ZAGREB, CROATIA — THE violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia moved one small step closer to ending Tuesday. A loose framework emerged to resolve the issue that launched the conflict and is vexing societies worldwide - minority rights.
The mostly Muslim Bosnian government and the Bosnian Serbs agreed in New York on the outline for a new parliament and presidency that would give the country's minority Serb population a veto right. A grand experiment in government could soon ensue in Bosnia, with up to 25,000 American troops overseeing its bloom or collapse.
The White House has long promised European allies that US troops would be sent to Bosnia to enforce any final peace agreement. Whether Americans - like United Nations peacekeepers before them - are being given a workable agreement to enforce is already a matter of fierce debate.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher acknowledged yesterday that the White House needed congressional approval to deploy US forces in Bosnia. Critics say the plan would make US troops sitting ducks.
''[The Clinton administration's] assumption that Congress will approve plans to send thousands of Americans in harm's way to enforce a settlement is a major error,'' Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas said on the Senate floor Tuesday. ''The fact is that the Clinton administration may be making promises it cannot or should not keep.''
But UN officials here cautiously say the deal could provide a framework for resolving minority rights in Bosnia - an issue that has also troubled the US.
A unified Bosnia and a stable, relatively risk-free peacekeeping mission for American troops could result from the agreement in the long term, according to UN officials. They say the governing structure agreed upon Tuesday is a major setback for the separatist Bosnian Serb leadership.
''When you look at the details of the agreement,'' says a Zagreb-based UN official, ''it really seems to be a setback for the Bosnian Serbs.''
The Bosnian Serbs have agreed to participate in free elections as soon as possible and accepted the establishment of an entire governmental superstructure including a presidency, parliament, and supreme court.
But the key issue of what powers the central government will have is unresolved.
US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke said Tuesday that more talks will be held to ''flesh out'' the parliament's powers. The body could be responsible for foreign trade, customs and currency administration, citizenship, and protection of borders.
A key issue in carrying out any peace deal will be enforcing the new parliament's laws in Bosnian Serb territory. Well-armed Bosnian Serbs could simply decide to ignore laws enacted by the central government in Sarajevo.
Rules to play by
It is not clear if peacekeepers would be expected to back a theoretical federal police force if Bosnian Serbs continue harassing Muslims and Croats in their territory. If no muscle is put behind the new laws, the country could descend into two ministates, exactly what the Bosnian Serbs want and exactly what could prompt renewed fighting.
The issue of majority-minority relations is at the heart of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The war, which has been sometimes portrayed as a confusing combination of ancient ethnic hatreds, is in some ways simply about which group will be the majority and which the minority.
How it started
Frustration and fears about being a minority were key emotions nationalists played on when Yugoslavia began to break up in 1991. Croats and Slovenes, tired of being a minority in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, declared Croatia and Slovenia independent in 1991.
Serbs who lived in Croatia suddenly found themselves to be in the minority there. Citing fears that large-scale anti-Serb atrocities and discrimination - such as those committed by a pro-Hitler independent Croatia in World War II - would occur again, Serbs in Croatia declared an independent state and said they hoped to unify with Serbia proper where they could be in the majority.
Muslims in Bosnia also saw themselves as a minority in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Bosnia - which is 44 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serb, 17 percent Croat, and 8 percent mixed nationalities, according to a 1991 census - declared independence in 1992.
Ethnic Serbs in Bosnia, like their kin in Croatia, refused to become minorities and seceded, sparking the war the Clinton administration is trying desperately to end.
On both sides of the conflict, Muslims and Serbs often joke that on a personal level the two groups can and will live together again. It is nationalist politicians, some Serbs and Muslims say, that have torn the country apart.
In general, the more powers the central government has, the more powers Muslim politicians will have. The less power the central government has, the more power Bosnian Serb politicians will have.
The problem at the heart of the conflict in Bosnia has not been solved. Whether American troops will still be trying to solve it years from now in a quagmire-like peacekeeping mission remains to be seen.