Slogging Ahead in Bosnia

Bosnia is still beset by ethnic hatreds. (Witness the recent expulsion of returning Muslim refugees by Croat gangs in the town of Jajce.) Men indicted for war crimes are still at large. The embers of war still glow in places like Brcko and Mostar.

But this familiar litany is not the whole story. US envoy Richard Holbrooke, recently back from a special mission to shore up the Dayton peace accords he helped author, was at pains to make that point. He ticked off a number of reasons for at least guarded hope:

* The Serbs - in Bosnia and in Belgrade - pledged renewed efforts to keep Radovan Karadzic, accused war criminal and wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, out of political life. Mr. Karadzic's divisive nationalism has been a persistent roadblock to full implementation of Dayton.

* NATO peacekeepers are now publicly committed to disarming the paramilitary police that are particularly numerous in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia. These units are obstacles to refugee return; many of them are under the command of Karadzic.

* Leaders such as the Bosnian Muslims' Alija Izetbegovic and the Croats' Franjo Tudjman have agreed to work together on key issues, i.e. refugee return. Mr. Holbrooke also noted increased cordiality between Mr. Izetbegovic and his Bosnian-Serb partner in Bosnia's three-member presidency, Momcilo Krajisnik.

* Progress has been made on some small, symbolically significant items: a common area code for all telephones in Bosnia and fairly distributing foreign ambassadorships among Bosnia's three communities.

There's nothing rosy about the picture Holbrooke paints. He has himself deplored the near shredding of the peace agreement by broken commitments. Officials on all sides are profiting from smuggling and corruption. And he emphasized that sanctions and tough actions lie ahead if the sides don't stick by their latest pledges - hinting, for instance, that NATO forces may yet snatch Karadzic and bundle him off to The Hague for trial.

More likely, subtler pressures will be used to ensure that Karadzic is at least kept out of public life, as promised. That will be important to the next critical step in the lagging peace process: Bosnia's long postponed municipal elections next month. Plans for those elections were derailed last year by Serb attempts to stack the electorate. The voting could say a lot about how far Bosnia has come - or still has to go - toward being a single, reintegrated country.

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