Bosnia's Serbs vote for 'lesser of two evils'

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The Independent Online
IN THE shadow of foreign military intervention, and to lighten international pressure on Serbia, Bosnian Serbs voted reluctantly yesterday to accept the outlines of an international peace plan for the republic.

After two days of polemics and mutual accusations of treason in a converted factory canteen at Pale, the former ski resort outside Sarajevo which serves as the Bosnian Serbs' makeshift capital, there were fears that a majority of delegates in the Bosnian Serb parliament might turn the plan down and so bring the peace talks in Geneva grinding to a halt.

'In a choice between Alija's (President Izetbegovic's) state and conflict with those who present us with ultimatums, Alija's state is worse,' said Radoslav Brdjanin, a leader of the say-no-to-Geneva faction. 'I propose general mobilisation and the immediate proclamation of a union of Serbian states.'

But a closed session and some tough talking from the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, left delegates chastened and ready to heed a final speech by the assembly chairman, Momcilo Krajisnik. He called the plan 'the lesser of two evils' and the assembly voted 55-15 in favour of acceptance. The nine principles endorsed by the assembly in theory commit Bosnian Serbs to remaining inside a united Bosnian state, where power is devolved to 10 provinces loosely organised on ethnic lines.

There was no jubilation among the delegates over the outcome, widely seen among Bosnian Serbs as a hateful concession to the international community to get the threat of foreign military intervention off their backs.

The delegates listened to the result in dead silence, while the 15 angry 'no' voters each waved three fingers in the air, the traditional Serbian victory sign, to symbolise their defiance.

But the result was no surprise. Mr Karadzic, president of the self- proclaimed Bosnian Serb state, placed all his authority behind accepting the plan, warning of resignation if the delegates did not back him. General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army, lent his all-important support. 'For us, peace is now the priority,' he said after the vote.

A crucial role was played by the leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. He applied strong pressure in favour of the Geneva plan, fearing a 'no' vote in Pale would lead to a new batch of punitive international sanctions against Belgrade. Bosnian Serb leaders sweetened the pill by claiming that the vote did not mean back-tracking on the goal of winning control of 70 per cent of Bosnian territory and seeking eventual unification with Serbia.

Mr Karadzic repeated his fierce opposition to the map presented at Geneva which depicts the boundaries of the 10 proposed provinces and the ethnic groups they belong to. 'The maps are not final because they are not just and they are arbitrarily drawn,' he said.

He reminded the West that endorsing the Geneva plan does not spell the end of the Bosnian Serb state-within-a-state either. 'The Serbian Republic exists and functions and is the only state which is functioning in the former Republic of Bosnia,' he said. 'Mr Izetbegovic has no state.'

The Serb refusal to agree to the Geneva map of Bosnia means there is no end in sight to the bloodshed. Only a firm commitment from the Serbs to return some of the territory they have seized in 10 months of fighting would give Bosnian Muslims an incentive to negotiate.

The two peace negotiators in Geneva, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, have spelt out that the map is not negotiable and must be accepted as part of the package.

Some war-weary local Serbs in Pale seemed more hungry for a peace settlement than the politicians. Most have seen living standards tumble in the war and miss relatives trapped on the other side of the front line. 'We must have peace, we need peace and this plan opens a path to peace,' said Cedo Kovac. A qualified engineer in a local factory, he said his salary had slumped this year to less than pounds 20 a month. 'We must end this war and support our leadership in the talks in Geneva,' added Dragica Simic, a civil servant. 'My daughter is on the other side in Sarajevo, married to a Croat. I have not seen her for 10 months, nor my grandson either.'

(Photograph omitted)