Gagnon Jr., an expert in Yugoslav politics and visiting scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "They know the outside world isn't going to do anything.... You need to have a consistent, credible threat over time."
THE UN Security Council's latest effort to save lives and encourage peace in Bosnia is a plan to protect six Muslim enclaves with ground forces and air power. The Bosnian Muslims and nonaligned members of the Council say, however, that the "safe havens" plan could create Muslim refugee camps. Some analysts blame the plan for intensified fighting between Croats and Muslims who assumed the plan implied acceptance of Serb land conquests.
Getting sufficient troops to the six cities fast enough to meet the needs of trapped refugees is proving a major challenge for the UN. Russia, for instance, says it will supply troops only if the plan is clearly linked to long-term peace efforts.
For now many UN diplomats just hope that the latest cease-fire, scheduled to take effect today, will hold. So many past accords have collapsed. Lord Owen says he has always believed that broad political agreement is necessary to have any lasting cease-fire. Time will tell if he is right.