In a Game of Balkan Chess, Powers Try to Corner Serbia

Plan would make peace in Croatia first, then Bosnia

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WITH peace prospects fading in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the big powers are devising a broader plan for peace in the former Yugoslavia, the Monitor has learned.

The plan hinges on gaining the support of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has refused to recognize the sovereignty of both Croatia and Bosnia in their battles with ethnic Serbs in both states.

But the strategy faces several hurdles, and unity among the Western mediators, already fragile, has been further strained by President Clinton's unilateral move last Thursday to stop enforcing an arms embargo against Bosnia.

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Known as ``Plan B,'' the plan offers more ``carrot'' to Mr. Milosevic to join international peace efforts in both Bosnia and Croatia in exchange for further easing of the United Nations sanctions against Serbia.

Placing emphasis on ending the conflict between Croatia and its rebel Serbs, the strategy rounds out an overall approach by the ``contact group'' - mediators from the United States, Britain, Russia, France, and Germany - to ending the crisis ignited by the 1991 breakup of former Yugoslavia.

The mediators ``have not yet found common ground on everything,'' admits one diplomatic source. ``The idea is to give the Croatian question the same priority as the Bosnian question.''

The emerging approach would link easing of UN economic sanctions with Milosevic's recognition of Bosnia and Croatia, Western diplomatic sources say.

Milosevic is desperate to have the sanctions lifted. By recognizing Bosnia and Croatia, Milosevic would be showing he no longer covets annexation of the areas seized by rebel Serb armies that he helped create in those states.

Faced with total abandonment by their erstwhile patron, the logic goes, the rebel Bosnian and Croatian Serbs would be more amenable to peace.

The contact group would also link an easing of sanctions to Milosevic's endorsement as a basis for negotiations of a Croatia peace settlement being devised by the US and Russian envoys to Zagreb and UN and European Union mediators. That settlement, the so-called Z-4 plan, would guarantee Croatia's integrity, but grant autonomy to some of the territory conquered in 1991 by the Serb rebels.

But Milosevic does not seem ready to recognize Croatia anytime soon. At a meeting here earlier this month with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vladislav Jovanovic rejected recognition, saying it should be the final step in the process of restoring ties between Croatia and Serbia, according to a senior Croatian Foreign Ministry official.

A second round of talks between Mr. Jovanovic and his Croatian counterpart, Mate Granic, is expected to be held in Belgrade in coming days. Voicing the Croatian perspective, the official said, ``We want recognition first, and then negotiations, or a package.''

The contact group discussed Croatia during a Nov. 4 to 5 visit to Zagreb, sources say. They are expected to resume talks Thursday in London, their first meeting since President Clinton ended US enforcement of the UN arms embargo against Bosnia. Russia, Britain, and France objected to the US move.

The contact group's decision to add Croatia to its agenda was apparently prompted by its inability to pursue its Bosnia peace plan and fears that a long deadlock in talks between Zagreb and its rebel Serbs could unhinge a March truce.

Weary of the impasse, an increasingly better-armed Croatia is again threatening to take back by force the nearly one-third of its territory seized by the Yugoslav Army-backed rebel Serbs in 1991.

Croatian President Tudjman wants progress or says he will demand in January a withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers deployed in buffer positions around the three regions making up the rebel Serb stronghold of Krajina.

Tudjman has raised the temperature by demanding that the rebel Serbs sign agreements by Nov. 20 on reintegrating their utilities and communications systems with those of Croatia.

The Croatian Serbs, however, show no signs of bowing to Zagreb's demands, and have exacerbated tensions by staging air and artillery attacks from Croatia in support of their Bosnian kin on the Muslim-held northwestern corner of Bosnia.

Croatia and Bosnia on Saturday demanded urgent UN Security Council deliberations on the situation in the enclave. Its main town, Bihac, is a UN-declared ``safe area'' that qualifies for NATO airpower protection.

But NATO has failed to provide that protection even though the town has been hit repeatedly as Bosnian Serb forces fight to regain territory the Bosnian Army captured three weeks ago.

Further hampering the contact group's effort on Croatia are seemingly intractable objections by the two sides to the Z-4 proposal.

``The international community will not be held hostage to the deadlines set by the Croats,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But the international community also knows that it doesn't have much more time to play with.''

Meanwhile, the contact group itself is divided. One diplomatic source indicated that Russia wants to give rapid sanctions relief to Serbia, while the United States seeks a very gradual easing of the embargo.

Mr. Milosevic has already been given some sanctions relief - ends to UN bans on sports, cultural, and air-travel ties - for backing the contact-group plan for a partition of Bosnia and allegedly cutting strategic supplies to the Bosnian Serbs.

The Bosnian Serbs, however, remain adamant in their rejection of the Bosnian partition plan.

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