Balkans Peace-Building

The latest turn of events on the Balkan Peninsula underscores two realities:

* Bosnia's problems are part of a bigger picture that now includes, notably, Albania's political chaos. Ethnic and economic ties interlace the Balkan states. One reason to maintain an international security presence in Bosnia is to insulate the peace-building process there from regional tension.

* This volatility works against arbitrary limits on international involvement. US Secretary of Defense William Cohen has said the US participation in a NATO force in Bosnia will end by June of next year. That deadline may have to be reconsidered. Unless the US persists, the international commitment in this crucial corner of Europe could dissolve. The foundations for lasting peace - economic reconstruction and orderly, fair elections - will never be laid without the assistance of European and world organizations.

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Of late, Albania has eclipsed Bosnia as the lead Balkans story. But Bosnia remains the crucial experiment in peacemaking. Much of the news from there in recent weeks has focused on the short-fuse cities of Brcko and Mostar. Brcko sits strategically on the narrow neck of land connecting the northern and southern sections of Serb-held Bosnia. The Dayton peace plan envisions the return of Muslim refugees to Brcko, a move Bosnian-Serb authorities fiercely resist. What happens when much-postponed municipal elections are finally held? Unless former residents are protected by international troops and allowed a vote, the city's current Serb majority will simply confirm its place in an ethnically partitioned Bosnia.

The same leaning toward partition is at work in the southern town of Mostar, where the fault line separates Croats and Muslims. Mostar's division, watched over by armed camps on both sides of the Neretva River, endangers Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation.

Beyond Bosnia's borders, Serbia's political ferment continues. The coalition opposed to President Slobodan Milosevic won reinstatement of opposition victories in local elections. It's pushing now for liberalization of the state-run media. Will Mr. Milosevic try to draw the line there? His problems include a threat from Montenegro, Serbia's sole partner in a "rump" Yugoslavia, to end that union.

Serbia's public demonstrations against official high-handedness have had counterparts in Croatia and Macedonia. In desperately poor Albania the collapse of get-rich-quick pyramid investment schemes sparked an outcry that has escalated into armed insurgency. President Sali Berisha's dictatorial tendencies soured many Albanians even before the pyramid bubble burst. He has agreed to fresh elections. But he'll have to move quickly, and any process of political change will bear close international scrutiny in the interest of fairness. Albania's troubles rumble through neighboring Macedonia and Kosovo, with their large Albanian populations.

Amid the tremors, however, are signs of political moderation, rebuidling, and cooperation across ethnic lines. Given time and support, the region's peoples may yet make the transition from communist darkness and war to a more stable, democratic future. But it's not likely to happen on a schedule set in Washington or any other foreign capital.

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