QUALIFIED acceptance of the latest peace plan by the three warring factions in Bosnia-Herzegovina may have brought a settlement closer than ever before. But there is still a great deal of talking to be done over the crucial question of land when the delegations return to Geneva today. Success is far from assured.
While the Bosnian Serbs approved the plan as it stood, both the Croats and the Muslim-led Sarajevo government are seeking to negotiate a better territorial deal in the three-way carve-up envisaged by the plan.
For once, it is the much-castigated Bosnian Serbs who are ahead of the game in approving the peace table. After three days of detailed wrangling over the proposals at a ski resort near their headquarters at Pale, in the hills 10 miles east of Sarajevo, the 72-member Bosnian Serb assem-bly voted Saturday by a large majority - 55 to 14 - to endorse the plan without qualification.
In doing so, they overrode hard-liners who objected to giving up war-won land for peace. The leading military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, left the meeting early, warning of the "strategic dangers" of ceding territory.
The Bosnian Serbs' share of the land under the plan would be reduced from the 72 percent they hold now to 52 percent.
Jubilant at what he clearly saw as a political victory, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic called on Bosnian Croats and Muslims to respond in kind and move forward rapidly to peace. He warned again that there would be no more territorial concessions, and that those offered now would be withdrawn if they were not accepted as they stood.
But the path to peace will not be that simple. Both the Muslim-led Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo and the Bosnian Croat assembly meeting in the western town of Gruda made it clear they were dissatisfied with the amount and distribution of territory allotted them under the Geneva plan.
Ever since his return from Geneva, President Alija Izetbegovic has said he is dissatisfied with the deal under which the new Muslim ministate would get 30 percent of the land. (The Sarajevo government now controls barely 10 percent). The parliament endorsed his view Saturday.
The Muslim side is likely to return to Geneva seeking roughly 6 percent more land for its allocation under the plan. Specifically, it wants Serbs to give up more of the land seized in eastern Bosnia and in the Krajina region of the north. It also wants lesser adjustments in central Bosnia and around Mostar in the southwest.
In addition, the Sarajevo government insists the new Muslim-led ministate should have an outlet to the sea, and that there be constitutional guarantees ensuring that the proposed union of the three republics exists in more than name only. It also wants international guarantees that, unlike the Vance-Owen plan, this agreement would actually be implemented.
A Bosnian Croat assembly announced its general approval of the peace proposals, but voiced reservations over territorial allocations it saw as "illogical and unjust." The Croats indicated they would seek alterations to the map in central Bosnia, where recent months have seen a bitter struggle between Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces.
The Croats also want the disputed city of Mostar to be the capital of the "Republic of Herzeg-Bosna," which they formally proclaimed on Saturday in readiness for the plan to be implemented. Under the plan, Mostar, like Sarajevo, would be granted special status. Mostar would be governed by a European Community administrator for an interim period, while Sarajevo would be ruled by the United Nations.
So when the delegations return to Geneva this week, there is sure to be heated argument over the question of land, which in many ways is at the core of the conflict. The Muslims in particular insist that to allow the Serbs to retain land conquered and "ethnically cleansed" by force of arms is to reward those responsible for "aggression and genocide."
But there was no doubt that the meetings of the Sarajevo parliament reflected a fundamental change in attitudes: The Muslims have basically - if reluctantly - accepted the principle of a three-way division of the country.
"This was not our idea, it was imposed on us," says Suleiman Suljic, a senior Foreign Ministry official in the Sarajevo government. "I think this is a requiem for Bosnia, but we have to act coldly. If a decision is not made, Bosnia-Herzegovina will be divided between two radicalisms, the Serbs and the Croats."
"If we don't establish our own Muslim state, we will disappear," he adds. "So we must rally around the new state, or we'll lose territory, state, and people."
This new realism enhances the chances of acceptance of the Geneva plan, perhaps with further territorial adjustments.
But while it may bring temporary relief, it has dismayed many Bosnians who do not believe in narrowly based ethnic republics and want to preserve the multiethnic spirit of tolerance that prevailed in Sarajevo and elsewhere in the past.
They now worry that there will be little place for nonpartitionist Serbs and Croats in the third Bosnian ministate likely to become increasingly "Muslim" in outlook - and might even be tinged with Islamism, to keep pace with the new nationalist Serb and Croat republics. Many such people plan to leave the country as soon as they can.
"Not only Serbs and Croats will leave, but many Muslims too, who don't want to live in a Muslim state," predicts Gordana Knezevic, a Serb who is deputy editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodenje. "Europe is creating its own nightmare. The Serbs and Croats, with European help, may be helping create the monster of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe itself."