SERBIAN President Slobodan Milosevic, who orchestrated the war in former Yugoslavia so that all Serbs could live in one state, is giving the impression he is willing to sacrifice ``Greater Serbia'' to save his country from devastating United Nations economic sanctions.
But the evident U-turn is merely a tactical retreat until a more politically propitious time arrives for him to implement his scheme, his supporters say.
Over the past few months, Serbia's president has pressured the Bosnian Serbs to accept the international peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which would preserve its sovereignty; pushed the Croatian Serbs toward an accommodation with the Croatian government; and, in Serbia, sought to douse the flames of Serbian nationalism that he once so enthusiastically fanned.
At the same time, the big powers, out of ideas on how to bring peace to former Yugoslavia, have responded to signs that Mr. Milosevic has changed his militant tune. They have invested their energies in the Balkan powerbroker, hoping he can deliver the settlement has long eluded them.
In the past, the ``contact group'' - the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany - have sought to encourage him to disavow his nationalist goal by offering to ease the UN's trade embargo, imposed on Belgrade in 1992 for fueling the Bosnian war.
Now, Western diplomats say, the blockade will be lifted if Milosevic works with the international community. So, Milosevic has become increasingly active in trying to resolve both the Bosnian and Croatian conflicts.
Suddenly, it seems the Serbian leader has abandoned all that he stood for. State television, his official mouthpiece, once overflowed with nationalistic rhetoric and applause for rebel Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. All that has now disappeared. Economic progress has become the new Milosevic mantra.
Officials in the president's ruling Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), however, tell another story. They say their chief's frantic backpedaling on the creation of a pan-Serbian state is temporary. Most only admit this privately, but leading SPS ideologue, Mihailo Markovic, discussed the tactic with the Monitor.
``Initially, we believed that all Serbs should live in a single state. When the international community strongly opposed that, we realized we wouldn't be able to reach that goal now,'' Mr. Markovic says. ``A state uniting all Serb lands remains the long-term goal.''
Recent developments in Bosnia and Croatia support the assertion that Greater Serbia, while unlikely in the near future, is quietly being forged, ironically with the tacit backing of the countries which have for so long declared their hostility to the concept.
In Bosnia, the US, desperate to maintain NATO unity, has effectively capitulated to Serb aggression. The Clinton administration has withdrawn its threat to use airstrikes and retracted its opposition to granting the Bosnian Serbs confederal links with Serbia and Montenegro.
Under the modified contact group plan for the partition of Bosnia, the Bosnian Serbs - so long as they agree to the republic being divided more or less equally between them and a Muslim-Croat federation - won't have to pull back from the 70 percent of territory under their control until they're satisfied with the constitutional arrangements and the distribution of land.
The offer has the support of the Serbian leadership. It has also found favor with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who last week expressed his willingness to restart stalled peace talks on the basis of the revised contact group plan. The plan would freeze cease-fire lines and leave Milosevic in effective control of half of Bosnia.
In a further sign of his softening stance toward accepting a settlement, Mr. Karadzic called on former US President Carter to act as intermediary.
Since Karadzic expressed his willingness to negotiate on the basis of this latest contact group plan, relations between Karadzic and Milosevic have eased. Telephone links between the two have been restored, and Bosnian Serb deputies visit Belgrade again.
In Croatia, where Milosevic enjoys far greater influence over his kin, international peace efforts are focusing on reintegrating the Serbs - who occupy almost one-third of the country - into the Croatian fold by offering them a high degree of autonomy. The level of self-rule is such that government officials in Zagreb have accused the plan's sponsors of trying to forge a ``state within a state.''
The Croatian Serbs, who insist on nothing less than full independence for the area they control, are nonetheless resistant to the proposal. Milosevic, on the other hand, has embraced the move and sought to nudge his brethren in Croatia to do the same.
Seeking a division
Under pressure from Belgrade, Croatian Serbs agreed to an economic cooperation deal with Zagreb that could pave the way for a lasting political solution. But given the seething animosities between the two sides, this could take years, Western diplomats say.
The Serbs admit they would procrastinate over the formulation of a final settlement and, in the meantime, consolidate their self-declared state, as the Turkish Cypriots have done in the north of the divided Mediterranean island.
``It is possible that decades will pass, as in Cyprus, in the maintenance of a status quo, until the only democratic method in such cases is applied: a referendum in which citizens will say in which country they want to live,'' Markovic says.
``As for the Serbs, they have definitely decided not to live under Ustashe [a term for World War II Croatian fascists that the Serbs ascribe to the present Croatian authorities] under any circumstances.''
What is emerging, Western analysts say, is a Greater Serbia in all but name.
Milosevic appears to have realized that careful diplomacy, subterfuge and, above all, time are now the key to fulfilling his ambition.