MANY political observers here are beginning to believe that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is genuinely determined to bully the Bosnian Serbs into halting the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But they warn that Mr. Milosevic's public metamorphosis into a peacemaker should not be misinterpreted as a sudden embrace of the international plan to halt the war and an abandonment of his long-held goal of annexing most of Bosnia.
Instead, they say, he has chosen for now to preserve his own political fortunes rather than risk having foreign military intervention in Bosnia spill over into Serbia itself. (US options, Page 3.)
"Milosevic is just facing reality," says Stojan Cerovic, a political columnist with the Belgrade-based magazine Vreme. "In the case of military intervention, he is very much afraid ... that he could not keep the Yugoslav Army out of Bosnia. There are a lot of generals who would want to fight," Mr. Cerovic says.
Milosevic's new policy emerged after the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb parliament defied his demand that it embrace the international peace plan authored by mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen.
Within hours of the vote, Milosevic responded by cutting off all supplies to the Bosnian Serbs except food and medicines. That was tantamount to an admission of guilt to charges that Yugoslavia has been providing them arms and ammunition.
Milosevic's apparent intention is to stave off the growing threat of Western military attack and gain the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers along the front lines. That would freeze the Bosnian Serbs' "ethnic cleansing" and conquest of more than 70 percent of Bosnian territory.
The Bosnian Serbs could then paralyze the implementation of the Vance-Owen plan by dragging out negotiations.
"We should decide to gain ... our claims through peace and not through war," Milosevic told the self-declared Bosnian Serb parliament at its meeting last week in Pale, east of Sarajevo.
This was precisely the tack he followed in agreeing to the plan that ended the 1991 war in Croatia, where UN troops have been protecting the 35 percent of that former Yugoslav republic captured by Serbs.
In addition to announcing the arms cutoff, a Serbian government statement confirmed that rump Yugoslavia has been sapped of resources by the more than year-old sanctions imposed by the UN. Analysts say Milosevic is desperate to end the sanctions to avoid social turmoil that could result from economic collapse.
E has to be worried about the further effects of the sanctions," said a Western diplomat. "Sooner or later, the Serbian people may decide to blame the Serbian government."
But Milosevic may have committed an unprecedented political blunder in believing he can coerce Bosnian Serb leaders into accepting something they regard as a total betrayal of the war aims in which they were supported by the Serbian strongman for so long.
"He is like the pusher who gets someone hooked on drugs and then tries to get them off," says Ivan Vujacic, an opposition Democratic Party delegate in the rump Yugoslav Parliament.
For that reason, analysts say, Milosevic will almost certainly have to get much tougher with the Bosnian Serbs, who appear unfazed by the Yugoslav decision to cut off supplies, something that will be difficult to implement given the porous border. "Fortunately, we don't need anything from them except fuel and some trade," Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said. "We can survive as we survived for four years against Hitler, without receiving anything from abroad."
Analysts expect Belgrade television, controlled by Milosevic and received in Bosnian Serb-controlled areas, to launch a major propaganda blitz against Mr. Karadzic and his leadership this week. The aim, they say, would be to convince Bosnian Serbs to vote for the peace plan in a referendum scheduled for next weekend.
There are few guarantees, however, that Milosevic can whip his proxies into line. A large percentage of Bosnian Serbs support the rejection of the peace plan; it is vehemently opposed by hard-liners in the Bosnian Serb military, as they would have to relinquish more than 30 percent of conquered territory.
Milosevic's about-face has also provoked angry protests from ultra-nationalist paramilitary parties in Serbia, particularly the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, a suspected war criminal.
Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) depends on the radicals' support to maintain minority governments at both the republic and Yugoslav federal levels. His decision to turn against the Bosnian Serbs could prompt Mr. Seselj to withdraw his backing for the SPS.
Opposition sources say Milosevic has begun exploring forging coalition governments with opposition parties in the event that Seselj turns against the SPS. One opposition member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that despite widespread disdain for Milosevic, the main Democratic Movement of Serbia coalition and several smaller antigovernment organizations could be open to such an idea.