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Bosnia Crisis: Old dreams that fuel the war lust

AS General Ratko Mladic trains his cannons on Gorazde, the world again wonders what strategic target the Serbs are after this time. Is it a road, a factory, one of the famous 'corridors'? One inventive analyst even finds the reason in the recent suicide of General Mladic's daughter.

The general is not attacking Gorazde to avenge his dead daughter, and is not after a corridor. He is methodically carrying out plans of territorial expansion that most Serbs have believed in for centuries.

We wonder why he is cruel to Bosnian Muslims; most Serbs do not see it that way. Like any other Serb, Ratko Mladic, the peasant lad from the Bosnian village of Kalinovnik, knows his 19th-century poet, Njegos.

The Mountain Wreath, greatest of the Njegos epics, is as familiar to Serbs as Romeo and Juliet is to us. The theme is not love, but war. The poem is a dialogue. On one side are Orthodox Serbs from the Montenegrin hills; on the other, Muslims from the town of Podgorica, descendants of converts to Islam when the Ottomans came to the Balkans.

The Serbs offer the Muslims a stark choice: convert or die. The Muslims wriggle, plead for tolerance, ask plaintively why the crescent and the cross cannot live together. Njegos did not take their side; nor do most Serbs today. It is important to know that The Mountain Wreath is not an allegory. It is real history from late 18th-century Montenegro. And Podgorica's Muslims were almost all killed.

Western analysts should read Njegos when they ponder Serbian motives in Bosnia; clues stare out from the pages of these Serbian poetry and history books. The Serbs are after a reconqista of all Bosnia and Croatia from Muslim and Catholic 'bad Serbs', who long ago, they believe changed their faith and betrayed their Serbian Slav identity.

Today, the Muslims of Gorazde face the same choice as their Podgorica co-religionists: surrender or die. Most Serbs are surprised that the world is interfering; the struggle has been going on for centuries, ever since the power of the Ottomans began to wane.

Belgrade, Uzice and most other towns in Serbia were once Muslim towns, encircled by hostile Christian villages. Prints of Belgrade's skyline in the 18th century show a forest of minarets. Today, one remains.

Most towns in eastern Bosnia took on their Muslim character only in the mid-19th century, as they filled up with Muslims fleeing 'ethnic cleansing' in Serbia. When Srebrenica was besieged by the Serbs last year, there were families who still recalled their origins in Uzice when it was a Muslim town.

The belief that all of Bosnia and Croatia belongs to Serbia is not a dotty notion held by extremists, as diplomats would have us believe. Every school textbook in Serbia printed before the First World War proclaimed this as a fact.

'In Croatia there are Germans and in Macedonia some Turks, but in each of these lands the greatest number of inhabitants is Serbian, which is why they are called Serbian lands,' one Serbian turn-of- the-century geography primer says. It dismissed those who did not realise they were Serbs. 'In Zagreb there live Serbs who still call themselves Croats.'

Serbs this century have grown up believing that their country is 'the Piedmont of the Balkans' - with a manifest destiny, like that of Garibaldi's Piedmont, to unite the rest of the pensinsula behind them. The idea was set out openly in the influential Nacertanije (draft) in 1844 by Serbia's Foreign Minister, Ilija Garasanin, written for the benefit of the prince of the newly independent Serbian state.

Garasanin proclaimed the need to restore the borders of the medieval empire of the Serbian Tsar, Dusan, by annexing Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, most of Croatia and northern Albania. He knew this plan would arouse fierce opposition from Austria, but said it was realisable with support from France and Britain.

Most new Balkan states then had similiar schemes. The Greeks espoused the 'Great Idea' to win Constantinople and Asia Minor. The Bulgarians thirsted for Macedonia, the Romanians for Transylvania. The difference today is that these nations have either achieved their goals, like Romania, or given up, like the Greeks and the Bulgarians. The Serbs have not. For most, the dream of Serbia irredenta retains its old potency.

The Serbs did not plan and carry out a war to annex large parts of Croatia only to surrender parts of Bosnia - the borders of such a state would be undefendable. Nor have the Serbian leaders proposed what the borders of Croatia and Bosnia should be, because the Serbs - not just General Mladic - do not accept the existence of a seperate Croatia or Bosnia.

Lord Owen and the other international mediators do not want to face up to this. They want to present General Mladic as a loose cannon, out of touch with Belgrade. They have to believe this, or their mediation in Bosnia - all those maps, percentages for Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and would-be federal constitutions - would look like a waste of time.

(Photograph and map omitted)