AS Bosnian Serbs prepare to vote tomorrow on the international peace plan they are expected to reject, Belgrade is putting pressure on their notorious military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, to end his people's defiance.
But despite a two-week blockade and an increasingly vitriolic campaign to discredit Bosnian Serb leaders, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has failed to coerce them into reversing their repudiation of the plan and save Serbia from further United Nations sanctions.
``I expect 90 to 95 percent of voters to say no, judging by what I have seen and heard,'' Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said in a pre-referendum television interview. But Mr. Karadzic, while confident his people can weather Belgrade's embargo and having skillfully fended off Mr. Milosevic's scornful jabs, has struggled to hit back at the Serb leader.
Throughout the bitter dispute, General Mladic - the Bosnian Serb military commander who has led the Bosnian Serb conquest of two-thirds of Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past 28 months and whose battlefield exploits have prompted many to view him as a war criminal - has kept silent, fueling speculation here that he is in a dilemma over which side to back in the feud.
The general, a haughty, larger-than-life figure who has dubbed himself the ``Bosnian Napoleon,'' has become something of a recluse since Milosevic fell out with Karadzic. He has not turned up for meetings with UN military commanders, nor, more significantly, attended key sessions of the Bosnian Serb parliament.
``Nobody really knows what he is doing. He has distanced himself from recent events. There have been no signals either way if he'll support Milosevic or Karadzic,'' a Western diplomat says.
Political analysts say that Mladic's loyalty is torn between the protagonists in the inter-Serb tussle. On the one hand, he is allied to Yugoslav Army commanders - his paymasters and ideological mentors - who seem solidly behind Milosevic. On the other, he is resolutely committed to the Bosnian Serbs and, like his political leaders, is opposed to giving up strategic land as demanded by the peace plan.
Mladic's endorsement in the Serbian power struggle, which now appears deadlocked, is a crucial determining factor in its resolution, say sources in Milosevic's ruling Socialist party. ``A change in the policy of the Bosnian Serb leadership is almost exclusively linked to Mladic.''
Political analysts say the Serbian leadership is pressing the general to support it either by urging Karadzic and his accomplices to change their mind on the peace plan or, as a last resort, oust them. Bosnian Serb leaders are looking to him to buttress their stand against Belgrade. ``Both Milosevic and Karadzic need his support and need a signal from him soon. Mladic can't keep silent for much longer,'' a Western diplomat says.
Both factions are well-aware of the general's influence on the Bosnian Serb people. Almost 15 months ago, his intervention in a parliamentary vote on the Vance-Owen peace plan led to the proposal's rejection - a humiliation for Milosevic who attended the session to get deputies to sign.
But with Belgrade's blockade apparently cutting off military assistance, on which the Bosnian Serb army depends, and the prospect of a robust Muslim offensive should the arms embargo be lifted, Mladic cannot afford to be defiant again, observers say. ``Mladic is not as strong as last year, with the Muslims hitting back and the fuel and ammunition blockade by Serbia weakening the Bosnian Serb army,'' commented an independent Belgrade weekly.
Additional pressure on the Bosnian Serb commander to toe Belgrade's line is the Serbian leadership's apparent threat to label him a war criminal, according to observers. So far, he has been spared in unprecedented attacks on Karadzic and his henchmen, accused of brutality, corruption, and treachery. ``They are definitely pressing Mladic to do something,'' a Western diplomat says.
Belgrade's tactic seems to be to create a rift within the Bosnian Serb leadership, which Mladic, once on Milosevic's side, could exploit. But Socialist Party sources believe he won't be won over easily
Meanwhile, Karadzic has sought to head off a Mladic-led putsch by consolidating his power base, purging it of Belgrade faithful, mobilizing support across ``Republika Srpska,'' and tightening his grip on the Bosnian Serb army.
He has also anxiously sought to woo the general. Last week, they scythed wheat together in a clumsy, Karadzic-conceived publicity stunt aimed at demonstrating the general's loyalty. But Mladic once again refused to declare his backing for them.