US and Russian Diplomacy Revives Bosnia Peace Prospects

Croats, Muslims back federation, but Serbs continue their attacks

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE West's new readiness to use military power coupled with diplomacy by the United States and Russia has produced unprecedented strides toward halting the ethnic mayhem in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The latest success came Tuesday, when the Muslim-led Bosnian government and Bosnian Croats agreed in Washington to a US plan for a joint federation that would eventually establish a loose confederation with Croatia.

Hours earlier in Moscow, Russia persuaded Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to allow the airport in the Bosnian government-held city of Tuzla to open to United Nations aid flights, averting Western threats to use force. Moscow agreed to provide observers to ensure that only non-military goods arrived at the facility.

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But the overall situation remains precarious and fraught with pitfalls that could undermine the progress made and plunge the former Yugoslav republic back into all-out war.

Even if the guns can be stilled, there remains the central dispute that has stymied efforts to reach a settlement to the 23-month-old conflict - territory.

``Enormous strides have been made toward reducing the level of violence,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But, at some point, we have to sit down and look at the map, and then it becomes harder.''

There is a general consensus that before that stage is reached, the fighting must end. ``Once you get peace, you can start bargaining on an exchange of territories,'' observes Nikola Koljevic, the ``vice president'' of the self-declared Bosnian Serb state located in the 70 percent of Bosnia taken over since 1992.

The new dynamics emerged two weeks ago, although the ground had been laid for months by unenforced UN resolutions. It took the tragic market attack in Sarajevo that killed 68 people on Feb. 5 to lead NATO to threaten airstrikes. Pressured by this threat, the Muslim-led Bosnian government and the Bosnian Serbs agreed to a Feb. 11 cease-fire.

The Bosnian Serbs initially refused to comply with NATO's demand to withdraw their artillery from around the city or put it under UN control by Feb. 20. But Russia, a traditional Serb ally, stepped in and contributed troops to the UN cease-fire monitoring force. That gave Mr. Karadzic a face-saving way of bowing to the NATO ultimatum.

Washington, in its new mediating role, followed up by brokering a truce between the Bosnian Army and nationalist Bosnian Croat forces in central and southern Bosnia.

The Clinton administration then pushed forward the negotiations on the Muslim-Croat federation plan. As those talks progressed and the two new cease-fires withstood minor violations, US F-16s policing the UN-decreed ``no-fly'' zone on Monday shot down four Bosnian Serb jets that had attacked a Bosnian government-controlled arms plant.

IT was the first enforcement of the UN no-fly zone resolution since its approval in April 1992. The jet downings underscored the West's new resolve to use its superior military might to salvage a credible policy on Bosnia.

Russia again intervened, summoning Karadzic to Moscow for unscheduled talks. The result was Karadzic's agreement on the Tuzla airport.

To capitalize on the latest successes, the international actors have both separate and collective tasks to undertake.

First, NATO and the UN must remain willing to use force to ensure that the three sides - especially the Bosnian Serbs - comply with UN initiatives intended to end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

To the Russians lies the task of prevailing on Karadzic to halt offensives his hard-line military commanders are still pursuing. The longer they persist, the greater the threat to the Sarajevo truce and the more pressure the West will come under to use force to rein in the Bosnian Serbs.

The Bosnian Serbs are waging a major drive against the northern enclave of Maglaj with heavy artillery they withdrew from Sarajevo. Maglaj's 19,000 people have been cut off without UN aid since October, and there are reports of starvation.

The northwestern enclave of Bihac, one of six UN-decreed safe havens, is also under attack. The Bosnian Serbs and Muslim rebels are trying to capture a railway line to expand joint war-profiteering ventures.

The Clinton administration will have to maintain the momentum of the new US diplomacy and strengthen the reconciliation between the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats against potential sabotage.

The agreement is expected to not only irk the Bosnian Serbs, especially a military cooperation provision, but also Bosnian Croat extremists whose political dream has been to seize a large chunk of Bosnia and merge it with Croatia to form a ``Greater Croatia.''

It will also be extremely difficult, although not impossible, to bring back together Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Muslim soldiers who have been engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. That will be most tricky in the southern city of Mostar. Bosnian Croats for months have corralled some 50,000 Muslims with little food or water on the city's eastern side.

Finally, the US, its Western allies, and Russia will need to cooperate much more closely than they have. They will have to take more notice of the sensibilities and interests of the rivals of the sides that they are now seen to be representing.

The US greatly irritated Moscow by not including it in this week's Washington negotiations. The Bosnian Serbs were equally upset at being left out. Russia's interventions in Sarajevo and Tuzla, meanwhile, came without consultations with the US, the European Union, the UN, or the Bosnian government.

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