Leading Article: Serbian words are not enough

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SCEPTICISM has become the natural reaction to anything the Serbs do or say, so it is difficult to believe that Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, is now really prepared to force an international peace plan on the Bosnian Serbs, whose right to self-determination he so recently championed. Assailed as he is by an even more nationalist opposition, he would be taking a substantial political risk.

Yet such a switch could just make sense. He is a nationalist only when it suits him, and has no great love for the Bosnian Serbs. Their leaders are his political rivals and have defied him before. Their policies have become expensive for Serbia, consuming resources and soldiers, bringing down ever tighter sanctions on Belgrade and denying Mr Milosevic the international standing that he may still hope to regain. Their usefulness has largely expired. His control of the media should enable him to survive a backlash from nationalist rivals, particularly as the population is war-weary. Doing an obedient U- turn, the Belgrade media are attacking the Bosnia Serb leadership as inconsistent and frivolous. Mr Milosevic has miraculously become a man of peace pursuing higher Serbian interests.

The Russians have played an important part by pressing Mr Milosevic to accept the peace plan. They, too, have their explanations ready for critics: they are not letting down the Serbs but merely distinguishing between the good, responsible Serbs in Belgrade, who represent the true interests of their people, and the irresponsible warmongers in Bosnia.

So perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that the beginning of the end of the war is in sight. If Mr Milosevic really seals the frontier, the Bosnian Serbs will eventually run out of fuel and ammunition. Yesterday's reports that they are about to change their leadership suggest the message may be getting home. Yet scepticism cannot be abandoned altogether. Nothing in this war has ever been quite what it seemed. Mr Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs will do the minimum they think they can get away with. Both have as little reason to believe in the West's determination as the West has to believe in their good intentions.

So it is important to keep up the pressure until words produce deeds. Reports from the supposedly sealed border are already inconclusive, suggesting that some traffic, which may or my not be carrying food, is still crossing. Until the Serbs accept United Nations monitors on all frontier crossings, scepticism will persist.

Equally, it will be important not to relax even if the Bosnian Serbs put their signatures to the peace plan. Not one signature to all the countless ceasefires and other promises in this war has meant anything. Peace will come only when the shooting stops.

If a slender hope of peace is now on the horizon, it is there only because the Serbs have been impressed by the co-operation of Russia with the West, American threats to lift the arms embargo on the Muslims, the willingness of Nato to drop a few bombs and the tightening of sanctions on Belgrade. The removal or weakening of any of these pressures would be instantly seized upon by Serbs as evidence that they do not have to give up conquered territory.