In no frame of mind for peace: None of the parties in the Bosnian talks has cause to settle, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
THE diplomatic game being played out over the latest peace plan for Bosnia is not about achieving peace. It is about who should be blamed for any new bout of fighting. And since the Contact Group of major Western powers and Russia has simply chewed over the same mix of irrelevant peace plans and humbug as in the past, the Serbs' decision neither to accept nor reject the plan and the 'yes, but' response of all the Bosnian parties were entirely predictable.

The truth is that none of the parties involved in the fighting actually wants a settlement at present. Bosnia has reached a stalemate. No threats against the Serbs will encourage them to give up what they possess, while any outside action against the Serbs will simply embolden the Muslims to continue fighting. Either way, the West and Russia are now doomed to issue one peace plan after another, while Yugoslavia is doomed to continued violence.

From the start of the Yugoslav war, the West was concerned with principle: territorial aggression and ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to pay. Since not one government was prepared to do anything to establish this, it was inevitable that precisely the opposite would happen. The current peace plan offers further confirmation of this: if it is implemented, towns such as Prijedor, Vlasenica and Zvornik, places where Muslim communities were destroyed in a savagery recently characterised by a United Nations commission as a 'crime against humanity', will remain under Serb control.

Yet nobody is prepared to own up to what is happening. Charles Redman, the US special envoy to the area, suggested recently that the abandonment of these cities was 'in the interests of wider peace and of keeping Bosnia together'. We are therefore expected to believe that a plan that concerns itself with the carve-up of Bosnia is actually designed to preserve the country's unity. Even by the strange standards of the Balkans, this argument is surreal. In the past the Serbs were threatened with untold misery if they rejected various confederations, associations and canton proposals. They did just that, and the West came back offering more. No one has explained why the current proposals should be taken any more seriously.

The present plan does sport one novelty: a formula that awards 51 per cent of the land mass to Croats and Muslims and 49 per cent to the Serbs. The reason for these magic figures is simple. Bill Clinton knows he would find it hard persuading Congress to accept the dispatch of US troops to police a distasteful arrangement. By touting the 51 per cent figure, he can claim that the Bosnian government may have lost a chunk of territory, but it has kept the greater part of its land. The land formula is thus a mechanism for making the plan appear 'fair' in the West, rather than a serious appraisal of the facts on the ground.

The same applies to other ideas put foward by the Contact Group. The 'safe havens' were originally established as an afterthought, a knee-jerk reaction by Western governments to appease their public opinion, while achieving nothing in particular. Most of the enclaves that were subsequently created are vast refugee camps; all are economically unviable. But they have acquired an almost mystical quality and, to consolidate them, the group has proposed that a swathe of surrounding territory should also be placed under the protection of the European Union.

A further difficulty is that the corridor which connects Serb possessions in eastern and western Bosnia has been narrowed, while the Muslim pocket of Bihac has been inexplicably widened. If the plan had been designed as a recipe for justifying Western military action against the Serbs, it would be a great success. However, if its main intention was to persuade the Serbs to settle without encouraging the Muslims to hope for more, it guarantees failure from the start.

But the Contact Group claims to have two further means of ensuring compliance. The first is its own unity: this is the first coherent proposal to have the support of all major outside players, including Russia and the United States. More important, it is accompanied by sticks and carrots: Serbian acceptance was supposed to bring a gradual easing of economic sanctions on Yugoslavia, while rejection was supposed to trigger the lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia. But all sides soon realised that what the Contact Group was touting as its major strength - its unity - was actually its biggest weakness.

For more than a year, the Muslims and the Serbs of Bosnia were able to exploit divisions between Russia and the US to fend off a settlement. The Serbs never seriously believed in the pan-Slav sentiments that some nationalist leaders in Moscow expressed, but they knew that, as long as Russia felt peeved at not being consulted by the West in the Balkans, the Kremlin would protect their interests. And the Muslims knew that, although the professions of support from President Clinton were never acted upon, American public opinion would not tolerate the wholesale sacrifice of Bosnia. The formation of the Contact Group was supposed to stop this game; in fact, it has only made it more subtle.

The Serbs assume that even if the present plan fails completely, Russia will still be reluctant to vote for lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims unless it extracts further concessions from Washington. The Bosnian government for its part suspects that if the current plan collapses, President Clinton will be unable to withstand domestic pressure to lift the embargo. More important, the Serbs have also learnt that a large Western force will arrive in Bosnia only if fighting stops - and they want to prevent the arrival of such a force at all costs. At the same time, the Bosnian government believes that the arrival of this force will set the seal on the carve- up of the republic, not bring back their lost territories.

In a perverse way, therefore, the main parties to the conflict have every interest in seeing the present deal collapse. When the Bosnian president stated recently that his government would approve the deal 'since the Serbs will be rejecting it', he was merely being unusually candid by Balkan standards.

Tensions within the Contact Group are already bubbling below the surface: Russia, for instance, will not accept the creation of a force under Nato's single command, while the US will not dispatch its soldiers to the region without a unified Western command structure. Consequently, the much-vaunted 'sticks' are nothing but toothpicks.

And the carrots dangled by the Contact Group are fated to remain only shoots. With the exception of a few heavy items, the last thing the Bosnian government lacks at the moment is weapons. What is more, shops in Belgrade are full, despite continued sanctions, and Yugoslavia is trying to find ways of exporting its grain surplus. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, is no doubt eager to see the sanctions lifted. But he also knows that the total isolation which the West is now threatening was supposed to happen before. And he is also aware that, whatever the immediate economic consequences, Serbia is not without long-term allies.

With the exception of Albania, not one of Yugoslavia's neighbours wants to see a strong Muslim Bosnian state. The alliance between the Croats and the Muslims is fleeting; the moment that Milosevic can make a concession on the Serb enclaves in Croatia, the Bosnian government will again find itself being pushed from all directions. And while Yugoslavia may be surviving, all the other Balkan states are now near exhaustion from the effects of the economic sanctions.

In some respects, the Contact Group's current effort recalls the actions of the 'Great Powers' last century: a set of proposals formulated without consulting anyone in the region and of the sort designed to prevent disputes between the bigger Europeans, not Balkan crises. The wars of the Yugoslav succession are guaranteed to rumble on for years; the only question is how violent they will be - and how many more plans the West intends to concoct while they continue.

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

(Photograph omitted)