West's inaction caused by uncertain aims: Division and confusion over post-war plans for Balkans - Germans fear that lessons of the Holocaust have not been learnt

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MORE than two and a half years into the Yugoslav wars, Western governments remain uncertain about what political and territorial arrangements should shape the post-war Balkan landscape. The confusion is leading some Western politicians to caution that air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets around Sarajevo will serve little purpose and may even make matters worse, as long as the West lacks a vision for the area.

'The question is, what will the political effect be? Not, can we bomb some facilities and destroy some facilities and kill some people?' said the US Defense Secretary, William Perry. 'If air strikes are Act One of a new melodrama, what is Act Two? What is Act Three? What is the conclusion?'

Sweden's Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, said that, Western air strikes or not, the Bosnian war would not end unless Serbs, Croats and Muslims were kept at the negotiating table. 'Without an agreement between the three sides, the horrible war will never be resolved.'

During 22 months of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Western policy has changed several times in response to events on the battlefield and because of disputes between the major Western countries. The initial approach was to insist that Bosnia was an indivisible country whose right to independence was grounded in a referendum approved by Muslims and Croats but boycotted by Serbs.

By January 1993, this policy had evolved into the Vance-Owen plan, which envisaged reorganising Bosnia into 10 autonomous regions. Each nationality was to have received three provinces, while Sarajevo was to have had a special status. This plan fell apart last May, and Western countries floated the idea of defining and protecting six Muslim 'safe areas' in Bosnia.

Under Serbian and Croatian pressure, the Western-sponsored peace talks in Geneva began to focus on splitting Bosnia into three ethnic units, with the Serbs taking about half the republic, the Muslims one- third and the Croats the rest. Although Bosnia was nominally to remain a single state, it was clear that in reality the Serbian and Croatian portions would seek to merge with Serbia and Croatia respectively.

That raised questions, unanswered in the main Western capitals, about what sort of international guarantees might be necessary, and who might provide them, for a future rump Muslim republic. A tripartite division of Bosnia along national lines would in any case require mass transfers of civilians, for the republic still contains numerous mixed communities despite almost two years of killings and forced expulsions.

The West has never thrown its full weight behind the partition of Bosnia. While Lord Owen, the European Union's representative, has tried to persuade the Muslims that the three-way split is in their best interests, the United States and Germany argue that the Muslims should not be pressed to accept an unjust settlement.

It is therefore unclear whether air strikes would be carried out in the name of partitioning Bosnia or in the name of preserving it as a united state. Some Western leaders express the view that air strikes may at least convince the combatants of the West's determination to end the war, but others argue that the use of force will make the Bosnian Serbs less willing to accept a settlement while encouraging the Muslims to fight on. In any event, it is unclear how an attack on Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo would halt the Muslim-Croat war in central and southern Bosnia.

The most consistent aspects of Western policy in Bosnia have been the deployment of United Nations peace-keeping troops and the provision of humanitarian aid. But as Bill Clinton pointed out, countries such as Britain, Canada, France and Spain with troops on the ground have a different perspective on the war to that of countries such as the US and Germany, which have no troops there.

If the West is divided over what sort of Bosnia it wishes to emerge from the war, this is partly because the conflict is intimately linked to disputes and tensions in Croatia, Serbia and former Yugoslav Macedonia. About 30 per cent of Croatia remains under Serbian control as a result of a war in 1991, and the Croatian Serbs are keen to unite their region with Serbia and Bosnian Serb territory.

The West stands officially for the restoration of Croatia's unity, but in practice has allowed the Serbs to consolidate their gains over the last two years. Croatia has repeatedly warned that it may order UN peace- keepers to leave its soil so that it can recapture its lost land. This threat could loom larger if Western countries decided it was time to impose sanctions on Croatia for its intervention in the Bosnian war.

The West appears to have adopted a firm line on the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, warning the Belgrade government not to unleash violence against the ethnic Albanian population there and advising the Albanians against secession from Serbia. But moderate Albanian leaders are gradually losing influence in Kosovo, while tensions are rising between their compatriots in Macedonia and that republic's Slav rulers.

Serbia's leaders have refrained from ordering a complete crackdown on the Kosovo Albanians, but they would draw the line at any attempt at the unification of all Albanian communities in the southern Balkans. The lesson drawn by many Serbs and Albanians alike from the West's vacillation in Bosnia, and from its readiness to countenance de facto border changes there and in Croatia, is that ultimately it is bullets and brute force that will decide matters in the Balkans.

Leading article, page 15

Death in Mostar, page 19

(Photograph omitted)