Leading Article: Don't let Serbia off the hook

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, is due in Belgrade at the weekend for another attempt to put life back into a Bosnian peace plan proposed by the 'contact group' of five nations, including Britain. He is expected to administer fresh warnings to the Bosnian Serbs and to hold out the prospect of an easing of sanctions upon Serbia itself. The mixture of coercion and blandishment is a familiar one in international policy towards the Balkan conflict. It has been applied before, usually to transient effect.

This time Mr Kozyrev is really up against it. The Bosnian Serbs, long immune to verbal threats, intend to conduct another referendum over the weekend to restate their rejection of the plan. This exercise has no credibility. It merely invites the populace to endorse the hardline stance chosen by the preposterous 'parliament', which meets under the spell of Dr Radovan Karadzic and the guns of General Ratko Mladic. No common sense may be expected from such a political entity.

The Bosnian Serbs know that President Clinton has set a deadline of 15 October for acceptance of the plan. After that, the President says he will approach the United Nations to lift the arms embargo, allowing the Muslim government in Sarajevo to go openly about buying new and heavier weapons. It is already doing so behind the scenes. Britain and France have indicated that an inflow of armaments and an upsurge in the Muslim-Serb war would signal the departure of their troops. New hostilities, oncoming winter, disrupted aid supplies and, perhaps, an absence of peacekeepers all spell dire consequences for civilians. A wearying test of nerves, at which the Bosnian Serbs excel, is once again in motion.

That is where President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia enters the picture. Mr Kozyrev will ask him to allow international monitors to watch the border between Serbia and the Bosnian Serb territory. The monitors would verify Mr Milosevic's promise that supplies to General Mladic's men have been cut off. In return, Mr Kozyrev believes, Serbia could be rewarded by an easing of sanctions to relieve its gasping economy. It would have an incentive to redeem itself and bring peace to Bosnia.

Any such concession to Serbia should be strictly proportionate to the good deeds performed. Russian diplomacy so far has offered a masterly display of Pan-Orthodox rhetoric for consumption in Moscow and actual policy consistent with Security Council resolutions. This is not the moment to break the habit. Mr Kozyrev knows that the Bosnian Serbs will reject the peace plan, leaving mediators with only about six weeks to work out a new approach before the deadline. That will be the time to employ maximum leverage. Concessions, therefore, should not be squandered now.

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