Balkan Neighbors Hope Bosnian Serbs Are Weary of War

SO it is now up to the real Bosnian Serbs - not the political leaders and the warlords but the people on the ground - to decide whether the fighting is to stop. The fate of the whole Balkan region, not just Bosnia, seems in their hands.

It is not yet clear how many can vote in this weekend's referendum, called for by the self-styled Bosnian Serb parliament on May 5 when it rejected the peace formula proposed by international mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen. The most recent census - April 1991 - put the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina at almost 4,355,000; 31.3 percent registered as Serb. Of the republic's 109 municipalities, 32 had absolute Serb majorities and a further five had simple Serb majorities. (Comparable Muslim figur es were 37 and 15.)

Just how many of an estimated 1.3 million Serbs are of voting age is not clear, nor does it matter.

What does matter is whether Bosnian Serbs have begun to feel as weary of and disenchanted by the war as their compatriots in Serbia proper have since early this year. The latters' loss of patience compelled Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to make the astonishing U-turn from his year-long defiance of international opprobrium and back the Vance-Owen plan.

After months of sanctions, societal peace in his rump Yugoslavia seemed precarious. The United Nation's decision to tighten the blockade spelled total economic collapse.

On top of this there came the remarkable "don't count on us" warning to the Serbs from Boris Yeltsin as soon as he had his vote of confidence in Russia's April 25 referendum.

It was a chilling signal that, though Mr. Yeltsin was still hesitant about military intervention, he was placing the Russian Federation firmly behind the UN's effort to stop the war.

It was a jolt indeed to all Serbs to learn that the cherished tradition of affinity between Orthodox mother Russia and Serbia counts much less now than the new Russia's desire for good relations with the West.

The Bosnian Serb parliament's rejection of the peace plan that their own leader Radovan Karadzic initialed a few days previously was quite predictable. His own guileful reservations (even as he signed) about the provisional UN map - which requires the Serbs to give up some 40 percent of territory they have conquered - could only fuel local hard-line resistance.

Lord Owen's description of the Athens signature as a "happy day" had an immediately hollow ring. It was certainly not a happy day for Bosnia's still multi-ethnic government, which now controls little more than 10 percent of the area allotted it by the UN.

If it came to implementation, could the Bosnians really count on the Serbs to honor the peace plan's call for demilitarization and withdrawal from occupied areas? Or its call to reverse the "ethnic cleansing?" And Sarajevo: How long might it survive as an "open city" governed by three constituent nations?

"What will the next days and nights bring?" asked rump Yugoslavia's President Dobrica Cosic ruefully after the May 5 rejection. Such misgiving is shared throughout the Balkans. A general anxiety was reflected in the presence at the May 5 meeting of Mr. Milosevic's only ally, Greek Premier Constantine Mitsotakis, to echo the Serb's warning that defying the UN must bring Western military intervention. Even if the plan does finally achieve a momentary cease-fire, Bulgaria, Albania, and Turkey see no guarant ee against future wider conflict.

"The `Greater Serbia' goal - with so much achieved in the past two years - will not be laid aside," a Bulgarian friend told me. "It can always be resumed by other means at a later date."

Unhappily, the West has dithered and differed about intervening at moments when it could have worked quickly. Now it is hostage again, this time to the half-million or so Bosnian Serbs who may vote in the referendum.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.