AFTER a referendum in the breakaway Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina that overwhelmingly urged independence, ethnic antagonisms are running high. Western diplomats who monitored the weekend vote say the republic is poised on the brink of widespread nationalist violence.
"All the ingredients are there and I am sure violence is going to explode.... Everything possible has to be done to contain it," one diplomat says.
While barricades have been removed from the streets of the capital Sarajevo, heavy fighting was reported in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Brod. Radio reports say the town of 30,000 suffered extensive damage when it came under heavy mortar fire early yesterday. Also yesterday, terrorists set off a bomb at a mosque in the town of Prnjavor, causing considerable damage.
On Tuesday night the republic's Muslim president, Alia Izetbegovic, declared independence and called for immediate international recognition. He did so as soon as the results of the referendum were known: More than 99 percent of the voters cast ballots for independence. More than 64 percent of the electorate went to the ballot box.
But only two of the three main ethnic groups - Croats and Bosnia Muslims - voted. The third major group, the Serbs, staged a boycott. After the voting, Serb gunmen set up barricades and cut off the republic's capital, Sarajevo, from the rest of the republic. Eleven people are reported to have died in the unrest, including one man shot by a Serb gunman during a peace demonstration.
"Bosnia is potentially the most ethnically explosive republic in Yugoslavia," one diplomat says. "I am surprised it did not dissolve in civil war when Croatia did." No majority group
What makes Bosnia-Herzegovina so volatile is that none of the ethnic groups make up a majority: Serbs represent approximately 31 percent of the population, Bosnia Muslims 45 percent, and Croats 16 percent.
"The declaration by Izetbegovic of independence is certainly not the end of the trouble. Indeed, it may only be the beginning," a European Community referendum monitor says.
Monitors and diplomats acknowledge that the referendum was not completely free and fair. "One voting booth I went to was in the headquarters of the local Croatian Nationalist Party," one monitor says. Croat and Muslim voters reported intimidation by Serbs; in some predominantly Serb areas the authorities refused to set up voting booths.
"But what the voting did in effect was to start defining areas where Croats are most in influence, areas where Muslims are most in influence, and Serb areas," a Western diplomat says.
A key factor preventing widespread ethnic unrest so far has been that there are many intermarriages. Areas that are Serb, Muslim, or Croat are less easily defined than in Croatia.
The European Community, in recent talks in Lisbon and Sarajevo, won agreement from leaders of the three main ethnic groups that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be divided up into Swiss-style "cantons" with local governments from the predominant nationality answerable to central authorities.
But none of the nationalities have agreed to canton boundaries. And although the Croats and Muslims would like independence, the Serb community would like to combine its cantons with Serbia in a rump Yugoslavia. Serbs make up only 31 percent of the population but claim 65 percent of the territory. Yugoslav breakup
Three other Yugoslav republics - Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia - have voted for independence. The remaining two, Serbia and Montenegro, propose forming an alliance and retaining the name "Yugoslavia." Slovenia and Croatia are swiftly gaining international recognition.
Bosnian President Izetbegovic is credited with containing serious conflict with his conciliatory policies. "He is a reasonable man who has done everything he can to keep passions in check and to keep the various factions talking," a senior Western diplomat says.
During the war in Croatia there were indications that the Serb-dominated Army was attempting to provoke similar conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Army has several bases and defense-industry installations in Bosnia. It began seizing records of the names of young men and calling them up for military service, an action that met stiff resistance from Muslim and Croat communities. The Army is now observing a cease-fire, however, as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic turns to negotiating rather than fighting for territory.
United Nations special envoy Cyrus Vance is now in Yugoslavia, meeting with leaders in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo to discuss the scheduled deployment of 14,000 UN peacekeeping troops, mainly in Croatia. The troops will have their headquarters in Sarajevo - a move calculated to prevent violence. Mr. Vance will also attend next week's EC peace conference on Yugoslavia in Brussels.
"The deployment of UN peacekeepers in Sarajevo can only help - as can the EC conference. But it is necessary that these things happen swiftly - even days count now," the senior Western diplomat says.