Diplomatic Flurry Precedes Talks On Bosnia Peace

EU mediator warns that if the Geneva round fails, peacekeeping troops start withdrawing

THOUGH no major breakthroughs are expected when peace talks over Bosnia-Herzegovina's political future resume in Geneva on Jan. 18, economic and political pressures on all parties are growing.

The issues in dispute are increasingly specific. ``The talks are getting more and more detailed,'' says one United Nations official.

A meeting tomorrow in Bonn between Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic may prove key.

One aim is agreement on a cease-fire between the Bosnian Army and Croat fighters, one-time allies, who have been engaged in particularly fierce fighting in central Bosnia and in the southern city of Mostar.

After preliminary talks held in Vienna earlier this week, both sides agreed to draw up a cease-fire plan and try to solve their territorial disputes by peaceful, political means. Zagreb renewed its longstanding proposal to establish a free port at Ploce on the Adriatic Sea. Bosnian Muslims view access to the sea as critical, but prefer sovereignty at the Croat-held port of Neum.

Haris Silajdzic, Bosnian prime minister, says that the Vienna talks mark a ``small but real step forward.'' Vladimir Drobndak, a diplomat in Croatia's UN mission, says, ``I think there is real room for optimism [at the Geneva talks] this time.''

Both Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats agreed last month, at the most recent three-way talks in Brussels, that Bosnian Muslims should get one-third of Bosnia's territory.

The Muslims, however, want other lands than those offered by Bosnian Serbs, who hold 70 percent of the total. The Muslims also disagree with Bosnian Serbs on the disposition of Sarajevo. The Serbs, who have been shelling the city more intensively this week than in many months, want to divide Sarajevo or at least keep parts of its suburbs.

Both Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats say they may reconsider concessions already made if the Bosnian government does not agree soon to an accord. Bosnian Muslims have been fighting more effectively against Bosnian Croats than in the past and may be convinced, some analysts say, that they can still win back a sizable chunk of lost territory.

If the Muslims sign an accord, the UN would be pressured to lift sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro. ``That's really ... the only weapon the Muslims have against the Serbs,'' notes Janusz Bugajski, a specialist on Eastern Europe with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``In terms of fighting power at the moment, the Muslims are no match for the Serbs.''

Ivan Misic, a diplomat in Bosnia's UN mission, says his government is ready to negotiate but is ``not really very optimistic'' about reaching an accord in January. He notes there is still no firm commitment for outside troops to implement any agreement. ``There are too many doubts and uncertainties,'' he says.

One development that might exert more pressure on Bosnia's Muslims to sign an accord is the prospect of a possible UN troop pullout in the spring. Lord David Owen, who has co-chaired the talks from the start for the European Union, suggested this week that if the peace talks make no progress by then, British, French, and Spanish peacekeepers may withdraw. Canada, which has 2,000 troops in Bosnia and has long been a staunch supporter of UN peacekeeping, plans to debate its continued involvement in Bosnia next month. Canadian troops recently were subjected to a mock execution by drunken Serb soldiers.

``I think there really is the possibility that the various European contingents will pull out or threaten to just as the fighting season gets going again in the spring,'' says John Lampe, an expert on Eastern Europe with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. ``They [the European troops] really have taken losses and humiliation, and their effectiveness is questionable.'' The resignation this month, six months ahead of schedule, of Lt. Gen. Francis Briquemont, the Belgian commander of UN troops in Bosnia, is seen as a further sign of the frustration facing the UN peacekeeping effort there. He had been sharply critical of the ``fantastic gap'' between UN Security Council commitments and available resources.

Neither the NATO summit early next week nor the resumption of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on Jan. 17 is expected to have much impact on the Geneva talks. France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is urging NATO members to consider a new initiative to revive the peace process. France intends to ask the United States, at the NATO meeting, to help intervene so the war does not advance throughout the Balkans. The US announced this week that it is doubling the amount of air drops over Sarajevo.

Yet even if all three political leaders in Bosnia were to agree on a peace pact in Geneva, their ability to bring along those they claim to represent is questionable, analysts say. Gen. Philippe Morillon, the French former commander of troops in Bosnia, insists that the leaders are the ``prisoners'' of extremists among their own followers.

Igor Lukes, an expert on Eastern Europe with Boston University, says the point is well taken and helps to explain why diplomacy sometimes needs to be conducted in secret as it was in Norway for the most recent Middle East agreement. ``Otherwise the peace process can be immediately hijacked by the most extreme elements of any political group, making any agreement impossible,'' he says.

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