Crucible of Balkans Peace

Where idealism in this ethnic stew needs help

It's been just over a year since Slobodan Milosevic lost control of Kosovo and almost five years since he lost much of Bosnia. Before that, he lost Slovenia and Croatia.

Today most chunks of the old Yugoslavia are no longer in the hands of the Serbian dictator as he struggles to hold on to power in his diminished country.

So does all this mean that the most unEuropean corner of Europe - with its complex stew of ethnic and religious enclaves - is now any better off?

After Srebrenica

Of all the undesirable aftereffects of the cold war, Mr. Milosevic's ruthless campaign for a Serb-dominated Yugoslavian empire has been the worst.

It's also been the biggest challenge - after Russia - for the United States and Europe as they define their post-Soviet security and humanitarian ideals.

The low point was the 1995 Serb massacre of several thousand Bosnian Muslims near the town of Srebrenica. That tragedy, first unearthed by the Monitor, was the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust. It remains a prime reason to oust Milosevic and to find ways to curb ethnic strife in the region, ideally through better democracy. As much as the Clinton administration tries, it seems further from ending Milosevic's rule.

Report card on each part

The obvious good news is that Slovenia and Croatia are racing to join Europe. But Kosovo, while officially part of Yugoslavia, will remain a wayward ward of the West for the indefinite future.

Not quite a nation, Kosovo is hostage to the hatred between ethnic Albanians and the remaining Serbs as the West tries to plant a multiethnic democracy there.

Montenegro, another piece of Milosevic's "rump" Yugoslavia, is also slowly becoming a ward of the West because the Serb leader is trying to gain more control of that mountain enclave to keep it from splitting off.

The test is Bosnia

The one place that's a major test of building a peaceful, multiethnic region is Bosnia. It has not been in the news much, yet it's very much on the minds of all who hope for long-term peace in the Balkans.

The 1995 Dayton agreement was meant to end the ethnic slaughter in Bosnia, and today there are clear notes of hope. Most important, more of the 2.3 million people displaced by the war are returning to their homes.

Serbs, Muslims mixing

Basing their prediction on current trends, United Nations officials working in Bosnia hope to see around 160,000 returning refugees this year - a big increase over recent years. Most will be Muslims venturing into areas controlled by Serbs when the fighting ended. But more Serbs are also returning to Muslim majority areas, such as the capital Sarajevo.

Since a multiethnic state under the rule of law is the goal of UN and Western efforts in Bosnia, this is encouraging. But it has to be joined by continued international efforts to rebuild the homes of refugees. Funding has started to ebb.

Moreover, intergroup hatreds linger. Muslims who traveled to Srebrenica for the anniversary of the massacre this month were met by jeering, stone-throwing Serbs. But the fact that their commemoration was held in relative peace is noteworthy.

Enduring peace will require a more thorough accounting of what happened in Srebrenica, as well as justice for those still at large who orchestrated the killing.

Also worrisome is the corrupt, crime-ridden nature of governance in much of Bosnia. A report just issued in Washington by the General Accounting Office suggests that future funding for rebuilding Bosnia should hinge on reform.

This report should be taken, in Bosnia and in the West, as a reason to strengthen and deepen the peace effort. But it must be recognized that Bosnia started out, barely five years ago, from utter devastation. Peace-building will take time.

Not letting Bosnia fail

Peace in Bosnia will be a basis for wider peace in Europe's most turbulent and violent region. The development of a multiethnic government there will give hope for Kosovo and other places where the problems could be even more persistent.

As with so many of the world's trouble spots where international peacemaking and keeping is being put to the test, failure and abandonment are simply not an option.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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