Peace, or myth wrapped up in a folly: The Vance-Owen plan salves the West's conscience but won't save Bosnia, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
EVEN if the parties to the Bosnian conflict ultimately accept the Vance-Owen plan, peace is hardly likely to return to the Balkans. The Croats signed because they got what they wanted; the Muslims swallowed the plan because it represents the only chance for Western military involvement, while the Serbs may accept the proposals because they represent the limits of Western tolerance. All in all, the Vance- Owen package ducks the Balkan's real issues.

Adopting an air of injured innocence, the US administration likes to pretend the Bosnian crisis somehow dates only from President Clinton's election. In fact, Washington is just as responsible as the Europeans for a policy that has failed at every level. It was the former Secretary of State, James Baker, who, apparently seeing parallels with America's own civil war, posed as the Balkans' Abraham Lincoln and vowed 'never' to recognise 'secessionist' Yugoslav republics.

Just like the Europeans, the Americans ignored the carnage for more than a year, and Bill Clinton originally promised to do 'more' for Bosnia not because he had any idea what this might entail, but because he hoped to dent President Bush's foreign policy credentials. America's debate about military intervention - unlike that in Europe - has been conducted almost exclusively among members of Washington's political elite. Newspaper columnists switched easily from writing about the siege of Waco to that of Sarajevo, chewing over all the tired comparisons with Vietnam and the Holocaust that are wheeled out whenever a complicated and faraway war has to be presented to an American audience.

While views may differ on proposals to drop a bomb here or there, the Washington establishment agrees on one aspect: the Europeans have failed to solve conflicts on their continent. Presumably, they should have learnt from the way America solved the problems of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua or Panama?

Meanwhile, the Europeans are shifting

responsibility from one government to another. One of the biggest myths gaining ground is that Germany, by demanding the recognition of Yugoslav republics in January last year, made the war intractable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Germany certainly acted crassly in breaking EC solidarity on Yugoslavia. However, it did so only after European policies had failed either to keep Yugoslavia together or stop the bloodshed.

Furthermore, Germany wanted to recognise only Slovenia and Croatia; it was the EC which, in a desperate attempt to conceal German pressure, offered similar recognition to the other Yugoslav republics. As always, the Balkans mattered less than Western internal policy.

The recognition of Slovenia and Croatia came, if anything, too late; but the recognition of Bosnia was precipitous. The claims of Bosnia's President, Alija Izetbegovic's, to represent a peaceful multi-ethnic society were readily accepted because they accorded with instinctive liberal beliefs that people are essentially 'good'; left to their own devices under a benign leadership, they are likely to eschew ethnic hatred. The reality was different: in its 1990 elections, Bosnia overwhelmingly voted for ethnically based parties.

Whether the West liked it or not, ethnic divisions were precisely what mattered in Bosnia, and Mr Izetbegovic's claims that some Serbs and Croats continued fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Muslims is correct, but hardly profound. Earlier this century many nationalities fought in the Austro-Hungarian armies until the bitter end, but the legacy of that empire is now detested by most of these nations. Western governments swapped a policy that tried to keep the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state united for one that sought to preserve Bosnia. The ensuing failure was predictable: guns ultimately separated the nations that history had intermingled.

In reality, the West always had only two choices: either the dispatch of a massive force with the task of keeping Bosnia united, or the acceptance of the republic's irrevocable division. The first required a commitment nobody wanted to give; the second necessitated the abandonment of principles nobody wanted to compromise. And the outcome? The Vance-

Owen plan, which is nothing but a myth wrapped up in a folly.

Trumpeting newly created cliches, all Western politicians claim that while the plan is 'deeply flawed', it nevertheless represents 'the only game in town'. Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance have done an admirable job in reconciling the difference between the West's promise that aggression and ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to succeed, and the reality that no government is prepared to do anything to defeat such evils.

In essence, the plan accepts the facts on the ground, but pretends that they do not have long-term consequences. Bosnia is to be granted a new constitution; the various regions are going to be primarily, but not exclusively, ethnically homogenous; and the borders of the old state will remain unchanged. This is nonsense at every level. A durable federal system is one that grows from below, not one imposed from above by a new constitution. And ethnic cleansing, once undertaken, is usually irreversible; only fools can believe that terrorised communities will agree to return to destroyed villages to start a new life together, looking after the graves of their relatives but bearing no rancour towards yesterday's enemies.

A ceasefire in Bosnia would allow the Croatian and Serbian leaders to start a real bazaar in which territory and people will be traded ruthlessly. Deprived of opportunities to work and still terrorised, each ethnic group will continue to migrate; Western politicians could still claim to uphold the fiction of one Bosnia, while Croats and Serbs will remain in the possession of most territory. But by then, America's journalistic worthies and the world's television crews will be absorbed in the next war. And the Vance-Owen plan will have succeeded in its real aim: cleansing the West's guilty conscience.

Some governments still assert that a ceasefire in Bosnia will prevent the Yugoslav war from spreading elsewhere in the Balkans. For that to happen, however, the West must be prepared not only to police a peace plan for one republic, but also to fill the strategic void created by the disintegration of Yugoslavia by offering a mechanism to pre-empt further territorial disputes.

Yet nothing of the kind is envisaged. Far from seeking to become more involved, the race is now on to disengage from the Balkans as quickly as possible. Sanctions against Serbia are likely to be maintained in one form or another, but nobody is prepared to think what will happen when this state collapses and disgorges a host of new ethnic problems.

Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic does not need to pick a fresh fight with Kosovo's ethnic Albanians; he has been doing this for years without eliciting a murmur of European disapproval. A compact Albanian minority living adjacent to the borders of Albania proper will never be satisfied with nebulous autonomy proposals, which, in any case, already exist on paper. Such classic cases of irredenta usually result in territorial changes or movements of population, or a war that brings about both. But what is the West's current policy? A demand for Kosovo's autonomy within a 'democratic' Serbia, a pious hope that angels will somehow descend on the Balkans.

A similar failure is guaranteed in Macedonia. Most EC states have rushed to recognise Macedonia's independence, believing, as in Bosnia's case, that the act of recognition is a policy in itself. The Macedonian president, who also likes to present his republic as an 'oasis of stability' despite denying rights to a large Albanian minority, has already started baiting both Greece and Bulgaria, claiming to protect Macedonian minorities everywhere. Without the co-operation of its neighbours, however, Macedonia will be clinically dead.

And the West's policy? Antagonising Greece by inviting Turkey to take part in enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia, despite an undertaking not to involve Balkan states in this effort. With the exception of Albania, no state neighbouring Yugoslavia relishes the prospect of a Western military intervention. And with good reason: the Balkan governments know that such an intervention will only leave them to pick up the pieces from a wider regional mess.

However a Bosnian settlement is packaged this week, every dictator contemplating a similar war will know only too well what the realities are. Violence remains the midwife of nations: Croatia and Slovenia are independent today not because anyone wanted it so, but because they won their wars; Bosnia's original frontiers are gone because the Muslims lost a similar fight.

For years the West was engaged in an erudite dispute about European security after the end of Communism, sorting through the 'alphabet soup' of acronyms representing various institutions, from Nato and the EC to the Western European Union (WEU) and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). The message of Yugoslavia is that the notion of European collective security is non-existent.

Europe's 'alphabet soup' is, in fact, a thick and rancid porridge. The troops scheduled to arrive in Bosnia shortly will be asked to enforce a plan that is bound to fail, in the name of a peace which remains a myth.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.