Balkan Turning Point?

FOR the first time since June, a bit of sun glints through dense Yugoslav skies.

It is far too early for celebrations. Scattered fights still occur on the ground. Numerous "hot spots" exist. But with the Jan. 3 cease-fire still holding, and with Cyrus Vance's United Nations peace plan accepted by almost all leaders, including Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, a shift in what has been thought possible in the angry war between the Serbs and Croats has occurred.

It is now at least possible to think in terms of deployed UN peacekeeping forces, autonomy for the Yugoslav republics of Bosnia and Macedonia, and even eventual resettlement of the 700,000 families made refugees by the war.

The sticking point has been Milan Babic, the fiery leader of the Serbian-majority Krajina region of Croatia. He has opposed UN troops in his region. But with his population ready for peace, Mr. Babic may back down.

It was Mr. Tudjman's acceptance of an unconditional deployment of UN troops, however, that provided the real change. By signing onto the Vance plan, Tudjman (after a stern note from German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher) opens the door for a minimally altered Croatia in exchange for peace.

If blustery Tudjman can stay cool under the heat he will get from Croat hard-liners and not provoke Belgrade, the Vance plan may work.

Why the window of hope? Several factors: European Community (EC) recognition, UN diligence, tired troops, opposition in Belgrade, blasted economies, shifts in position by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

The larger cause is the cold war's end. The Marxist Yugoslav Army kept the war going. But as Army chief Gen. Bogoje Adjic told Krajina's Babic: "We are isolated, we can't go on." What this means is there's no Army back channel to Soviet generals. The world has changed, comrades.

The push for peace needs to stay constant. The EC and UN must persevere. Tudjman must conciliate. Such momentum will keep heads cool in ethnically mixed Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has worried everyone.

If Bosnia holds, thank the wise leadership of President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, who early and loudly made the stakes clear to Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims and kept open a free press that showed both Serb and Croat TV. A Bosnian independence referendum comes later this month.

Given the explosive bitterness of the war, it may take some time for Serb or Croat villagers to return to life as usual. Serb enclaves partitioned into "UN trust zones" may be a short-term answer.

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