Croatia's Offensive

THE Croatian military advances of the past few days have reshaped, yet again, the Balkan political landscape. The chances of continuing, and maybe intensified, warfare remain. But new prospects for settlement have opened, too, and they should be vigorously pursued.

Of primary importance, the Croat victories demolish the myth of Serb military invincibility. Rebel Serb forces faced their first tough test against a well-equipped, highly motivated opponent, and they crumbled. And this occurred in the context of renewed threats of airstrikes and a loosening arms embargo.

This should spark some rethinking among the men in Pale, the Bosnia Serb headquarters, and in Belgrade. That could take time, however, since the Bosnian Serbs are in the midst of a leadership duel between Radovan Karadzic and his military chief, Ratko Mladic. But with pressures from the international community, and more pointedly from Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, the negotiation option could reopen.

Pressure has to be applied by the United States and Europe to Croatia's Franjo Tudjman as well. He may be tempted to keep his tanks rolling toward the Serbian enclave in eastern Croatia, and possibly into Bosnia. The danger in the east is drawing in the army of Serbia proper and greatly deepening the war. The danger with regard to Bosnia is Mr. Tudjman's readiness, openly stated in the past, to carve up his neighboring state.

Croatia's push to reclaim its own borders is sanctioned by international norms, and Zagreb - as well as Croatian militias holding parts of Herzegovina - should adhere to the same standard regarding the borders of Bosnia.

Croatia's gains have generated massive flows of Serbs into northern Bosnia. There have been reports of Croatian cruelty toward Serb civilians and prisoners. The cycle of atrocity and revenge has to be broken. A start in that direction would be strong international efforts to hold the Croats to their promise of humane treatment for any Serbs who remain in their ancestral homes in the Krajina and other land reclaimed during the current offensive.

The human tragedy in the Balkans is the persistent uprooting, persecution, and destruction of families by nationalist passions. The Serbs, whose leaders scripted this tragedy, are now feeling its brunt. It has to be hoped that all sides are nearing the realization that the gains on the battlefield are marginalized by the suffering wrought, and that a negotiated settlement has to be attempted.

While it opens possibilities, the Croat military momentum has to be kept within bounds.

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