AS negotiators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen try to convince the United Nations Security Council to adopt their plan on Bosnia, they face a strong argument in Congress and the White House that it rewards the "ethnic cleansing" conducted in Bosnia by Serbs.
To counter this, the Vance-Owen team has argued that under their plan's partition of Bosnia, Serbs only get 43 percent of the country - whereas prior to the war, Serbs controlled 60 percent of Bosnia.
"The Serbs drop from 60 percent to 43 percent - a significant rollback" that will "begin to reverse ethnic cleansing," UN spokesman Fred Ekhard says.
Yet a number of Western diplomats, US officials, and Bosnian leaders question the way the 60 percent figure is being used by Mr. Vance and Lord Owen. They say it implies Serbs are giving back land they somehow deserved. Moreover, the 60 percent figure implies Serbs owned or controlled regions where in fact they may have been only a slight majority.
"We have not yet seen the basis for the assertion that 60 percent of the land prior to the war is Serbian," says Andrew Semmel, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana.
Serbs have rejected the proposed map of 10 cantons because their portion of land is too small, they say, and they would have to give up a key supply corridor to land captured in war with Croatia in 1991.
Several experts said the figure is imprecise, is not legal, is subject to distortion, and appears to be a more elaborate way to explain and accommodate a Serbian taking of land by force that has already left 50,000 to 100,000 dead in the former Yugoslav republic.
"It's ludicrous," one State Department Yugoslav expert says. "The ethnic map of Bosnia before the war was like a leopard skin. Everyone was scattered around. To claim a clean 60 percent, or even 40 percent, is ridiculous."
Mr. Ekhard says the 60 percent figure comes from Bosnian government maps based on ethnic dispersal in a 1991 census and is not contested. But in a Monitor interview, Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic contests the figure. Such maps, produced by ethnic factions under the Bosnian government, vary widely, he says, adding: "We never had Serbian land or Muslim land or Croat land until last year. The Austrians and the Turks occupied our land before it was Bosnia."
A Belgrade diplomat specializing on Bosnia says the 60 percent figure used by the UN team implies that Serbs owned the rivers, trees, mountains, and roads that were always common property in Bosnia. Based on research in Sarajevo before the war, the diplomat says 52 percent of Bosnia was private land prior to last April, and of that 52 percent, 44 percent was owned by Serbs. Vice President Ganic says there is no legal basis for claiming land based on ethnic dispersal: "The Serbs are saying that if one man
is living on a mountain, and he is a Serb, then the mountain is Serbian."
ARTICLES in the New York Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Reuters, and other Western news outlets have reported the 60 percent figure as a virtual fact, in many cases supporting claims that Serbs "owned" 60 percent of Bosnia before the war. Three New York Times stories in January said Serbs "owned" 60 percent of Bosnia before the war. A Jan. 19 article attributes use of the phrase "owned" to Vance.
Many diplomats familiar with Bosnia doubt the Vance-Owen plan can roll back ethnic cleansing and allow Muslims to return to Serb-held regions. Many well-intentioned Westerners "don't realize that ethnic cleansing was not simply a by-product of the war in Bosnia," a US diplomat in Europe says. "It was the point or reason for the war. It said to non-Serbs, `Leave, and don't come back.' "