A Bosnia Cease-Fire May Depend On Serb Intentions in Land Swap

IT wasn't pretty, but former President Jimmy Carter's trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina this week allowed a tragically rare commodity to momentarily appear in this war-ripped land: compromise.

Mr. Carter, who earned points for his tireless shuttle diplomacy and lost points for appearing unfamiliar with the details of the conflict - mispronouncing leaders' names, and confusing the positions of various sides - may have been the right man at the right place at the right time.

Only the next few weeks will tell.

Carter's presence gave each side enough political cover to agree to a one-week cease-fire and to start talks tomorrow on ceasing hostilities for four months in Europe's worst conflict since World War II.

But neither side compromised on the crucial issue of how Bosnia might be divided in a final peace settlement. Dozens of other cease-fires have come and gone in Bosnia, and it remains clear that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and not Carter's diplomatic skills, is driving the sudden peace talks.

Mr. Karadzic's intentions in the talks remain a mystery.

United States officials in Sarajevo say a variety of factors may be leading him to seriously talk peace. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic - the Bosnian Serbs' main backer in the war - cut off the Bosnian Serbs when they refused to accept the ``contact group'' peace proposal this summer, and their leader, Karadzic, may be worried.

``He's unsure the Serbian Army is going to back him, he's worried about Milosevic, and he's worried about the loyalties of [Bosnian Serb Army Commander Ratko] Mladic,'' a senior US official says. ``And the Bosnian Army is slowly getting stronger.''

One Bosnian Serb official said that the general Bosnian Serb population may be growing weary of the war. Electricity and gasoline are chronically short in Serb areas, and buses in Pale are filled to capacity. ``The people are very, very tired of the war,'' the official said, while Karadzic met with Carter on Tuesday. ``We can survive on our own, we're like an enclave.''

But a far more likely scenario is that the well-armed Bosnian Serbs - who make up about one-third of Bosnia's population, but have won control of about 70 percent of its territory - feel they have gained the strongest bargaining positions.

The collapse of the international community's resolve to stop the Serb attack on the Bihac safe area in northwest Bosnia last month was a turning point in the conflict, observers here say. It allowed the Serbs to pick up even more land to use as a future bargaining chip and halt UN operations in Bosnia until they get what they want.

The fight for Bihac continued yesterday, with bombs dropping on the area as the Serbs pressed their attacks before the cease-fire begins tomorrow.

Karadzic and other Bosnian Serb officials in Pale made it clear during Carter's visit that the key to peace in Bosnia is a land deal. The Bosnian Serb leader reportedly gave Carter a new land-swap proposal. The plan would give the Serbs three surrounded Muslim enclaves - Gorazde, Zepa, and Srebreniza, in exchange for a Serb-held part of Sarajevo, which would link the now-surrounded capital with other Muslim-held territories.

One of the reasons Serb officials say they have refused to accept the contact group peace plan - which gives the Muslim-led government 51 percent of the country and the Serbs 49 percent - is that nearly all of Bosnia's cities and industrial base would go to the Muslims.

The Bosnian Serbs are still determined to widen a narrow corridor that links Serb-held territories from eastern to western Bosnia. Officials say the contact group's plan that it be only three miles wide is unacceptable.

``You can't build a country on three miles,'' the Serb official said. ``Twelve miles is the international limit, and you need room for roads and railways.''

The land issue threatens to derail the upcoming peace talks. Both the Serbs and Muslims adopted more conciliatory language toward the contact group plan and its map during Carter's visit, but the Serbs still refuse to accept the plan and the Muslims say they will not begin negotiations until that happens.

A compromise on the contact group plan would be the second concession the West has made to the Serbs this month. On Dec. 2, the contact group - made up of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia - said the plan would now allow the Bosnian Serbs to confederate with Serbia, all but achieving their goal of creating a ``Greater Serbia.''

With the land issue unresolved, Carter's mission may have in the end achieved little. But US officials said Carter's presence may have established a new dynamic that led both sides to agree to talks that United Nations mediators have been unsuccessfully proposing for weeks.

A combination of ego and a need for more political cover by both sides may bring Carter back to Sarajevo soon, one member of his party predicted. The former president was clearly in his element, tirelessly shuttling between Sarajevo and the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale.

``He called last month and offered to mediate an end to the baseball strike,'' the staffer said.

``He loves this stuff.''

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