Bosnia's 'Moment of Hope'

March 21, 1994

The Americans have delivered the Croats and the Muslims. Can the Russians now deliver the Serbs? This, put crudely, is where the Bosnian peace process stands at its most promising juncture since three-way civil war broke out in the former Yugoslavia two years ago. It is, as President Clinton said at the signing of U.S.-brokered agreements, "a moment of hope" that should not be lost.

Despite the U.S. preoccupation with its own diplomacy, which produced a new constitution for Bosnia and its confederation with Croatia, success now really hinges on the Russians. Moscow has been putting pressure on both the Bosnian Serbs and the government of Serbia since it intervened last month to help NATO lift the siege of Sarajevo. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's special envoy, went to Washington after discussions in Belgrade -- and he is the man to watch.

Ugly wars produce ugly solutions, and this is no exception. While the White House agreements were marvels of constitutional drafting, there was no map to go along with them. Why? Because the conquering Serbs now occupy 70 percent of Bosnia and there can be no peace until they split the country about 50-50, a solution that would still leave thousands of Muslims embittered by their losses and Bosnian Serbs in a position to federate their territory loosely with mother Serbia.

What is remarkable about the present situation is that the U.S. and Russia, though operating quite independently of one another, have been nudging their clients toward fairly compatible accommodations. The Americans got the Muslims and the Croats to shut down their year-long war so they could concentrate on building a viable state and dealing with their common enemy, the Serbs. The Russians, in turn, induced the Serbs to withdraw their guns from Sarajevo, a step now augmented by a new Muslim-Serb agreement to open a highway connecting Sarajevo with the outside world.

These maneuvers have aroused suspicions, especially among Muslims, that the Russians were in the game to re-establish their traditional sphere of influence in the Balkans and to protect the interests of their Slav brothers, the Serbs, in facing off against a Muslim-Croat combine backed by the Americans. There is a lot of substance in this conjecture. But it need not be viewed only with dark suspicion. With Russia now signaling its intention to join NATO's "Partnership for Peace" and the Yeltsin government rebuffing its ultra-nationalist foes by making overtures to Washington, it could be that Bosnia will be a laboratory for cooperative big-power peace-enforcement.

This, though, is the stuff of diplomacy. The stuff of humanity still lies in the smoldering ruins and intense hatreds of battered Bosnia. Much healing over a very long period will be required if the current lull in fighting is to turn into an uneasy and fragile peace.

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