Leading Article: Bosnia may still be saved

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THE GENEVA plan for Bosnia must be welcomed as the first coherent concept to emerge from the long months of confused bickering that have followed the outbreak of war. It provides a focus for negotiation and an aim to guide Western policy. Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance deserve praise.

The plan is not, however, perfect. It is a refined and modified version of the cantonisation agreement that was rejected before the fighting started. Its best aspect is that it is designed to preserve the state of Bosnia by ruling out the secession or annexation of parts of its territory. If successful, it would foil attempts to create a 'greater Serbia', thereby frustrating Serbia's main war aim. For this reason it is unwelcome to Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who is in Belgrade to discuss what to do.

Muslims and Croats largely accept the principles of the plan but the Muslims do not like the map on which it is based, which would split the state into 10 largely autonomous provinces. In this they are right. The map tries to compromise between accepting Serb conquests and rolling them back, but it tilts too far in favour of the Serbs. The Muslims cannot be expected to concede so much after what the Serbs have done to their villages and their people. Understandably, they want to continue fighting until they tilt the balance, hoping for more of the promised help from Arab countries that is already reaching them in small quantities.

If the Serbs are sensible they will sign up quickly for the plan, thereby shifting the onus of refusal on to the Muslims and enhancing their own chances of retaining at least some of their gains. But any sacrifice of territorial gains would be a severe blow to the Serbian leadership, both in Bosnia and in Belgrade, as would public renunciation of the principle of Serbian expansion. The odds are, therefore, on further prevarication.

This would be the best outcome for the time being, provided the Muslims can be slipped enough discreet help to improve their military position. The Serbian forces are not as strong as they seem, and have ruined the areas they occupy, so they are more dependent than ever on supplies from Serbia. They can be pushed back. The prospect of further retreats might make them more amenable at a later round of the Geneva talks, when the map could also be redrawn to meet Muslim objections. But speed will be necessary to meet rising pressure from Arab countries and the danger that the Russians will swing more firmly behind the Serbs.

The idea that Bosnia can still be saved, and that some of its multi-ethnic areas may even be reconstituted, is often dismissed as nave, but it is not wholly unrealistic. Many Bosnian Serbs hate what is happening and do not want to join Serbia. They would rally to the effort of reconstruction in the right framework. The Muslims' natural desire for revenge could be partly diverted by economic aid made conditional on peace.

The essential basis for success would be intensive international supervision over a long period to deal with the bitterness and destruction left by the war and to prevent further attempts to change the map. Even if the Geneva plan is eventually accepted, it will not remove Bosnia from the international agenda. It is, however, the most hopeful idea in sight. It should be widely supported.