Now comes the hard part: creating a lasting peace

September 02, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- And now for the hard part in Bosnia -- peace talks.

The meeting announced yesterday of Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian leaders next week in Geneva is an opening gambit, which U.S. officials hope will eventually produce a face-to-face summit of the warring factions in Bosnia.

But unless it does lead quickly to further dialogue, the meeting will do nothing to narrow the yawning divides over who should control what territory and hold how much power in Bosnia, the two issues at the heart of the past four years of bloodshed.

Another key question is whether the allied bombing that persuaded the Bosnian Serbs to agree to this opening round of talks will continue to keep the Serbs focused on the pursuit of peace rather than the prosecution of war.

The pause in the airstrikes, to give the Bosnian Serbs time to withdraw heavy weapons from around Sarajevo and diplomacy a chance to work, alarmed many observers.

"That is a terrible mistake," said Warren Zimmermann, U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992. "It conveys the signal that we are not necessarily serious about continuing the military pressure.

"They are very good at reading our resolve. If the Serbs feel that the West is flagging in its resolve to punish them militarily, they will go in [to the talks] with a very tough position."

Some skeptics think the Bosnian Serbs, if the negotiations get started, may just play for time, waiting for Western attention to diminish, allowing them eventually to recoup lost ground by force.

"It will lead to endless wrangling," said a Bosnia expert at a military college, who asked not to be named. "The negotiations will start, and go on and off until the pressure is forgotten and the Serbs are off the hook."

It would not be the first time: witness their withdrawal last year under the threat of allied airstrikes from the U.N.-declared safe area around Sarajevo, only to return when the threat evaporated, enabling them to shell the city's market place Monday, killing 38, wounding more than 100. That was the incident that triggered this week's airstrikes by the U.S.-led alliance.

On the other hand, if the Bosnian Muslims feel that their chances of victory have radically changed after the allied air assault and the Serbian battlefield setbacks in the Krajina at the hands of the Croats last month, they may also may be more demanding at the negotiating table. There is even a Bosnian Muslim faction in Sarajevo that favors pressing for military victory rather than negotiating a peace.

Should the war end in Bosnia, as many as 25,000 U.S. troops may well be sent as peacekeepers. Throughout the conflict, the U.S. has ruled out putting U.S. forces on the ground there, but President Clinton is committed to shouldering part of the U.N. peacekeeping operation once agreement is reached.

The central issue in the talks will be the future map of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A U.S. proposal for the talks endorses the sovereignty of the nation, but gives 51 percent of its territory to the Bosnian Muslim-Croatian federation, and 49 per cent to the Bosnian Serbs, who now control nearly 70 per cent.

All sides have accepted this 51-49 division as a starting point, according to U.S. officials, but that does not mean that they will agree to such a formula.

The settlement blueprint, according to reports from Europe, would shift the territorial borders proposed in earlier peace plans, giving the Bosnians more ground -- and security -- around Sarajevo, and ceding to the Bosnian Serbs the enclaves of Srebrinica and Zepa, which they recently overran.

Peace negotiations will have to overcome explosive territorial conflicts and ethnic passions.

As Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, the chief American negotiator, said yesterday: "Everyone's 51 percent and everyone's 49 percent is different. That's what these negotiations are going to be about." There is also the long-term threat that if Bosnia is divided along ethnic lines, the Bosnian Serbs will move irrevocably toward neighboring Serbia and the Croats would seek some form of ever-closer union with Croatia, isolating the Muslims in a weak central area of Bosnia.

"The territorial map is the key," said former Ambassador Zimmermann. "The announcement [of talks] is a positive development, but it certainly hasn't solved anything yet."

One development that is bolstering hope at the State Department is the agreement of the Bosnian Serbs to let Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, be their lead negotiator. That was a procedural breakthrough, overcoming a 16-month stalemate between Mr. Milosevich and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic over who should speak for the Serbs.

Although widely viewed as more flexible than Dr. Karadzic, Mr. Milosevic, who has attempted to be the regional power broker in the Balkans, is not likely to be a pushover. He has to reassert his authority and credibility in the wake of the recent Serbian setbacks.

"We are going to have to take this one step at a time," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman. "Given the history of the last several hundred years in that region, but particularly the history of the last four years, it really behooves us to be patient, to remain firm and committed to a process that will be quite lengthy and quite complex."

Said Mr. Zimmermann: "The chances for peace have never been better in the whole three years of the Bosnian war than they are now.

"But, as always, whether peace can be delivered will depend more than anything else on American resolve, on whether we are prepared to continue the military action which has, after all, brought the Serbs to the table."

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