Who Speaks for the Serbs?

September 02, 1995

The answer is Slobodan Milosevic, the ex-Communist boss in Belgrade whose pursuit of a "Greater Serbia" instigated the bloody four-year civil war in neighboring Bosnia. Struggling to hold onto power, his current tactic is appeasement of the Western allies in the hope they will lift harsh U.N. economic sanctions. To that end, Mr. Milosevic abandoned the Krajina Serbs as they were sent packing by Croatian forces in mid-summer. And now, he is pulling the plug on the Bosnian Serbs after supplying them with the arms to slaughter tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

Mr. Milosevic's emergence as the Serbs' predominant player has been hailed as a "breakthrough" by Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, who is trying to turn the NATO air offensive against the Bosnian Serbs into a catalyst for conclusive peace negotiations. The loser is Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who at one time harbored dreams of replacing Mr. Milosevic as the supremo of all the Serbs. He made the mistake last month of trying to fire Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander whose first loyalties are to his weapons supplier, Mr. Milosevic.

Americans need to keep in mind these divisions in Serb ranks (and there are many more) because a Balkan peace will not come out of surgical U.S. air strikes against a puny adversary. It will come primarily through a combination of exhaustion and equilibrium among the combatants.

On the negotiating table is a U.S. ethnic partition plan that would maintain the fiction of a sovereign Bosnian state, albeit one divided by 51 percent to 49 percent between Muslims and Croats on one side and Serbs on the other. The meat in this plan is the requirement that the Serbs would have to give up a big chunk of the 70 percent of Bosnian territory they now hold. The bones, some indigestible, have to do with the precise apportioning of land among ethnic groups embittered by war.

While Mr. Milosevic will be in charge of the Serb peace delegation, Mr. Karadzic may hold him to territorial demands unacceptable to Muslim and Croatian representatives. Thus, the dangers of discord are great indeed, especially as there is no assurance actual fighting will end with the beginning of talks. In such a situation, an accord may have to be imposed from outside. And outside in this case is the United States, which may eventually face the unpleasant task of policing a peace in which one of the belligerents considers this country an enemy.

President Clinton may have checkmated his critics at home by adopting a more aggressive stance in the Balkans, but that part of the world has a history of frustrating would-be interveners.

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