1994: a year for making peace or war?: As three of the world's trouble spots attempt to put decades of bloodshed behind them, equally fierce conflicts could soon cease elsewhere, says Michael Sheridan

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IN THE past 12 months, seemingly intractable conflicts - between Israelis and Palestinians, between blacks and whites in South Africa and between the British Crown and the IRA - have come within sight of solution.

In the absence of great movements, such as the wave of revolutions that swept the globe in 1989, diplomats will search for pinpricks of light in the gloaming, the results of war-weariness, well timed foreign intervention and the occasional triumph of necessity over bloodlust. Just as economic cycles move inexorably through crescendo and decline, so the balance of misery can shift from place to place.

There were clues in the events of 1993. People fled their homes and farms in the fractured states of Yugoslavia and Azerbaijan, but returned to Cambodia and Mozambique. And while there may seem few candidates for peace in 1994, some fermenting war zones offer grounds for cautious optimism.

BOSNIA has offered the greatest affront to European sensibility since the age of the dictators, but its travails may finally grind to an uneasy end. The Muslim government in Sarajevo realised by Christmas that its call on international aid was not limitless and the Europeans talked of withdrawing troops in the spring. The Bosnian government may wage a spring offensive to improve its territorial position. After that it will have little choice but to negotiate a settlement.

By then Serbia, too, could be ready to compromise. Hyperinflation has destroyed its currency; sanctions long ago strangled its trade. Only the gangster and profiteer continue to benefit from the war, and Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader and the shrewdest politician in the Balkans, has his eye on a longer term in power than can be sustained by their assent alone.

The Croats could also be forced by their patrons in Zagreb to settle. The much-maligned international mediators begin talks again in Geneva within a month. They always calculated that a tough Balkan winter and further pressure on Belgrade could bring peace nearer. It would be a peace without much honour, if not quite one purchased at any price. And it would not preclude a showdown between Serbia and Croatia when the battlefields of Bosnia fall silent.

LEBANON, perhaps, offers the greatest hope of resurrection. An ambivalent calm has descended here after a decade and a half marked by anarchy, terror and internecine conflict. The tranquillity of Beirut has been bought with a credit note in Damascus, for the government of Syria was pleased to oversee its new stability with 35,000 troops and a treaty of 'brotherhood' concluded two years ago that bound the 'sisterly' neighbours together so intimately that Lebanese independence in 1943 appeared a distant memory.

Lebanon's future peace and prosperity hinge upon the negotiations between Israel, the PLO and Syria. A successful Palestinian settlement would open the door to a 'cold peace' between the Zionist state and the Ba'athist regime in Damascus, completing the rebalancing of regional interests set in motion by the Gulf war of 1991. If a peaceful bloc of nations could be established in the Levant, prospects for trade and banking, at which the Lebanese of all sects excel, would be bright. Indeed, the Lebanese-Syrian Supreme Council has spoken of a 'common market' in a region where arms and drugs hitherto constituted the staples of the import-export business.

Rafiq Hariri, a multimillionaire contractor, became Lebanon's Prime Minister in October 1992 and has since poured his energy and fortune into the country's future. The central bank expects deposits to double by 1996, the exchange rate is stable by historical standards and the government's Council for Development and Reconstruction has drawn up ambitious plans. But, in an ominous gesture, the spiritual head of Hizbollah, Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, has forbidden his flock to buy shares in the company promoting city-centre redevelopment, describing its commercial tactics as a sin against Islam. Hizbollah has no interest in stability or economic growth and regarded a peace settlement with Israel as heresy. It is still a serious threat.

INDOCHINA, Vietnam in particular, is the hot investment tip for 1994 and some estimate that it is poised to join the other Asian states which have converted development into prosperity by the end of the century. In the next year, as Vietnam's ancient conflicts fall into a lull, money from Chinese and Thai investors seeking high, if risky, returns will pour in.

This is welcome news for Cambodia, where the UN last year oversaw elections that ushered in a new coalition of royalist and former Marxist parties. King Norodom Sihanouk's return sealed for many Cambodians the end of their Calvary. This month, though, receiving chemotherapy in Peking for a tumour, the king said that his death was 'foreseeable'. If 1994 sees that unhappy prophecy come to pass, Cambodia's recovery could face a violent challenge.

For the moment, though, the remnants of the Khmer Rouge lurk in the jungles of the north-west and their ability to reconquer the country is much reduced. So long as the king survives, there is hope of an overall settlement, so the gambling instinct among Asian investors may prove a winner in 1994.

EL SALVADOR is another area that has provided journalists with gruesome copy for almost as long as Indochina. In 1994 it could complete its emancipation from a vicious civil war. Elections are to be held in March, and recent opinion polls suggest that the leftist guerrillas-turned-politicians are gaining on the right-wing party of President Alfredo Cristiani.

The UN successfully brokered a set of peace accords in 1993 that ended 12 years of civil conflict and formed part of an overall cooling- off in Central America which also embraced Guatemala and Nicaragua, where the UN and aid agencies were at last able to help with repatriation and rebuilding instead of rushing from one scene of carnage to the next. The Salvadorean elections will be a crucial test. Voters will be called upon to elect a new president and vice-president, an 84-member legislative assembly and no fewer that 262 mayors in the country's first fully democratic elections. The Sandinistas surrendered to the verdict of the ballot box in Nicaragua. Can the rightists do so in El Salvador?

(Photograph and map omitted)