FIGHTING in Bosnia-Herzegovina has subsided to its lowest level since war erupted almost two years ago, but United States and Russian mediators face considerable hurdles in making further headway toward a negotiated peace.
Western diplomats and United Nations officials are concerned that the crisis could lapse into political doldrums, where it would simmer unresolved before escalating into an all-out war once the exhausted armies regroup and rearm.
Indeed, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic warns that the nascent Washington-brokered Muslim-Croat federation will resort to force if the Bosnian Serbs refuse to relinquish Muslim- and Croat-dominated areas they have seized.
``We will try to negotiate, but who knows when we will stop,'' Mr. Silajdzic said in a Monitor interview last week.
``The Muslim-Croat federation consists of territory inhabited by majority Bosnian Muslim or Bosnian Croat populations,'' he said. ``We do not have to justify our intention to liberate that territory if they [the Bosnian Serbs] don't give it up, because it is our natural right.... One day, we are entitled to do that. One day, when we feel strong enough,'' he said.
With a solid cease-fire around Sarajevo and the US-brokered Muslim-Croat truce holding, fighting is now restricted to only a few areas. These include the besieged Muslim-controlled pocket of Bihac, the Serb-held town of Doboj, and the Muslim enclave of Maglaj.
It remains to be seen just how US mediator Charles Redman and his Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, will move to build on the battlefield lull.
Contrary to the mediators' hopes, Russian diplomatic muscle, and the continuing threat of NATO enforcement of UN resolutions, the Bosnian Serbs last week refused to join the Muslim-Croat federation of Swiss-style cantons.
Instead, the so-called Bosnian Serb parliament last Thursday endorsed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's demand that the international community recognize his self-proclaimed state before any further negotiations on the pivotal issue of territories.
With such recognition highly unlikely, Bosnian Serb officials said they are content to maintain the current status quo and stick out whatever new pressures might be applied by the US and its ``messenger boy,'' Russia.
``People are prepared to make further sacrifices. Morale is high,'' says a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity after the ``parliament'' session in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, east of Sarajevo.
``It's a question of security,'' he said. ``We believe that security is best guaranteed by internationally recognized sovereignty and statehood, with stable, clearly delineated frontiers.
``We have our own government, people, and territory,'' he added. ``International recognition is important, but it does not make a state.''
In its declaration, the Bosnian Serb parliament also demanded that the Bosnian Serbs be allowed to pursue their original goal of uniting with the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro and the Croatian-Serb-controlled territories of Krajina. It further called for the lifting of the UN sanctions imposed on rump Yugoslavia in May 1992 for sponsoring the Bosnian Serbs' ethnic cleansing conquests. And it said that Croatia should relinquish to the Bosnian Serbs a part of its southern Adriatic coast bordering Montenegro.
For their part, Bosnian Muslim and Croat leaders say they will not discuss a political settlement until the Bosnian Serbs satisfy their territorial requirements. The Bosnian Serbs ``have no right to come, kill people, and take their homes,'' Silajdzic said. ``We cannot reward genocide....''
Silajdzic conceded that his position mandates that Mr. Karadzic give up much more territory than he says he is currently willing to relinquish. The Bosnian Serb leader has said he will surrender 16 percent of the 72 percent of Bosnia he controls.
``It would mean a change in the political concept they [the Bosnian Serbs] have and a change in the political leaders. This concept has to fall, this concept of an ethnically pure Bosnia,'' he said.
``The Serbs were 31.3 percent of the population in 1991. They can keep the territories where the Serbs were a majority,'' he continued. But ``we are entitled to liberate our country'' if the Bosnian Serbs refuse to make the required territorial concessions.
Prewar Muslim-dominated areas that must be returned, Silajdzic said, include the northwestern city of Banja Luka, where Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansers are now pursuing a new campaign of murder, assaults, and robberies against the remaining Muslims and Croats.
Silajdzic contended that even if the Muslim-Croat federation refrains from renewed bloodletting, he believes the Bosnian Serbs will resume their territorial conquests at some point. ``They cannot survive peace. The dynamics of peace are against them,'' he said. ``It is death they thrive on, not life.''