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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
musicYou'll have to ask Taylor Swift first
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Joel Grey, now 82, won several awards for his role in Cabaret
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Our exclusive client in St Albans Hertfords...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Primary Teachers

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Hertfordshir...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ACCA/CIMA - St Albans, Hertfordshire

£55000 - £58000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - London, Old Street

£25000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - Londo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness