Russia Plays Its Card

February 24, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--It is not a bad thing that Russia has ''returned'' to the Balkans, by way of its intervention in the Sarajevo siege. The intervention has been a constructive one and has opened the way to a possible lifting of the sieges of Tuzla, Mostar and other Bosnian cities, and perhaps even to an eventual armistice or provisional settlement of the war.

The Russians in any case were never excluded from the Balkans. They have been and will always be there by virtue of Russia's religious and cultural connections with Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Greece, and because of its historical role in bringing about recognition of the national autonomy of all these peoples in the early 19th century.

Until now, in the Yugoslav crisis, the threat of overt Russian support for Serbia, and possible use of the U.N. veto to countermand Western initiatives, has blocked a certain kind of thinking about Balkan solutions. The Russians now have committed themselves to cooperation at Sarajevo, and they have profited considerably from doing so. They have much to gain by continuing on the cooperative course.

Boris Yeltsin's spokesman said Monday that ''without firing TC shot, without threatening anyone or endangering one of its soldiers, without even spending a single ruble, Russia has obtained a very important victory for its standing in the world.'' This is a heady claim, but true.

But the Russians have now assumed a responsibility they cannot easily shed. They say that military ultimatums are not the way to solve the Yugoslav crisis. The Western powers now can insist that Moscow produce results by better methods. In short, their presence is an asset, if the Western governments are astute enough to make use of them.

The Serbs, in their collective paranoia, need Russian reassurances in order to make concessions. Threat alone might have made the Serbs retire their heavy weapons from Sarajevo last Sunday midnight; but it is also possible that, in their conviction that they possess the power to bring a third world war down upon their enemies, they would have defied NATO, the consequences of which we are better off without. Russia's intervention spared everyone that.

In a letter to Western leaders last weekend, Mr. Yeltsin warned against carrying out the NATO ultimatum. But in another, simultaneous letter to Belgrade, he ''demanded'' that the Serbs yield. Russia's historical position and influence is what made it possible for the Serbs to interpret their Russian-enforced retreat from Sarajevo as a great victory. It is a good thing when those who retreat can be convinced that theirs is a victory.

The Bosnians, of course, would like to see the Serb withdrawal as a victory for Bosnia. The endurance in hardship and suffering of Sarajevo's people is what finally forced Americans, French and the other more interventionist Europeans, finally to threaten (effectively) to enter the war on Sarajevo's side, with the U.S. threatening open support for Bosnia. That, at last, had an effect.

The people of Sarajevo now wonder if the U.N. will become their new jailer, with the city, as well as their country, parceled up into ethnic enclaves. They fear that the principle of secular, non-ethnic society, for which they have been fighting, may finally be ended -- by the international community itself.

It is quite possible that this will happen. The international community from the start has been incapable of getting out of its collective mind the idea that ethnic self-determination, on the 1918 Wilsonian model -- which is the Serbian and Croatian model today -- is the solution for Balkan and Eastern Europe. In fact, it is the model everyone should have been struggling against.

The last resource of the Sarajevans is irony. The shooting is halted, but the truce also threatens to become a new version of the old war. One young woman is quoted by a French reporter as asking if the people of Sarajevo ''are not guinea pigs in a cage, on whom Serbs, U.N., NATO -- the whole world -- conducts its experiments in international politics. Your governments should be content now. You have invented war without guns, invisible war.''

The Bosnian president's special counselor, Kemal Muftic, remarks that the U.N.'s ineffectual resolutions on the crisis in the past at least distinguished between aggressors and victims. In what is happening now, the U.N. seems to be treating everyone as if they were the same. In that case, Bosnia has lost both the visible and invisible wars, and Sarajevo should have surrendered two years ago.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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