Leading Article: Into the Bosnian quagmire

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The Independent Online
AFTER months of understandable hesitation, the Western world is being sucked deeper into the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The question of involvement dominated the recent EC summit in Lisbon and this week's meetings of heads of government, first within the Group of Seven, supposedly an economic forum, and then at the Helsinki gathering of the 51-nation Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Almost everyone feels something must be done, and wants to be seen to be taking part in any action. Yet both the political goals and the possible military means remain obscure.

The result looks like confusion, but it is a confusion that enables almost everyone to claim they are doing their bit. Yesterday the Western European Union (WEU), emerging at last as an active player, formally agreed to mount naval and air operations in the Adriatic to enforce UN sanctions against Serbia. An Italian admiral will be in charge, as Italy currently holds the presidency of the WEU. The possibility of opening a land corridor to Sarajevo is to be examined by WEU experts. The French are keen to assume the lead. The Americans have indicated they are prepared to provide air cover. The French have already decided to send helicopters and troops to reinforce the Canadian-manned peacekeeping UN force at Sarajevo airport, even though the Canadian commander says such a premature deployment may endanger his own troops.

It would naturally have been much tidier and more efficient if the Europeans, who have long striven to mediate between the warring factions, could have agreed among themselves on what action to take. They could then have sought a mandate from the UN to implement their decisions. But they have been divided. The French have been anxious to keep out the Americans, yet deeply distrust the Germans' uncritical support of the Croatians. The British have wanted to involve the Americans through Nato, and remain nervous about risking ground forces in ideal guerrilla terrain. The Americans initially hoped they could leave it all to the Europeans, then realised the Europeans were too divided, and that a show of action might be politically useful.

There remain several good reasons for caution. Only if there is no serious loss of life will the confusion potentially arising from the alphabet soup of agencies involved be averted. But who has quantified the risks involved in action on the ground, or asked what happens when the first French helicopter is downed or the first convoy of soft-skinned troop-carrying vehicles blown up?

Equally, what is the logic of military involvement when there is no prospect of an equitable political settlement? Sarajevo's fate has diverted attention from the ruthless carving up of Bosnia-Herzegovina by both Serbs and Croats. The Muslims, who constitute 44 per cent of the population, now control a mere 5 per cent of the country. The Serbs have proclaimed a Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina; the Croats, notionally in alliance with the Muslims, have announced the sovereignty of a Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna. The Muslims seem doomed to become second-class citizens and thus, given their number, a perpetual source of instability. The state recognised by the EC has meanwhile in effect ceased to exist.

The emergence of the CSCE as a sponsor of peace-keeping seems likely to involve some duplication with the UN. Given its unwieldy size compared with the UN's Security Council, and its preference for unanimity, CSCE's chances of proving effective look low. Yesterday's failure to agree on the dispatch of observers to the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, riven by fighting between Armenians and Azeris, may prove symptomatic.

Boris Yeltsin was right to recommend action before blood has been spilt rather than after many months of civil war. A suitable candidate for pre-emptive diplomacy would be the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, whose recognition has been blocked by Greece: the Greeks claim a monopoly of the name for its own Macedonian province. The republic's history and ethnic mix make it likely that ethnic strife there could draw in Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece as well as Serbia and the ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

In many ways it is natural that Europe should be taking time to come to terms with the ethnic conflicts released by the death of Communism. Their decisions will set potentially fateful precedents for the future. But time, especially in the case of Macedonia, is running out.