AFTER a tense week in which the United Nations and Bosnian Serbs tested one another's resolve, it is still unclear whether prospects for a fair peace settlement in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been set back significantly or left intact.
The Bosnian Serbs agreed yesterday to stop their two-year siege of the Muslim town of Gorazde, withdraw their big guns, and allow 350 peacekeeping troops to deploy along front lines in the enclave, UN officials said.
The agreement followed a trip by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to Belgrade for emergency talks with Serb leaders.
But at press time Sunday, UN relief sources said Bosnian Serb forces, including tanks, were advancing into Gorazde, causing widespread panic in the UN-designated ``safe area.''
``The [Bosnian Serb forces] are moving into the city. Tanks are moving in past the city limits. Panic has struck totally. Our building is full of people fleeing in from the outskirts of town,'' a UN relief source told Reuters.
The Bosnian Serbs have been defying the UN with an array of moves ever since the UN ordered NATO airstrikes April 10 and 11 to protect UN personnel in Gorazde, one of six UN-declared ``safe areas'' for Muslims in Bosnia.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said after the airstrikes he would no longer deal with or honor commitments to the UN. He threatened to take down any planes shooting at Serb targets. [A NATO British Harrier jet was shot down Saturday by a surface-to-air missile over Gorazde, but the pilot ejected over Muslim-held territory and was rescued.] Bosnian Serb forces yesterday released 19 Canadian peacekeepers, three days after they were detained; as many as 200 UN personnel in Bosnia remain under Serb detention.
Yet one of the most defiant Bosnian Serb moves was the renewed attack on Gorazde itself April 15, just four days after the last NATO airstrike. In the course of the fighting, two wounded UN military observers were evacuated under a brief UN-arranged cease-fire. One later died.
The Bosnian Serbs insist that the UN sides with Bosnian Muslims. What no one yet knows is whether this vehement Serb reaction is a last-ditch effort to improve a political bargaining position before agreeing to a final peace settlement or a sign that the Serbs really are determined to go it alone. Gorazde's capture by Bosnian Serbs, who currently hold 70 percent of the nation's land, would bring them closer to their goal of full control of eastern Bosnia.
``I hope this isn't the [Bosnian] Serbs throwing in the towel on [working with] the international community,'' says a UN official close to the peace process. ``As a culture they have a romantic notion about taking on the world.''
Some experts insist that Serb options are strictly limited. They view the recent Serb outbursts and continuing UN airstrike threats as examples of ``tit for tat'' likely to play out within the next week or so.
``It's in everybody's interest to climb back down from this,'' says Patrick Glynn, a defense expert with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. ``That's the general direction I see it going, though I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few more bumps ahead.''
UN credibility is on the line. While Bosnian Serbs say the UN is partial to the Muslim side, Bosnian Muslims say the UN has done too little and often is too late. Yasushi Akashi, UN special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, says that he is reassessing the UN's role in Bosnia and that it would be meaningless for UN troops to stay on if Bosnian Serbs do not cooperate.
Though everyone looks to the UN Security Council for answers in this dicey dilemma, the Council acts and speaks on a consensus basis that has kept most of its recent threats on the Bosnia situation relatively mild and toothless. Both Russia, which has strong ties with the Serbs, and the United States, which is much more sympathetic to the Muslim-led Bosnian government, must agree to Council action or veto it.
In an April 15 statement read by Council President Colin Keating of New Zealand, members called the attacks on the two UN military observers in Gorazde a ``blatant violation'' of Council resolutions. Yet the statement made no mention of Bosnian Serbs or further airstrike threats.
US-Russian cooperation is the key to any peaceful solution in Bosnia, says John Ruggie, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. ``We're not going to solve this thing without the help of the Russians,'' he says. ``I hope and pray that behind the scenes the US has been collaborating with them much more than we give the impression of having done publicly.... They have every capacity to act the role of the spoiler.'' He says that unless the Russians ``are prepared to put the squeeze on the Serbs,'' a very difficult and challenging period may lie ahead.
Russia had the key role in persuading Bosnian Serbs in February to withdraw or place under UN control their heavy weapons around Sarajevo in accord with a NATO ultimatum. But Russian President Boris Yeltsin was furious over not having been consulted in advance on UN-ordered airstrikes this month, and several recent Bosnian Serb moves raise new questions about the extent of Russia's current influence.
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy in the Bosnian peace talks, insisted just a few days before the renewed Bosnian Serb attack on Gorazde that he had a Bosnian Serb commitment to make no further attacks on the city.
By the week's end, Mr. Churkin also said he had Belgrade's approval and a good foundation for an overall cease-fire in Bosnia. Yet even if the Bosnian Serbs agree to a general cease-fire, the Muslim-led government remains concerned that any cease-fire could lead to a consolidation of Bosnian Serb land gains. The government says any valid cease-fire and its own return to the peace talks require a Bosnian Serb withdrawal from Gorazde.
The Yugoslav government in Belgrade, long chafing under UN sanctions, was at first somewhat conciliatory in the recent UN-Bosnian Serb standoff. Yugoslav Ambassador to the UN Dragomir Djokic explained the logic of Serb threats of retaliation against NATO planes by telling reporters, ``There is no army in this world that will not respond if attacked.'' He stressed the need to get on with negotiations, and said the Serb side was still waiting to receive a promised ``concrete proposal'' from US Ambassador Charles Redman.