Serbs could upset Balkan peace deal: Minorities in Bosnia and Croatia set to resist US plan

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA and Serbia discussed the US peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina yesterday as evidence grew of stiffening resistance to the initiative from leaders of the Serbian communities of Croatia and Bosnia. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's special envoy, said after talks in Belgrade that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia had shown a 'flexible and constructive' attitude towards achieving a Bosnian settlement.

However, the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, who were minorities in both republics before the Yugoslav wars broke out in June 1991, appear less keen on the US plan. They suspect that the ultimate intention of US diplomacy is to prevent the unification of their territories with Serbia and to restore the pre-war borders of Croatia and Bosnia.

Croatia's Serbs, backed by the Serbian-led Yugoslav armed forces, conquered about 30 per cent of Croatia in 1991 and set up a self-styled 'Republic of Serbian Krajina'. Bosnia's Serbs have established a similar republic in the two-thirds of Bosnia under their control. Both groups regard these republics as temporary entities that should merge with Serbia and Montenegro in a single state stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Bulgarian and Romanian borders.

However, the Krajina Foreign Minister, Slobodan Jarcevic, said last week that US diplomats had agreed with President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia that the Krajina Serbs should be reintegrated into a Croatian state. 'I am expecting all- out war between the Republic of Croatia and the Republic of Serbian Krajina,' he said.

So far, the US has said little in public about its ideas for a Krajina settlement. However, it is likely that, in return for Mr Tudjman's abandonment of plans for a Serb- Croat carve-up of Bosnia, Washington will support the restoration of Croatia's unity and propose autonomy for the Krajina Serbs.

The Bosnian Serbs also have reason to fear US motives. Last weekend's Muslim-Croat agreement in Vienna to form a federation in Bosnia made clear that the new political unit would be economically linked with Croatia and have a joint military command. Muslims and Croats can now refocus their efforts on challenging Bosnian Serb gains.

The precise boundaries of the Muslim-Croatian federation have not been mapped out, but President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia has said they should include 60 per cent of the republic's pre-war territory.

But whether the Muslim-Croat federation contains 50 or 60 per cent of pre-war Bosnia is less important to the Bosnian Serbs than whether they are able to form part of a continuous stretch of Serbian- controlled territory from Krajina to Serbia proper. That ambition will be shattered if, as seems probable, the US will not countenance Krajina's separation from Croatia.

The US envoy, Charles Redman, is asking for Russia's help in persuading the Bosnian Serbs to do a deal with the Muslim-Croat federation. Such a deal would involve restoring a loose relationship among Bosnia's Muslims, Croats and Serbs in return for ending the Bosnian Serbs' pariah status in the world and lifting UN sanctions on Serbia.

However, it seems inconceivable that the Bosnian Serbs would accept a settlement that links them to the Muslims and Croats but cuts them off from their Serbian and Krajina Serb brethren and allows the Muslims and Croats to enjoy close ties with Croatia. That would defeat the whole point of almost two years of war. If Russia believes the Serbs have a fair case, then peace in Bosnia is still some way off.

(Photograph omitted)