A Risky Strategy in Bosnia

The NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia have opted for a version of divide and conquer - cutting Radovan Karadzic off from his sources of power and supporting his rival, Biljana Plavsic, the current president of the Bosnian Serb republic.

But "conquer," in this context, doesn't mean keeping down the Serbs, but building up a peace process that offers the best long-term prospects for all Bosnia's peoples.

Like every turn of events in Bosnia, this latest strategy has ironies and ambiguities. To begin with, it's far from clear just how successful the peacekeepers will be in loosening Mr. Karadzic's grip on power. He still commands the loyalty of many police units and controls much of the republic's sub rosa economy.

Plavsic herself is a study in irony. Though she is currently the West's favorite among the Bosnian Serb hierarchy, she was a Karadzic proteg during the war - no less committed to ethnic separation than he was. She is still, presumably, wedded to the idea of Serb independence. Can she be trusted to support the Dayton peace process, back the return and reintegration of Muslim refugees, cooperate in the arrest of indicted war criminals (starting with Karadzic), and work constructively with Croat and Muslim leaders within Bosnia?

If she's perceived as working too closely with the NATO powers, she risks alienating many of her own people. Already, she is being attacked by Serb nationalists who accuse her of treason for splitting their republic, setting up a second power center in Banja Luka in the north. Karadzic and his coterie are based in the southern town of Pale.

Meanwhile, civic processes like the September countrywide municipal elections and an October vote in the Bosnian Serb republic for parliament (and possibly president) will test NATO control and strategy. There's no guarantee the electoral results will be pleasing to the West.

But the peacekeepers are at least showing new activism. If they are to succeed, their presence probably will need to be extended beyond the scheduled June 1998 pullout of US and other NATO forces.

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