Leading Article: The story has not yet come to an end

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THE collapse of the Vance-Owen plan in Bosnia was inevitable from the moment it became clear that the United Nations was not prepared to impose the plan by force. None of the three warring factions had a real interest in its success. Each hoped to gain more by fighting. All soon realised that nobody would stop them.

Whether the United Nations should, in fact, have used force will be long debated. There will be no definite answer because nobody knows what would have happened if it had done so. Time will also be needed to work out whether the partial and muddled intervention that has taken place has done more good than harm. Many lives have been saved by relief convoys, and some towns have been protected from the Serbs, but the case will be put that the war would have been over more quickly had all warring parties been clear from the beginning that they were entirely on their own. If that cruel and melancholy conclusion turns out to be the one towards which logic points, it will require some fundamental rethinking of international security, the main message being that half- measures are worse than none.

What is already clear is that the United Nations and the European Community have suffered a nasty defeat. Their ceasefires, maps, plans, threats and exhortations, their well-meaning politicians and officials have been ignored by warlords on the ground. Even the sanctions against Serbia have had mixed effects. They probably caused Slobodan Milosevic to be slightly more conciliatory, but at the same time they solidified popular support behind him.

Thus the map of a carved-up Bosnia that will now emerge will be drawn largely by the Serbs and Croats, with some obeisance to the ability of the Muslims to continue fighting if their interests are too brutally ignored. Indeed, the Muslims may continue fighting anyway, although they will eventually be crushed. Their initial response has been to reject the drawing of a new map.

The role of the outside world will be to exert what few means of pressure remain to it to press for the preservation of a Muslim state, entity, region or whatever it is called that will not be a chronic source of trouble. Even that task may be impossible. Almost any Muslim entity is going to be smaller than its inhabitants think it should be and dependent on its enemies for contact with the outside world. The Croats have offered access to the sea, but the route will presumably remain under their control and available as a means of pressure on the Muslims.

Whatever happens, the Western community should feel a strong obligation to help the Muslims. If the Islamic countries feel the same obligation, the hope must be that they will not provide arms but aid for survival and development, preferably on condition that the armed struggle is abandoned. But even if such help were to arrive, and if a Muslim government renounced force, some of its people would want to continue fighting. More worrying still will be the implications of having an Islamic outpost of the Middle East in Europe. The Muslims of Bosnia are Slavs descended from converts. So far they have felt little identification with Islamic fundamentalism. That could change if Middle East money comes together with a new sense of historical injustice. The future looks almost as bad if the Islamic world does not come to the aid of its brethren, since that could throw responsibility for what may become a European 'West Bank' on to the neighbours, or the EC, or international relief organisations.

That is not the only problem bequeathed by the war. Serbia remains a heavily armed, near-fascist state with a crumbling economy and a still unsatiated appetite for territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing. Exhausted by its victory in Bosnia, it may want a respite from fighting, and it would certainly like sanctions to be lifted. It may therefore opt for a period of good behaviour. But it has not yet finished trying to write its own history.

If nothing else, Serbia will continue the persecution of Albanians in Kosovo in the hope of gradually 'cleansing' the area by stealth. If the victims rise up, they will be savagely put down. Is the international community now likely to do anything about that? The token US forces that have been sent to Macedonia seem unlikely to provide the answer, especially as the Macedonians have shared interests with the Serbs on the subject of Albanians, although they treat them a great deal better.

Thus any illusion that the story is now over must be abandoned. Even if the war grinds to a standstill, which is still far from certain, the West will not be able to wash its hands of the Balkans. Tensions in Bosnia will continue, and the refugees will take years to resettle. Serbia has emerged as a dangerous power in the region. The fate of the Albanians remains to be decided.

Learning from the long list of mistakes made since Yugoslavia started to disintegrate, Western governments need to do some hard and rapid thinking on where their interests lie and what, if anything, they should do about the next round of troubles.