IN the councils of the international community, the oft-repeated lesson of the Yugoslav war is that would-be mediators should get involved early.
The embarrassment felt by political leaders is finally leading them to try to do just that. In various hot spots in the former Soviet Union the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the lead international body for such matters, is dispatching diplomats to negotiate political settlements with the disputing parties. Serbs and Croats in Bosnia seem committed to waging war. But for other regions the time is ripe.
For much of the past three years, the issue of how to handle conflict in the East was stymied by a tug-of-war among international institutions. The competition between the CSCE, NATO, and the European Community distracted decision-makers from the practical problem of developing an effective conflict resolution system. Despite imaginative proposals, little was done in 1990 or 1991 to remold the CSCE from a body that establishes principles to one that takes political action.
The turning point came earlier this year, during the CSCE's soul-searching four-month conference in Helsinki. With the tragedy of former Yugoslavia hanging over the proceedings, diplomats from the 52 CSCE states fashioned a new set of mechanisms and structures to deal with conflict. Intricate institutional procedures aside, the working principles of effective diplomatic intervention turn out to be quite simple.
The international community has learned to have its political tentacles reach directly into local tension. The CSCE's most important tool has been the deployment of diplomats to regions of conflict. By consulting directly and regularly with the disputing parties, international representatives can work toward settlement.
Aside from its role in former Yugoslavia, the CSCE has missions and/or representatives in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Estonia. The disputes in these former Soviet republics represent varying levels of escalation and violence.
In two areas - Nagorne-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Abkhazia in Georgia - fighting continues. There are cease-fires in place in Southern Ossetia in Georgia and the Trans-Dniestr region of Moldova.
CSCE officials must find ways to establish trust between angry groups. First, an effective cease-fire is needed. Mediators for Nagorno-Karabakh have worked for nine months to get warring factions to stop fighting and submit to CSCE peacekeeping. Despite new fighting, negotiators at the Stockholm CSCE meeting were on the verge of salvaging a deal which again fell apart. The special representative for Georgia, on the other hand, sees no possible role for mediation in Abkhazia for the time being.
MEDIATING these conflicts is an effort at political engineering. Envoys must suggest measures and understandings that will ease the concerns of the respective parties. In Moldova the Russian minority in the Trans-Dniestr has expressed worry about possible unification of Moldova with Romania.
Mediator Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish diplomat, has pressed for a commitment by leaders in both Moldova and Romania to Moldova's independence. Still, there is discussion of a political "out" that would allow citizens in the Trans-Dniestr to determine their own fate under unification. The Moldovan government has promised a special status for the disputed region.
Political autonomy for local regions is often at the heart of these disputes. Mediators must get involved at a level that flies in the face of traditional notions of a non-interference.
The trick is to find a balance of powers between the center and the region that will not only guarantee minority rights but give them a safe level of self-governance. The confidence of a minority can often be gained by granting control over cultural and educational affairs - a fairly cheap price for stability.
Similarly, the resources demanded by the world for such "preventive diplomacy" seem small when compared to the potential benefit. But the CSCE still has yet to shake some of the prejudices against it.
Overcautious about spawning a huge bureaucracy, the EC still brings a skeptical attitude when discussion turns to the budget for conflict prevention missions. Rehearsing a well-worn line, a senior British diplomat in Stockholm said, "We're determined that the CSCE should not have a large infrastructure." That's a pretty tight-fisted approach to peace.