A step along a treacherous road

By persuading the different parties in the Balkan imbroglio to agree upon a few more building blocks for the creation of a constitution for a new Bosnia-Herzegovina yesterday, the United States has managed to sustain the momentum created in the last few weeks towards a lasting peace. As everyone admitted, however, the pitfalls ahead remain numerous and highly dangerous.

Almost as obvious as what has now been agreed, both at yesterday's talks and at the original milestone meeting in Geneva on 8 September, are the issues that remain outstanding. Among the most glaring is a final and precise agreement on the sharing of territory in the future Bosnia. And no effort has yet been made to settle the status of Serb leaders identifed as war criminals.

Nor did yesterday's session broach the one issue that so bothers the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo that it almost refused to turn up for it: nothing is committed to paper yet - and may never be - that can guarantee that what will be the Serb portion of the country, identified in Geneva as the Republika Srpska, might one day break away and join its ethnic brothers in the Yugoslav Republic. "That is our greatest nightmare", one US diplomat admitted.

What is being gradually crafted, under the guidance of US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, is a constitution that will allow the two sides in the Bosnian conflict to lay down their arms and live together in a single country - assuming that they resolve that is what they want to do.

If that is not their determination, then the provisions being set now will prove worthless.

The document stipulates that free elections should be held across Bosnia 30 days after a team of international monitors, probably sent by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), determines that peace has taken root. Citizens would vote in whichever portion of the country they live - the Muslim-Croat federation or the Srpska Republic.

Elections would establish both a parliament and a presidency, presumably with a cabinet of ministers. Significantly, however, two-thirds of both these institutions would be elected from the territory held by the Muslim- Croat federation and only one third from Srpska. This takes account of the current population distribution in the country.

Safeguards were also agreed to ensure that elected representatives from either part of the country cannot monopolise power. Thus all presidency decisions would be taken by majority vote on condition, however, that if one third or more of the members disagreed with a certain decision and declare the issue in question of vital interest to one or the other halves of the country, it would be referred to the parliament of whichever half was dissenting.

Meanwhile, both the parliament and presidency would be responsible for managing the foreign policy of the new state in its totality.

It was also agreed to create a constitutional court with jurisdiction for the whole of the state.

The caveats about yesterday's text almost crowded out any brief sense of celebration. Warning that the document was still nothing more than a "piece of paper", the Bosnian foreign minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, noted that elections would never take place if peace was not first established.

He also underlined the importance of resolving the fate of the two principal Serb leaders already charged as war criminals, the Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and the Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic.

"As long as they are around there is no freedom and no conditions for free elections. Those people are a threat to any peace agreement", Mr Sacirbey said.

In the first Bosnian Serb reaction, the leader, Radovan Karadzic, hailed the agreement as "another step toward peace and a confirmation of the existence of Republika Srpska".