The Bosnia Crisis: Spoils of success: Smoke clears but politics are murky: Truce claimed as a victory by everyone but Muslim government

IF ALL goes to according to plan, Sarajevo will be an artillery-free city this morning. Residents should be able to walk their streets for the first time in almost two years without having to worry about death by mortar bombs; Nato warplanes should be ordered to stand down; UN troops should be scurrying to take up final positions around town and the last big Serbian guns should have been locked away or carted off.

And when the dust kicked up by all this activity settles, almost everyone in the Bosnian quagmire will be claiming victory. One Western observer compared each side's rushed analysis of what is going on in Sarajevo to the story of the six blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and arriving at strikingly different interpretations of the same beast.

Nato will insist that its first concerted and credible threat to blast the Serbs off the hillsides around Sarajevo was the main motivating factor for the pull-out. Proponents of this line argue that without the Nato ultimatum, there would have been no Russian initiative, no Serbian accord.

For his part, the commander of the United Nations forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, can claim that the ceasefire he negotiated 10 days ago provided the framework for the withdrawal and paved the way for the demilitarisation of Sarajevo. The Russians, of course, are already swaggering. Not only has Boris Yeltsin averted the need for Nato air strikes by getting the Serbs to agree to pull back, but he has also reasserted Moscow's role in Eastern Europe and made Russia a key player in the Balkans for the first time since Tito broke with Stalin 46 years ago.

With Russian involvement, Bosnian Serbs can look each other in the eye and convince themselves that they did not capitulate to Western threats; they merely agreed to a request from a traditional ally.

The only ones not sharing in this orgy of self-congratulation are the Bosnians themselves, who look at the withdrawal with foreboding and distrust. In Croatia and Bosnia, the Serbs have consistently exploited UN deployments along truce lines to consolidate their hold on territory or freeze the status quo. With this in mind, Bosnian government officials view the latest withdrawal plan involving the Russians as a first step towards formalising the permanent partition of Sarajevo - a principle 10,000 people have opposed with their lives.

Nato insisted yesterday that air strikes would take place if Serbian artillery was still in place and outside UN control after the deadline tonight. 'We watch and we wait,' Nato sources said yesterday. Co-ordination between the Alliance and the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) is complete, to allow air strikes to go ahead, they said. The aircraft are in place, the largest air armada assembled since the 1991 Gulf war. But the political situation is shifting too fast to make any predictions impossible. Weather conditions are bad and could also complicate ground and air assessments.

The involvement of Russia in the conflict was one element of the strategy mapped out two weeks ago, when Nato put forward its plan for air strikes. The objective was to bring in the US to put pressure on the Bosnian government, and the Russians to exercise their leverage on the Serbs.

The US and Germany were also asked to mediate between the Croats and the Muslims to end the fighting in central Bosnia. Talks took place yesterday in Frankfurt with a senior US official. The next step - if the siege of Sarajevo can be lifted - is to proceed with the same initiative in other places, including Tuzla and Mostar.

But the terms of the Russian troop offer and the statements that strikes must now be taken off the agenda surprised officials, and contributed to a sense of confusion at Nato headquarters. The situation is now tense.

If strikes are put into action, it is understood that they will be attacks against selected positions, each of which has been identified by military missions over the past year. The next step would probably be to extend the approach to other sites, using a mixture of the threat of military force and diplomatic manouevring.

But the Russian presence has injected a new note of political unpredictability. If the Alliance is seen to back down in the face of Russian pressure, it would be terminal for Western credibility. Nato was, after all, set up as an alliance against Moscow, and it was a central objective of decades of policy to prevent Russia from gaining a military foothold in Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian war is raising a new a set of urgent questions about how the West deals with post-Cold War Russia. Nato has been accused of allowing a Russian veto over its enlargement to take in the states of Central and Eastern Europe. Western Europe and America have been attacked for permitting Russia to engage in what it calls 'peace-keeping' activities in former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Azerbaijan. The US and the Alliance are developing a new 'strategic relationship' with Russia, but its terms and conditions are as yet in flux.

The wildcard continues to be the Bosnian Muslims themselves. With the US promising to be more involved in the peace process now, the Bosnians may get a better deal at the negotiating table. However, the Bosnians have passed what a Sarajevo journalist, Tihomir Loza, called the 'point beyond suffering'. They may, he argues, continue to try to determine the degree of their defeat on the battlefield rather than surrender at peace talks.

(Photograph omitted)

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