Divided Balkan leaders turn up for peace talks

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The Independent Online
ALL the republican leaders from former Yugoslavia, including Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader, have turned up for the three-day peace conference that opens at the Queen Elizabeth II centre, in Westminster, today.

The meeting will be jointly chaired by John Major, the Prime Minister, and Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the United Nations Secretary-General. Many foreign ministers will attend, from Albania and Bulgaria to Japan and the United States.

The conference is on a different scale from anything before over Yugoslavia. That does not mean that it will be any more successful than previous meetings, which led to the resignation of Lord Carrington as chairman of the European Community-sponsored peace conference yesterday.

The London conference is also intended to set up new structures, including a standing committee in Geneva, to try to keep the peace process moving. The repetitiveness of the EC-sponsored talks had sometimes become wearisome. A few protagonists would stay in an expensive hotel for a few days, make pious declarations, and then start killing each other again. This week's conference is aimed at finally trying to pin down the participants in the conflict.

The search for a lasting solution can be a thankless task, as Lord Carrington always said. After opening speeches by Mr Boutros- Ghali and Mr Major today, the conference will move into a closed plenary session, in which Serbia can be expected to defend itself vigorously. Even finding a common agenda will be an enormous challenge.

A theoretically workable solution might be as follows. Each of the former Yugoslav republics would accept everyone else's borders, on the basis that each time you question borders, someone will question yours - everybody has a good historical claim on every patch of territory, in this corner of the Balkans; each republic would give full guarantees to its minorities, on the same basis of self-interest, and each party that has gained territory by force in the past year would relinquish all rights to that territory, in return for the above guarantees, in order not to create new sources of resentment.

The Serbs would apologise publicly for the atrocities and aggression of the past year. The Croats and the Bosnians would accept the apology, and, in return, the Croats would apologise for the crimes committed against Serbs by a Nazi puppet state in Croatia 50 years ago.

Each side would then attempt to rebuild. Eventually, as scars begin to heal, and trade begins to increase, there could be co-operation between the different republics, and links could strengthen. This could only happen slowly even in the most Utopian vision.

But even to get that far seems to need a miracle. The war of the past year has created such violent bitterness and resentment that it is almost impossible to imagine how co-operation between Serbs and Croats, or between Serbs and Muslims, could be regained.

Many Serbs believe that they have nothing for which to apologise. They speak of the crimes of the Second World War as though that were an end of the matter.

Croats have been so embittered by the killings of recent months that they show less inclination than ever to apologise for Croatia's past crimes. In eastern Croatia, the Serbs believe that they are the natural rulers after the UN has gone and Croats believe that the region must return to them. 'Ethnic cleansing', the murder and deportation of Muslims, should never have been allowed to happen. But it is difficult simply to reverse, so the interlocking conflicts are as bitter as ever.

Meanwhile, it is possible that the West will yet again ignore the importance of what is yet to come. First, Slovenia was rebuffed and tanks were deployed in June 1991. Then, Croatia was rebuffed until the full-blown slaughter started in autumn 1991. At the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992, Bosnia was told that the West was too busy with Croatia to think about Bosnia.

Now, it is the turn of Kosovo, the Albanian-majority Serbian province, to bang at the door, worried that the Kosovars' turn will come next. Already, there is repression in Kosovo where there have been several uprisings against Serbian rule in recent years.

Any explosion in Kosovo would no doubt be suppressed with great bloodshed. Yet Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary, on his recent visit to Yugoslavia, did not visit the province. He is vague on his reasons, telling the Independent: 'Peter Carrington was planning to go there in the next day or so.'

But the point of Mr Hurd's visit to former Yugoslavia was, as he said at the time, to see things for himself. His failure to go to Kosovo was an extraordinary omission. On Macedonia, too, there seems to be a near-determination not to address the growing difficulties. Like Bosnia, Macedonia sought international recognition only as a way to break away from the nationalist domination from Belgrade.

It was proclaimed to have fulfilled all the conditions of independence that were set by the Community. But independence was blocked by Greece which was determined that Macedonia must change its name. Greece believes that it has a kind of geographical copyright on the name, and wants Macedonia to be called Skopje, after the republic's capital. Macedonia has changed its constitution, to emphasise its lack of territorial ambitions, but to no avail.

At the Community summit in Lisbon in July, Greece prevailed despite previous European promises to the contrary. Macedonia was told that, to be recognised, it must change its name. That defeat for the Macedonian cause, and the ensuing bitterness, helped to strengthen the radical nationalists, against Kiro Gligorov, the moderate Macedonian president.

The rejection of Macedonia seems likely to cause yet more instability. But, again, until the trouble starts, it will no doubt be ignored. Mr Hurd said: 'I don't think it will feature very largely (at the conference) because nobody except President Gligorov is anxious to press this particular point.'

The failure to address Kosovo and Macedonia, two of the most obvious flashpoints, may not be seen by historians in a favourable light. Meanwhile, if all the participants in the conference are still in their seats when the session ends on Friday, perhaps that itself should be seen as a small success.

(Photograph omitted)