LEADING ARTICLE:Supping with the devil over Bosnia

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There is a danger that in its haste to obtain the release of United Nations hostages and end the war in Bosnia, the West might be tempted to make a pact with the devil.

The devil, in this case, is the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Western governments rightly believe that he is the strongest character in the Balkan landscape, the man with most power over disparate Serb communities strung out across Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia itself.

But Mr Milosevic is one of the principal architects of Yugoslavia's ethnic chauvinism. He converted Serb yearnings for a united homeland into a genocidal campaign for which, one day, the perpetrators should stand trial at a modern Nuremberg. Yet it is to him that the desperate cabinets of Europe now turn to end the hecatomb that he himself began.

It is undeniable that they must do so. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Europe is dealing with three historic antagonists, the solution to whose feud eluded the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the statesmen of three empires in a crisis of 1908. It is not going to resolve itself just because John Major and Jacques Chirac are put out. The conflict must , therefore, be tackled by turning to the strongest hand in the region for help.

Yet it would be wrong to rush bearing gifts to the Serbian leader. He acknowledges only power and thus understands, perhaps better than his subjects, that Serbia itself is in a poor position to bargain ad infinitum with the rest of the world. The economic framework inherited from Tito's federation lies in ruins, the currency is flimsy paper, society traumatised. Sanctions have had a salutary, if less than decisive, effect.

So the best way to handle Mr Milosevic is closely to link any concessions with resolution of every issue that the West wants settled. Our compromises must march in step with his retreats. There needs to be the most delicate line drawn between agreements reciprocally entered into on a principle of balance and any hint of gratuitous reward - the "goodwill gestures" on which the Bosnian Serbs brazenly insist. But drawing fine lines is what diplomats are paid for, so let them get at it.

One ambassador who knew the pre-war Milosevic well has left a vivid analysis of the one-time Communist apparatchik who acquired a taste for Scotch and cigarillos in his New York banking days. He is a man of extraordinary coldness, whose dark side predominates, habitually mendacious, an opportunist driven by power, not ideology. This was a rational man who made a Faustian pact with nationalism as a way to gain and hold power.

It is therefore necessary to break the mould in which that pact was cast. The price for Mr Milosevic's re-admission on temporary terms to modern Europe should be clear. The gloomy and bloodstained cause of pan-Serb nationalism must be rejected. Agreements to grant Serb minorities in Bosnia and Croatia their proper autonomous rights can and will be reached, but only in conditions of peace and security. That should be the new pact: let the devil see if he can bear it.