IN 1991, a year before Bosnian Serbs began systematically killing their neighbors, Radovan Karadzic gave a speech in Sarajevo claiming he would ''burn down'' the city if Bosnia tried to be independent. No one paid much attention. In multiethnic Sarajevo it seemed like the crazy dreams of an offbeat psychologist-politician.
Since then, the obscure Bosnian Serb leader has made Page 1 for three years by making good on his claims. In league with Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, who gave him ideas, media to control public opinion, and the services of the former Yugoslav Army, Mr. Karadzic engineered a genocide in Bosnia -- and seemed to get away with it.
But the wheels of justice are grinding over Karadzic's acts.
This week, International War Crimes Tribunal prosecutor Richard Goldstone formally indicated that Karadzic and Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic will likely be indicted for war crimes.
This is a courageous step by the South African prosecutor who resisted pressure from European states not to complicate an ongoing war by insisting that its leaders and fomentors be held responsible.
Given the war in Bosnia, the tribunal is somewhat symbolic. But it importantly holds up a beacon of systematic factual investigation into behavior and events that Serb leaders, and, sadly, many Western and UN officials, would like to cover with a propaganda smokescreen.
Judge Goldstone's act may make aid delivery tougher for UN personnel. But that is not his fault. It is the cost of avoiding justice in Bosnia. Bosnian Serbs are contemptuous of the West's irresolve.
It is doubtful Karadzic and Co. will ever turn themselves in, if indicted. Still, they would be prisoners at home -- arrested if they travel abroad.
Monitor sources say the most direct evidence of responsibility for murder, rape, and genocide are attributed to General Mladic. But Goldstone has also utilized an important legal device for snaring Karadzic -- ''command responsibility.'' Karadzic has said the crimes were committed by rogue paramilitary troops. Yet with command responsibility he can be indicted for the pattern of decisions about camps and operations.
The larger importance of ''command responsibility'' is that by it, the real architect of the war, and of ''Greater Serbia,'' may be indicted. That is Mr. Milosevic.