WHETHER or not Bosnia-Herzegovina becomes a nation of 10 provinces depends largely on the Bosnian Serbs, who have long argued that geographically scattered ethnic pockets will not work.
A formidable mix of outside pressures may force a shift in their stance. But even if the Bosnian Serbs agree to sign an international plan, peace in the Balkans - even implementation of the pact - is still far from certain.
On May 5 the self-styled Bosnian Serb parliament is to approve or reject the decision made in Athens three days earlier by its leader, Radovan Karadzic, to sign the proposed map and structure for an interim government. The Bosnian Croats and Muslims have already accepted the four-part plan written by United Nations and European Community mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen.
Though efforts to isolate the Bosnian Serbs in the past have made them even more defiant, strong new pressures, including tightened UN sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining republics of rump Yugoslavia, are at work. President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, a traditional ally of the Serbs, has warned the Bosnian Serbs to expect no further protection if they continue to resist the UN plan. Washington continues to threaten military intervention. "I think these have focused minds in a very positive
way," says Mark Nelson, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
If the Bosnian Serbs vote yes, the UN Security Council is expected to move quickly to adopt a detailed implementation strategy long in the works. Those who say they expect a "yes" vote include Mr. Vance, Lord Owen, Mr. Karadzic, and Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic. Under the tightened UN sanctions, Mr. Milosevic has become a strong public supporter of the plan.
Yet the Bosnian Serb assembly rejected the Vance-Owen plan twice last month. If they vote it down again, as Serb hard-liners predict, Karadzic has said he will resign. Western air strikes against key Serbian and Bosnian Serb targets, including bridges and ammunition depots, could also ensue.
Many diplomats and outside analysts argue that the greatest challenge in the Balkans is not securing signatures but implementing the plan. In his May 3 endorsement of Karadzic's decision, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the next phase of the peace process will be "extremely difficult," - a "true test of the will of the parties to live at peace with one another."
IF the Bosnian Serbs accept the plan, the UN will be faced with its largest peacekeeping task ever. US and NATO sources estimate that from 50,000 to 75,000 troops will be needed to implement the plan. The US may provide as much as one-third of that total. Only 7,000 troops, mostly from Britain and France, are currently in Bosnia to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The new peacekeepers will be authorized to use force to ensure compliance with the accord. Their duties will include monitoring the cease-fire, patrolling external and internal borders, securing neutral thoroughfares, guarding heavy weapons, and supervising the separation and withdrawal of forces to their designated provinces. A five-member boundary commission will be named by the secretary-general to settle border disputes. A special human rights monitoring commission will try to ensure that ethnic mino rities in the various provinces are fairly treated.
The plan calls for a weak central government with representation from the three ethnic groups - Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Each group will be assigned three provinces in which it is the majority population. The capital province of Sarajevo would be jointly administered. Elections are to be held within two years. City services, power and water supplies, and public order also must be restored.
The process of deciding "just who gets what street and what house and what field" is likely to be a painful one, particularly for those who have lost relatives and friends, says Wayne Vucinich, a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University who grew up in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. "It will take a great deal of effort on the part of everybody to restore normal relations and to prevent outbreaks of violence."
Karadzic, meanwhile, who says he signed the accord to preserve the unity of "the Serb nation," has told his followers that the proposed province borders are only "provisional."
"With all the hatred that has been built up ... it's going to be very difficult for the local people to go through this healing process by themselves," says Mr. Nelson of Carnegie. "They're going to need a lot of outsiders."