GIVEN the Bihac safe-area debacle, it has been a week to forget for multilateral organizations on the Continent.
If left unmended, the cracks that have appeared could cripple NATO and possibly foster a new version of the cold war.
``It is one minute to 12,'' German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said at a news conference Wednesday. ``What has happened in Bihac is really the last warning.''
But the tragedy in Bosnia is diverting attention from an even larger question: What is Russia's role in Europe?
Both NATO and the European Union are working on blueprints to admit the once-Communist nations of Central Europe. But this could isolate Russia, drawing new battle lines in Europe.
The Russia-Central Europe question will be addressed at two important summits next week: the gathering of the 53-member Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from Dec. 5 to 6 in Budapest; and the EU summit in Essen, Germany, from Dec. 9 to 10.
Moscow sees the CSCE summit as more important. Unlike NATO and the EU, the CSCE includes Russia and all the former Soviet republics. The United States, Canada, and most European states are also members. Both President Clinton and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin are to appear in Budapest.
Participants in principle want to bolster the weak CSCE, hoping the network can contain European instability where the UN and NATO have faltered, especially in the Balkans and former Soviet republics. But the main players - the US and Russia - remain far apart on tactics, casting doubt on the effort to raise the CSCE's profile.
``The CSCE is something more akin to the United Nations than NATO,'' said Andrew Duncan of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. ``The UN is a talking shop. The CSCE is exactly the same.''
Russia would like to see the CSCE supplant NATO as the main guarantor of stability in Europe. It has proposed creating a CSCE Security Council along UN lines, consisting of permanent and rotating members. Presumably Russia would become a permanent council member and potentially have veto power over what could be purely Western European matters. Meanwhile, Moscow wants CSCE approval for the Russian Army to act as the policeman of all the former Soviet states.
The US opposes the notion of a CSCE Security Council and refuses to recognize publicly Russia's claim to a sphere of influence. And while Washington would go along with a limited upgrading of the CSCE's status, it would do so only if Central Europe could join NATO more quickly.
On Wednesday, the alliance offered Russia a comprehensive cooperation deal designed to dispel Moscow's suspicions about NATO's intentions. So far, Russia has adamantly opposed NATO expansion.
As for the EU, leaders say Norway's rejection of membership Monday won't affect discussions on Central European expansion set for the Essen summit.
The CSCE and EU talks could become less complicated if the major powers can find common ground on the Bosnian imbroglio. NATO and the so-called contact group that is trying to broker a Balkan peace deal - made up of the US, Russia, Britain, Germany, and France - have been meeting yesterday and today.
Washington now seems willing to go along with Europe's desire to reward Bosnian Serbs if they agree to stop fighting. One proposal would allow Bosnian-Serb controlled area to unite formally with Serbia proper, essentially forming a ``Greater Serbia.''
But European observers say agreements may be difficult to implement, chiefly because of neo-cold-war attitudes among new Republican leaders of the US Congress. During the Bihac crisis, Republican leader Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas has condemned France and Britain, and indirectly Russia, for supposedly favoring appeasement of the Serbs.
``We may well see some sort of agreement in the coming days,'' said Mr. Duncan, ``but the US Congress isn't being represented. And whatever is agreed to will doubtless face attack.''
``A main problem is that the US still tends to regard Russia as a bogyman,'' Duncan added.
But Russia isn't doing much to change US perception. On Nov. 23, for example, President Yeltsin traveled to Russia's border with Estonia, essentially to intimidate the Baltic state into dropping a territorial claim.
Russia has lambasted recent US actions, particularly Washington's decision to stop enforcing a Bosnian arms embargo. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has characterized the Republicans' foreign policy positions as ``legal nihilism,'' warning that if they prevail, Europe could become engulfed in ``chaos.''