Wandering into a Balkan blunderland: Tony Barber, East Europe Editor, explains how the West's catalogue of errors has turned a crisis into a tragedy

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FIRST it was support for a united Yugoslavia. Then it was support for an independent Bosnia. Now it is support for 'safe areas' for Muslims. It may be a treacherous part of the world for diplomacy and reason, but by any standards the West's Balkan policy looks feeble.

In fact, the term 'safe areas' strikes Bosnia's Muslims as something of a bad joke. These are scraps of land where amputees hobble along streets and women sell their bodies for a single cigarette. Cemeteries are full, and schools are closed. It is a miracle if a tram runs, a fire is put out or refuse is collected. Electricity and water services are almost non-existent. Somehow, hospitals manage to treat people day and night, while shells fall and medical supplies diminish. And everywhere there are refugees, refugees and more refugees.

The latest Western and Russian plan, unveiled last weekend, envisages six 'safe areas' in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde in the east; Bihac in the north-west, Sarajevo in the centre and Tuzla in the north. In Srebrenica and Zepa, normal life has collapsed. Gorazde and Bihac, under Serbian siege, are being remorselessly squeezed to death. Sarajevo, the emblem of multinational Bosnia, is a pitiful shadow of its elegant self.

And what of Tuzla, the largest Muslim enclave? In 14 months of war, the city of Tuzla has turned into the Muslims' main stronghold. Yet if this is a 'safe area', one can only imagine what a danger zone would look like.

It is home to 132,000 residents and 60,000 refugees. Local coal, salt, chemical and cement industries are all but dead. Fighting has cut Tuzla's supply routes to the north and south, and shelling has shut the airport. Fuel sells for 15 marks (pounds 6) a litre on the black market. Many people dream of getting hold of even one mark. To feed the population, Tuzla's authorities are counting on a good potato harvest in August. There are acute shortages of antibiotics and anaesthetics at the hospital.

Small wonder that Bosnian representatives in Britain have termed the Western and Russian plan an expensive farce. 'The idea of 'safe areas' is in practice a euphemism for 'ghettos' or 'concentration camps' for the refugees who, even if everything is ideally organised, will be helped to do no more than some needlework and woodcutting, and to tend little vegetable plots,' they said. 'Nothing could be further from what is wanted and needed by Bosnia-Herzegovina, a state which is no less a member of the UN than those who are pursuing this shameful policy.'

Western leaders have not even tried to pretend the 'safe areas' plan is an ideal solution for Bosnia. They defend it as the least objectionable option. Other courses of action, such as Western military intervention, arming the Muslims, or sealing off Serbia and Croatia from their client states in Bosnia, are just not available, they say.

Yet as these leaders address their parliaments and publics, one can almost hear their consciences protesting that this initiative covers an ignominious Western retreat. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who has portrayed each convulsive turn in Western policy as an intelligent manoeuvre, said last Wednesday: 'We must be active in doing all we can to stop the fighting, to prevent it from spreading and to sustain concerted pressure on the parties to reach a settlement.'

But the Muslims, secular Europeans with a stronger sense of cultural tolerance than many of their neighbours, fear the 'safe areas' plan will condemn them to a Palestinian-style existence.

Worse, it sends completely the wrong message to others in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union, who may feel tempted to redraw borders and abolish the delicate patterns of mixed ethnic communities.

HOW COULD the West have got itself into such a mess? If one day sums up the confusion surrounding Western policies, many would choose Friday 21 June 1991. On that day James Baker, then US Secretary of State, flew into Belgrade and said the United States and its European allies believed that Yugoslavia - that is, the area now known as 'the former Yugoslavia' - should remain a single state.

Posing for photographs next to him was the Yugoslav Prime Minister, Ante Markovic. He greeted Mr Baker with the words: 'You know just the right time to make just the right move.' With war only five days away, this must rate as one of history's most bitter examples of unconscious irony.

On 25 June, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. On 26 June, clashes broke out between the Slovenes and the Serbian-led Yugoslav armed forces. By July, a full-scale Serb-Croat war was raging, and Yugoslavia was breaking up. Mr Baker already seemed like a schoolteacher admonishing an empty class.

It was not as if Yugoslavia's disintegration had come as a surprise. In November 1990, a US intelligence report produced under the auspices of the CIA, was leaked to the press. It predicted civil war and the collapse of Yugoslavia within 18 months.

US and European policy-makers were deaf to such warnings. They were preoccupied with German unification, the Soviet crisis and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When Yugoslavia finally captured their attention, it exposed their thinking as outdated and lacking in vision. The West tended to think of Yugoslavia as 'Tito's state', a useful barrier between democratic Europe and the Soviet bloc. Few understood that, with the end of the East-West confrontation, the logical basis of the Tito-ist state had vanished. Western leaders were more stubbornly wedded than the Yugoslavs to the principle of Yugoslav unity.

The task of the hour was not to resist Yugoslavia's break-up, but to manage it and insist that no republic would win acceptance unless it treated its ethnic minorities fairly. As the war intensified in the summer of 1991, Western countries were belatedly drawn into the Balkans. But nothing better demonstrated the arrogance and ignorance of the European Community than the occasions on which various EC foreign ministers flew to Belgrade or Zagreb, extracted the signatures of Serbian and Croatian leaders on ceasefire documents, and flew home declaring that peace was in sight. Such excursions were trumpeted as a victory for a 'common EC foreign policy'. Meanwhile, cynical generals and bloodthirsty brigands were violating the truces within minutes.

Bosnia may have been doomed as soon as the Serb-Croat war broke out, for while presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia were hurling abuse at each other in public, they were quietly discussing how to divide Bosnia between them. Still, Bosnia's slide into disaster was accelerated by the EC's decision to recognise Croatia's independence in January 1992. This is usually seen as a move inspired by Germany, in particular by its foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. But none of the other 11 EC states can escape blame.

The decision conferred respectability on Croatia even though it had failed to demonstrate, before the war, that it would treat its Serbian minority with consideration. Serbian militants in Croatia, backed by Serbian militias and the Yugoslav armed forces, were certainly intent on gobbling up Croatian land. However, given Croatia's atrocious record in the Second World War, the new republic had a special duty to reach an accord with its Serbian minority.

For Bosnia, the recognition of Croatia spelt disaster. With Slovenia and Croatia independent, the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia were left as part of a Milosevic-dominated rump Yugoslav state. They faced two choices: secession, or second-class status. They opted for secession, but the consequence was a revolt by the Bosnian Serbs, who would never agree to be a minority in a Bosnian state separate from the Serbian motherland. Once the Bosnian Serbs started seizing land, the Bosnian Croats distanced themselves from their Muslim allies and made their primary war goal the creation of a Bosnian Croat state that, in all but name, now forms part of Croatia.

Having encouraged the Muslims to go for an independent, multi-ethnic Bosnia, the West then did little to support them beyond humanitarian relief work. Ruthless Serbian expulsions of Muslim communities went ahead uncontested. Trade, air and financial sanctions were imposed on Serbia, but were ineffectively applied. Belgrade continued to supply the Bosnian Serbs by helicopter and road across the Bosnian-Serbian frontier. An arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia hindered the Muslims' ability to fight, but was treated with contempt by Serbs and Croats.

Last January the Vance-Owen plan proposed a decentralised Bosnia with 10 provinces, organised mainly on ethnic lines. It set out some principles, such as local autonomy and respect for minority rights, which must remain in place if Bosnia is ever to be restored as one state. However, in the short term it encouraged Serbs and Croats to intensify their efforts to 'cleanse' their areas of Muslims, and provoked Muslim responses. And fatally, it turned out that the West was not prepared to put its full weight behind the plan.

The mess is partly the result of European indecision and reluctance to risk lives in the Balkans. But the Clinton administration shares the blame. At first, the new White House sent strong signals that it would either support the use of Western force to roll back aggression, or would arm the Muslims. When Mr Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leadership were forced into supporting the Vance-Owen plan, it appeared that the pressure was reaping rewards. Then, last weekend, the policy was changed, and the Serbs and Croats were cock-a-hoop. The Clinton team has a point when it says Bosnia is primarily a European problem, but its volte-face has gravely damaged US credibility.

In the end, though, the main lesson of the Bosnian debacle is that the West has lacked a coherent overall policy for Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. Lack of imagination and an unwillingness to commit resources mean it has played a largely passive role, expressing alarm at one crisis after another, and usually offering inadequate responses. Unless the West displays greater skill and vision, Bosnia will be just the first tragedy of many.

(Photographs omitted)