Bosnian peace deal close - but fragile

This time the agreement is for real, but Tony Barber wonders how long it will last
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The Independent Online
ALREADY THE cynics are asking how long the peace will last. One month? One year? Or - the least pessimistic estimate - one generation?

The road to peace in former Yugoslavia has been strewn with so many obstacles that it stretches the imagination to believe that this time the agreement is for real. Yet it almost certainly is. A settlement of the conflicts that killed up to 200,000 people and deprived several million of their homes is expected to be announced in Ohio late tonight or early in the week, and a formal signing ceremony should take place in Paris in early December.

It is a tribute to the chief United States negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, that his relentless, hard-headed diplomacy seems finally to have persuaded some of the most slippery customers on the international stage to lay down their guns and make compromises that they would once have regarded as betrayals of their nations. No one emerges as a clear-cut winner from the war, although on balance the outcome favours the Croats more than the Serbs or the Bosnian Muslims.

The key element of the peace is that it defines Croatia and Bosnia as independent states in their pre-war borders. In contrast to Serb hopes in June 1991, when the war broke out, there will be no Greater Serbia incorporating Serb-held parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

But while Croatia will be a "nationally pure" state, virtually purged of Serb communities, Bosnia will be divided into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb political unit. Since it is likely that these entities will gravitate to Croatia and Serbia respectively, and since central Bosnian government institutions in Sarajevo will be relatively weak, it is a fair bet that one day the Croats and Serbs will again fall prey to the temptation of carving up Bosnia.

Forty-six years passed between the end of the Yugoslav civil war of the 1940s and the revival of full-scale fighting in 1991. It will be a surprise if in 2041, 46 years from now, there has not been another attempt to change the map of Bosnia by force. The weakness of the settlement is that it places this temptation in the path of Croatia and Serbia. Its strength is that, even though all looked lost for Bosnia in the dark days of 1992 and 1993, the American negotiators have managed to prevent a formal redrawing of borders, something that would have set a terrible precedent for other parts of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The basis for a general peace emerged not in Dayton, Ohio, where Serb, Croat and Muslim-led Bosnian delegations have been closeted at a military base for three weeks, but on the battlefield in Croatia and Bosnia last summer. Until last May, the Serbs controlled 30 per cent of Croatia and 70 per cent of Bosnia and had shown great skill in doing just enough to retain the upper hand in the war without going so far as to provoke large- scale Nato intervention. However, the Serb camp was divided, with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia increasingly reluctant to prop up the secessionist Croatian Serb and Bosnian Serb mini-states by military means. When the Croatian army struck in May and August, recapturing western Slavonia and the Knin Krajina and then pushing deep into western Bosnia, the Serb rebels of Croatia and Bosnia were left high and dry.

Suddenly, the pan-Serb cause was in crisis. More than 150,000 Serbs fled Krajina, resulting in the elimination of a proud, centuries-old Serb civilisation. The Bosnian Serb position, too, was unravelling, as Nato tipped the military balance by a sustained air campaign against Serbian targets in Bosnia.

It was clearly time for Mr Milosevic to step in. This he did, making sure that in Dayton he was negotiating not only for Serbia itself but for the Bosnian Serbs as well. Conveniently, by the time the delegations met at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, the Muslim-led government and the Croats controlled one half of Bosnia and the Serbs the other half. This broadly corresponded to the Western-devised territorial deal that had been on offer since spring 1994. Naturally, each side has had to swallow bitter pills at Dayton. The Bosnian government was determined to regain some presence in eastern Bosnia, the region from which large numbers of Muslims were expelled in 1992 and where the Srebrenica massacre of 6,000 Muslims occurred last July.

The Croats insisted on receiving parts of the Posavina corridor in northern Bosnia. The Serbs, among other demands, wanted a divided Sarajevo, access to the Adriatic Sea and a secure connection linking their possessions in northern and eastern Bosnia.

Perhaps the trickiest issue concerns the Serb and Croat leaders accused of war crimes by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. The US is adamant that it will not send troops to police a settlement, or agree to lift all UN sanctions on Serbia, unless the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, are handed over. Equally, it has warned Croatia to turn in men such as General Tihomir Blaskic, given a job in the Croatian army last week only one day after his indictment. The fate of such men, surely some of the most evil in Europe this century, will give a good idea of how lasting the Ohio peace will be.