Leading Article: A long battle for peace in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THE POPE's motives in visiting Croatia yesterday were of the best: to preach peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. But his mission was bound to be resented by the Serbs, who believe the Catholic church actively encouraged the slaughter of Serbs by Croatians during the Second World War; and it was certainly not a good moment to praise the wartime archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, as the most illustrious figure in Croatian Catholic history. Many Serbs view Stepinac as a collaborator of the pro-Nazi Ustashe regime. It was unfortunate, too, that the Pope's visit to Zagreb coincided with a grenade attack from Croatian-held ground on the headquarters of the European Union's representative in Mostar.

Elsewhere, the pattern in Bosnia was more familiar, with the Muslim enclave of Bihac recovering from a pounding by Serb shells on Friday. Overall, the status quo remains in place, but only just. It is little wonder that the five-nation 'contact group' made up of Russia, the United States, Britain, France and Germany has almost run out of ideas. The latest proposal is further to tighten sanctions on the Bosnian Serbs, and to accomplish this by placing international monitors along the borders of their fiefdom. That requires the assent of Serbia itself. In turn, the allies (as they call themselves in former Yugoslavia) intend to reward President Slobodan Milosevic by easing sanctions upon his own pariah state.

The aim remains to obtain Bosnian Serb assent to an international peace plan dividing the territory of Bosnia 51 to 49 per cent in favour of its Muslim and Croat people. But in the wilderness of mirrors that is multilateral Balkan diplomacy, this objective is an elusive prize.

Diplomats and ministers should step back from this immediate concern and look at some political realities. When Francois Mitterrand made a supremely courageous gesture by flying into Sarajevo almost at the height of its ordeal, he summed up a visceral response to a war that affronted the European conscience. Demands for action were swift, the remedies proposed sometimes simplistic.

Now thousands of hours have been expended in negotiation, tens of thousands of troops deployed, much flying time clocked by Nato aircraft and many furrows ploughed through the Adriatic by warships on sanctions patrol. Eight British soldiers have given their lives on peacekeeping duty. The war has been dampened down, but it is clear that a political solution is not going to be imposed by force.

Yet again, there is a deadline, of sorts. President Clinton says that if the Serbs do not accept the peace plan by 15 October he will move to lift the UN arms embargo on Bosnia's Muslim-led government, allowing it to buy newer and heavier weapons. The chances of Serb acceptance are slight.

So the task before European governments is, first, to determine their response to a possible lifting of the arms embargo and, second, to continue incremental pressure on all the warring parties to reach a deal. If the arms embargo is lifted, resulting in fresh hostilities, British and French ministers would be right to withdraw their peacekeeping troops from a war zone where there would be no peace to keep. That may mean pulling out of Sarajevo. The Bosnian government should reflect on that grave possibility before it commits its people to another season of futile war.

That is why pressure on all parties is so important. None of the belligerents in Bosnia enjoys a truly democratic mandate for its warmaking policy. The Serbs are rightly the principal objects of international coercion. But any settlement needs serious undertakings by the Muslim government, too. President Alija Izetbegovic and his sloganeering Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, have too often presumed on the guilt of Europe while abusing its mediators and placing peacekeepers and aid workers in the firing line. The Bosnian government has been not merely outgunned, but outgeneralled and outfought as well.

What are the options? A radical move would be not to ease pressure on Serbia, but to increase it, a strategy designed to push the Bosnian Serbs to the brink. Ministers seem to have rejected that idea in the hope of getting their monitors into place. Two other important moves could be coupled to any pressure on the Serbs. The United States and Germany should talk tough at once to President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, who is threatening to oppose the renewal of Unprofor's mandate on 30 September unless its forces meet his wish for more active intervention. That could create an unwanted and profitless diversion, and should be stopped.

Finally, all the outside powers, especially nations with troops in Bosnia, should read the riot act to the Bosnian government. Peace is indivisible. Temporising and haggling anew will merely serve to justify Serb intransigence. The Bosnian government will squander Western sympathy if it launches an offensive as the winter edges near. More Bosnian civilians will suffer and, inevitably, more of our own soldiers will die. The outside world has only a limited ability to influence events. But that could be enough to tip the balance towards peace.