In Bosnia, no deal matters without a map

Yesterday's breakthrough in Geneva should not arouse too many hopes, says Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
Peace is closer, but still a long way off. That is the message from yesterday's announcement in Geneva that the Serbs, Croats and Muslims have agreed on certain basic principles for a settlement in Bosnia.

The most positive element is the acceptance by the Serb delegation that Bosnia-Herzegovina should remain a single, internationally recognised state in its present borders. On the face of it, this buries Serb hopes of forging an enlarged Serbian state out of the wreckage of former Yugoslavia.

Yet the Serb delegation that accepted this point included neither Radovan Karadzic, the civilian leader of the Bosnian Serb rebellion, nor General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander. Instead, the Bosnian Serbs were represented by the less powerful Nikola Koljevic, Mr Karadzic's nominal deputy, and Aleksa Buha, the self-styled "foreign minister".

It is far from certain that Messrs Karadzic and Mladic will respect the Geneva agreement. Indeed, since they have been indicted by the United Nations as suspected war criminals, they have every reason to continue fighting.

The real leader of the Serb delegation in Geneva came not from Pale but from Belgrade. He was Milan Milutinovic, the foreign minister of Serbian- led rump Yugoslavia. Yet it is not entirely certain that Mr Milutinovic's boss, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, will be satisfied with every aspect of the Geneva declaration. It appears to fall short of minimum Serbian demands by failing to provide for a confederation between Serbia and the Bosnian Serb autonomous entity which is supposed to occupy 49 per cent of Bosnia's territory.

The declaration talks of allowing the Bosnian Serbs the right to establish a "parallel special relationship" with Serbia. But if this arrangement does not match the confederal links that Bosnia's Muslims and Croats have already been granted with Croatia, then the Serbs will feel the peace deal is tilted against them.

The Geneva talks were a failure as far as concerns the status of eastern Slavonia, the last remaining Serb-controlled area of Croatia. The Serb delegation would not even consider a statement declaring that eastern Slavonia's future should be settled peacefully.

The deadlock on this issue means that the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim- led Bosnian governments are still some way from recognising each other as independent states in their pre-war borders. The longer a deal over eastern Slavonia is delayed, the more likely it is that Croatia will still attempt to settle the matter by force.

Such an approach worked in western Slavonia in May, and in the Knin Krajina last month, because Serbia did not lift a finger to help its rebellious brethren in Croatia. However, eastern Slavonia could prove a different story, for it borders Serbia and is strategically and economically much more important to the Belgrade leadership.

Although the Geneva talks brought some progress on constitutional arrangements for Bosnia, they did not touch on the rather more complicated subject of maps. As the US negotiator Richard Holbrooke observed, although each side accepts the 51-49 per cent division of Bosnia, nobody agrees on who should receive which bits of land.

The Muslim-led government is adamant that it will not give up Gorazde, the only Muslim enclave left in Serb-controlled eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, has gone even further and ruled out letting the Bosnian Serbs keep control of Srebrenica and Zepa, the eastern enclaves overrun in July.

He has also rejected the idea of widening the so-called Brcko corridor, the vital strip of land that connects Serb-held territory in northern and eastern Bosnia. Yet it is hard to imagine the Serbs accepting an agreement that did not give them full control of the Drina valley in eastern Bosnia and did not widen the Brcko corridor.

For their part, the Serbs are still clinging to the hope that they can keep Sarajevo divided by retaining control of certain districts of the city. However, Mr Holbrooke has acidly pointed out that "divided cities don't work" and he will not tolerate Sarajevo's partition.

Maps are the rock on which all previous Bosnian peace plans have broken. The latest US initiative may prove no exception.