PRODUCING a peace pact that could end the bitter fighting in Bosnia remains a daunting diplomatic task, despite a new push for negotiations launched by the United States, Russia, and other outsiders involved in the Balkans war.
As past international mediators have found to their frustration, Bosnian peace talks are a zero-sum game centered on territory. Mainly, Bosnian Serbs have taken land by force; Bosnian Muslims want it back. Bosnian Croats are involved as well, and discussions with the parties involved quickly become a battle of maps - maps of battle lines, maps of ethnic distribution, maps of conquests dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Under proposals discussed at previous Geneva sessions, Bosnia's three factions would divide up the country by assigned percentages. Muslims would get 33.3 percent of Bosnian territory, their Croat confederates would receive 17 percent, and Serbs would control 49.6 percent.
But agreement on details - such as whether Muslims will get access to the sea - has proved elusive. And some US analysts claim that both Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government have strong incentives to dig in their heels.
Despite the US diplomatic involvement, ``we have not decided ourselves what a viable peace is,'' says Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.
The Bosnian Serbs, for instance, already control 70 percent of the country. The Muslim government is not militarily strong enough to force the Serbs to cede land, and NATO seems to have no intention of countering Serb strength with ground troops.
Bosnian Serbs may also still have a few spots on the map where they wish to push forward. Muslim government officials fear that guns withdrawn in recent days from Gorazde may find their way to the outskirts of Brcko, in northeastern Bosnia, where Serb forces want to widen a corridor linking Serbia with Serb-held lands to the west.
The Muslims, for their part, see a peace pact that would give them a mere slice of their former land as tantamount to defeat. The Bosnian government might well judge that NATO is gradually being drawn into the war on its side due to continued Serb aggression. So why give up at this point?
``We have given the Bosnian Muslims good reason to believe we are coming down on their side,'' says Professor Steel.
The fate of so-called ``safe haven'' Muslim enclaves is one particularly difficult issue for peace negotiations. The enclaves would be little more than refugee camps without large areas of surrounding countryside; yet, besieging Serbs show no inclination to allow such a patchwork territorial solution.
The strategy of herding Muslims into enclaves could become something similar to the old South African regime's approach of separating blacks in ``homelands,'' claims Daniel Plesch, Washington director of BASIC, a British-American security think tank.
``It would be a new apartheid,'' he says.
Still, the new contact group of US, Russian, United Nations, and European Union officials reportedly hopes to come up with new details on territorial division for Bosnia in two weeks. Diplomats from the group will travel through Bosnia this week in an effort to gauge support for their proposal that Bosnian factions link their land in a loose confederation agreement.
US officials admit that they might have trouble even getting Serbs and Muslims to agree on a formal countrywide cease-fire. Serbs have called for a blanket end to fighting, while Muslims have held out for a cease-fire with a time limit.
The effort is important, however, because ``it is clear there can be no military solution to this long-standing conflict,'' claimed Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Tuesday.