Leading Article: Now comes the real test

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EVEN small gains must be welcomed when there is not much else to be pleased about. The London conference on the former Yugoslavia was an impressive demonstration of unity, good organisation and skilful chairmanship by John Major. It brought together the warring parties and confronted them with Western governments that until now have been scandalously divided, muddled and inept in their handling of the crisis. All participants were persuaded to put their names to useful principles and proposals.

As a result, the impression was conveyed that a united international community is at last - shamefully late - taking seriously the affront to civilised opinion and the threat to peace that the war represents. Divisions between the Secretary-General of the United Nations and permanent members of the Security Council, between the European Community and the United Nations, between France and Germany and among other members of the EC, seem for the moment to have been set aside.

So far, so good. There was never any intention that the conference itself should produce a peace plan, still less a final settlement. Its aim was to set in motion substantive negotiations and mobilise pressures to drive them on. This it has done in so far as it has gained agreement on paper that heavy weapons will be put under UN supervision, seized territory will be returned, monitoring increased, 'ethnic cleansing' abandoned and sanctions tightened.

The real tests lie ahead, however, and they are tests not only of Serbian intentions but of the ability of the principal Western powers to remain united and determined to enforce the principles they have endorsed. Had they stepped in at a much earlier stage to insist on assurances for Serbian minorities in Croatia, they might have prevented much that has happened. Had they subsequently been willing to strike at Serbian forces from the air, more death and damage could have been avoided and the basis for a settlement would now be better. As the Irishman said when asked for directions, it would be better not to start from here. Unfortunately, there is no alternative.

When negotiations get under way, the first task of Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, who form a promising team, will be to persuade the contestants that something will really happen if they do not stop fighting and if they renege on the promises they have made. This will be difficult because there is still no consensus among Western governments on military force. Even on sanctions they may prove as slippery and divided as the Serbs when it comes to fulfilling promises. The one certainty is that if the Serbs remain convinced that they can get away with what they are doing, they will continue to do it - whatever their politicians say to Western audiences.

If, against most of the evidence, means of persuasion can be found, the question then will be what to aim for. The temptation will be to settle for adjustments that leave most of the Serbian conquests in place. Persuasive arguments can be found for doing this. After all, if Serbian minorities are forced to live under what they regard as alien rule, their disaffection could remain a chronic source of instability. And will Croats and Muslims go back to mixed villages after all the fear and hatred that has been engendered? Might it not be more realistic to let things cool down and then hope for a settlement based on the new ethnic map? After all, if there is a settlement in Cyprus it is likely to be based on just that principle.

This sounds like realpolitik but it is not. Easy acquiescence in injustice destroys the moral standing, self-respect and political credibility of those who indulge in it. If the West takes that road it will make a mockery of the principles it has espoused so far and leave itself without any basis for objecting or acting the next time someone starts changing borders by force and 'cleansing' the population. It will endorse the argument of nationalists everywhere that ethnic groups are entitled to be ruled by governments of their own complexion.

This is not, and cannot ever be, the answer to the problems that have re-emerged in Europe since the death of Communism. The civilised world is learning, not always easily, to live in multicultural and multiethnic communities. Sarajevo itself has remained a model in this respect, even under siege. If there is to be compromise it must be based on principles that can be upheld elsewhere. The next test is already with us. Are Kosovo and Macedonia also to pay the price of Western muddle and neglect?