Peace Brokers Forget Issues Underlying Balkan War

THE Group of Seven (G-7) countries and Russia labored mightily at their recent summit in Naples, Italy, and brought forth a carrot and a stick.

Whether the stick will frighten or the carrot tempt either side in the Bosnian war should be clearer after yesterday's deadline for agreeing with the group's partition plan. Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation must accept the West's latest peace deal - or else.

``Or else'' threatens a stick for both. For the Serbs it would mean a unilateral lifting of the United Nations' embargo, permitting the Muslims to acquire arms to defend themselves. With their greater manpower already, that could quickly turn the balance in favor of the Muslim-dominated government Army.

The stick for the Muslims is in the Western nudge and wink, that should the Sarajevo government in fact say ``no,'' the UN and European Union will ease sanctions imposed on rump Yugoslavia two years ago.

Already, it is too easily assumed that the plan's collapse must lead to escalation of the conflict. More likely is that all those concerned will accept the almost-equal division of what was once a multicultured, independent European state, but then evade or interpret it as suits their interests.

But does it necessarily mean that the war must spread - to Kosovo and Macedonia - and thus ignite the whole Balkan region as predicted by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and other Western foreign ministers?

Involving the ``savagery'' of the conflict has been a major element in the fog of myth, misinformation, and miscomprehension about Bosnia in which the Western alliance and its international mediators have groped so unavailingly once Bosnia declared its independence in early 1992.

Once the Western powers failed to see the issue in the perspective of the many international conventions about aggression and nonacceptance of territorial and border changes effected by force, the real issue of Bosnia was lost.

For more than a year, the distinction was rarely made between Bosnia's legitimate government's right to defend itself, and the aggressor, ``Greater Serbia,'' the self-styled Serbian state in Bosnia. Instead, it became just a ``civil war'' of ``warring factions or sides,'' with the words ``aggressor'' or ``victim'' no longer spoken.

The Sarajevo government was even chided as though it were primarily responsible for prolonging the war and rejecting ``peace,'' leaving the Serbs in possession of most of the territory ravaged and seized when they overran Bosnia in the first months of their attack.

``Ethnic cleansing,'' which drove 2 million Muslims from their homes, towns, and villages and destroyed their culture - as deliberate policy - is never now in the international public eye.

It is difficult to see how carving Bosnia into two virtually equal halves can serve either international or local considerations.

The plan requires the Serbs to give up about a third of the Bosnian territory they presently control. But any idea of their voluntarily surrendering their spoils of war is quite unthinkable.

Evidence is growing that Serbia - for acute economic reasons - needs increasingly to get sanctions eased. To achieve this, it will go through the motions of accepting the Naples plan and, as before, leave the specifics blurred for an uncertain future.

The plan gives back to the Muslims only part of their lost territory. What then for what was initially a precondition - but no longer is - the reversal of ``ethnic cleansing'' and the promised return to their homes of the refugees?

Will a threat of UN withdrawal be much of a deterrent in either camp? The record thus far of international credibility over Bosnia does not suggest that can be a serious factor.

Momentarily, everyone would seem to have an interest in showing ``positive'' to the Naples ``test,'' until the Western plan shows itself to be unworkable in practice.

The war will remain unfinished. But that need not mean some automatic spread. The Serbs may simulate a miniature ``nerve war'' on Macedonia's northern border, but in Skopje, the economic damage of Greece's trade blockade is taken much more seriously than thought of Serb invasion.

And then? There seems but one option: for the UN to try again, not with the crudities of stick and carrot, but with the basics of international law and more realistic and consequent appraisals, sticking closer to principle.

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