Representatives of the five-nation "contact group", linking the US, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, want to reopen talks on a peace proposal that was originally intended to give 49 per cent of Bosnia to the Serbs and 51 per cent to a Muslim-Croat federation. All parties to the war accepted this proposal except for the Bosnian Serbs, who were punished with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
A variety of factors made the Clinton administration decide last month that it was time to try new tactics. To the dismay of the Bosnian government, which had only reluctantly agreed to the 51:49 division of Bosnia in the first place, US officials began to describe the peace plan as "a starting point" for negotiations.
The chief US mediator in Bosnia, Charles Thomas, then held talks last Sunday and Monday with Bosnian Serb leaders in their stronghold of Pale, outside Sarajevo. This ended the Bosnian Serbs' diplomatic quarantine and appeared to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of a United Nations Security Council resolution last September that urged member-states not to hold discussions with the Bosnian Serbs.
The Clinton administration's decision to talk to leaders whom it has previously portrayed as little more than war criminals has angered many US diplomats. The US ambassador to Bosnia, Victor Jackovich, is believed to have strongly opposed the step, and he is now under pressure to move to another job.
The US appears to have in mind a revision of the 51:49 plan that would allow the Serbs to take control of part or all of the three small Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia - Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa. In return, the US would expect the Bosnian Serbs tooffer the Muslim-led government more territory around Sarajevo.
One reason for the change in US policy is pressure from Britain, France and Russia, all of whom argue that the Bosnian Serbs have essentially won the war. Another reason is Washington's determination to blunt demands from the new Republican-dominated Congress for the lifting of the UN arms embargo on the Bosnian government.
White House officials believe they can stave off pressure to end the embargo if they show that the US is engaged in a high-stakes effort to win Bosnian Serb agreement to a peace plan. It is a risky ploy, partly because it makes the Clinton administrationvulnerable to the charge that it is selling out the Muslims, and partly because there is no guarantee the Bosnian Serbs will keep to their part of the bargain. The Bosnian Serbs are demanding much more than the US is prepared to deliver. They want Sarajevo divided into Serbian and Muslim sectors, some territory by the Adriatic Sea, and a widening of the so-called Brcko corridor in northern Bosnia that links the two main chunks of Serb-held land.
The Bosnian Serbs are also pushing for a share of Bosnia's industrial and energy facilities that would be equal to that allocated to the Muslim-Croat federation. Officially, the US opposes all these demands, but sceptics point out that only a few months ago the 51:49 per cent plan was also considered sacrosanct.