Bosnia's peace, Kosovo's war?: Jonathan Eyal argues that the West's remedies for one region of former Yugoslavia will only encourage the emergence of bitter conflict in others

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The Independent Online
EVEN by the fickle standards of the Balkans, the events which unfolded over the Easter weekend were unusual. Ostensibly, the chances for peace in the former Yugoslavia have never been greater: Sarajevo remains quiet, Croats and Muslims are implementing an agreement to re-create the Bosnian confederation, and even the Serbs of Croatia have finally been persuaded to discuss the future of their enclaves with the Croat government in Zagreb.

Yet the United States administration, while continuing to claim credit for facilitating these arrangements, decided to oppose a United Nations resolution that would have helped to implement them by beefing up peace-keeping forces in the region. And the International Committee of the Red Cross has abandoned any pretence of trying to heal the nation's wounds and is preparing to evacuate Croats and Muslims from north-western Bosnia to save them from a continuing Serbian massacre.

In essence, all the leading players know that the current agreements, negotiated with American and Russian sponsorship, represent only the continuation of war through other means, arrangements designed to cleanse the world's conscience rather than stop ethnic cleansing. Far from heralding a greater Western involvement, the complex web of current negotiations is deliberately ignoring the Balkans' wider problems, thereby planting the seeds of a greater regional confrontation.

Western Europe failed not because it lacked the resources to confront bands of marauders but because it was never persuaded that stopping the carnage in the Balkans actually mattered to continental security. Throughout, the policy of every European government was to find a median line between appeasing an enraged public opinion at home while doing as little as possible on the ground. For many in the West, therefore, the return of Russia and the US to the region promised an end to the policy of combining ringing condemnations of Belgrade's intentions with 'peace plans' designed to accept Serbia's deeds. Nothing of the kind seems to be happening.

The agreement which Washington sponsored between Croats and Muslims remains a curious hybrid. On the one hand, persuading the two nations to live together in one confederation upholds America's traditional belief in Bosnia's multiculturalism. But leaving the Serbs in possession of their occupied territory merely confirms the irreversible demise of this multicultural ideal. President Bill Clinton claims that the threat of air strikes lifted the siege on Sarajevo. Correct, but hardly relevant. The Serbs were never interested in occupying all of Sarajevo, they just used the siege to force the Muslim government to accept the division of Bosnia. And, since Washington is now performing this task, the harassment of Sarajevo stopped simply because it was no longer needed.

The arrangements for a new Bosnian confederation are designed to postpone, rather than prevent, the republic's final carve-up. Bosnia's president, Alija Izetbegovic, accepted the deal in the hope that he could draw US guarantees for his country's frontiers; Croatia's president, Franjo Tudjman, signed on the dotted line partly because he was losing the battle against the Muslims and partly because he assumed that Russian and American pressure would persuade the Serbs to withdraw from Croatia. Both are likely to be disappointed.

As William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, admitted at the weekend, Washington has no intention of stopping the Serbs from eliminating besieged Muslim enclaves in Bosnia. Furthermore, America's promise that Croatia will be rewarded for its co-operative attitude is meaningless: the republic's most important potential partner is not Washington but Brussels, and the European Union has no intention of placing Croatia on the same footing as the central European states, almost regardless of what the Croat government does in the next few years. In short, the US administration has pledged to the Muslims support it is unwilling to deliver, and to the Croats advantages that are not within its ability to promise.

Nevertheless, a good case could be made that Russian-American co- operation has injected a dose of realpolitik into the Balkans: the Serbs will be allowed to keep a large chunk of Bosnia, but forced to give up their occupied territory in Croatia. The solution might not be neat but, in the absence of any alternatives, it would at least let the West off the moral hook and disentangle the war. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The moral dilemmas for the West are only beginning. A cessation in fighting will intensify the movement of refugees trapped throughout Bosnia: resettlement along ethnic lines is quickly becoming the only feasible choice. Furthermore, despite their deep historical animosity, Croatia and Serbia would continue to consider a Bosnian Muslim state an aberration, a threat to them both. Paradoxically, therefore, a settlement over the Serb enclaves in Croatia would be a signal for renewed pressure on the Muslims, not the dawn of a new multi- ethnic Bosnia. The trade-off that Washington has concocted is no deal at all.

Yet the biggest flaw in current plans is the one that has plagued all Western efforts in the Balkans: a haphazard attempt to deal with today's crisis rather than its deeper causes. The West congratulated itself on brokering a ceasefire in Slovenia just as the war was moving to Croatia. It then introduced peace- keepers in Croatia, just as the fighting moved to Bosnia. And now it is dreaming up peace plans for Bosnia, precisely when the main danger is moving south to the Albanian-dominated Serb province of Kosovo and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

The Western answer to the problem of ethnic Albanians living in compact masses adjacent of the borders of Albania proper is to grant them autonomy within the Serbian and Macedonian states. The tactic has no chance of working: autonomy has meaning only in countries that respect the rule of law and where ethnic tolerance is accepted as a way of life. The choice in the southern part of the former Yugoslavia is stark: either the borders move or the people do. But no Western government is prepared to face realities: Albania's president, Sali Berisha, who visited London last week to appeal for support, was received with polite words - and more soothing autonomy plans.

A durable peace in the territory of former Yugoslavia can come only when two fundamental questions have been answered: that is, when the frontiers of Serbia and Albania have been defined. Until both problems receive an adequate response, any other arrangements would just be tinkering at the margins of the Balkans tragedy. But no answers appear likely. And the involvement of the two superpowers in the region may already have precluded an answer altogether.

It is worth remembering that the US championed Nato's threat of air strikes because it was persuaded that the alliance's credibility was at stake. And Russia introduced its soldiers around Sarajevo and Tuzla airport because it was determined to prevent Nato from being the only actor in the Balkans. Despite all the current co-operation between Washington and Moscow, the two pursue totally incompatible aims: for the US, the status quo is unsustainable; for Russia, the present dividing lines are the only guarantee of Moscow's long-term influence in the region.

Neither trusts the other's intentions, and both are now engaged in efforts to forge closer relations with neighbouring countries: the US has promised Albania, Romania and Bulgaria military assistance. Russia is striving to do the same. Should Russian-American relations cool, what has begun as a great example of superpower co-operation may yet end up as a new division into spheres of influence. The republics of the former Yugoslavia are not approaching peace: they are on the precipice of a wider and much more serious confrontation.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Bryan Appleyard is away.

(Photograph and map omitted)