'Solutions' the Serbs can never swallow

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THE MOST important question for all honest people in the former Yugoslavia now is how to end the terrible war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and how to restore a just and lasting peace. The Bosnian question remains very complex and painful. Europe has been tackling it actively but unsuccessfully ever since the Berlin Congress of 1878, which decided the boundaries of the Balkan states after the Russo-Turkish war.

The chief task of our times is to maintain peace in Europe and consolidate the south-eastern part of the continent. This requires a wise, far-sighted and resolute approach to a final settlement of the Bosnian crisis. No decision that does not respect the Serbs' legitimate and historical demands will be at all lasting.

I would emphasise that the Serbs have lived in a single state - Yugoslavia - ever since 1918. Overnight, because the republics of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were recognised as independent, they found themselves residing in three states - the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro); Croatia; and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It is very hard for the Serbs to accept this, particularly as no one has ever asked them about it. But this by itself does not make them into aggressors. None of those who have lived on this land and defended it for centuries can be considered an aggressor. Unfortunately, the international community is trying to settle the Bosnian crisis by applying different criteria to the various parties: it is trying to use one-sided diktat, sanctions, ultimatums and the threat of military intervention against the Serbs.

The Serbs in Bosnia are being made to live in the same state as Muslims and Croats. At first the international community supported the division of the country, but now it wants to restore peace in Europe by force of arms. Such an approach to settling the Bosnian crisis guarantees that the three peoples involved in the conflict will be subject to constant genocide, war and suffering.

The government of Yugoslavia supported the Vance-Owen plan as a basis for ending the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the interests of ending this abnormal situation for all three peoples and for the purpose of achieving constructive co-operation with the United Nations and the European Community in maintaining peace.

But the authors of this plan have prepared maps of the provinces which are totally unacceptable to the Serbs, because they are unjust and jeopardise the Serbs' vital interests - obviously playing into the hands of Croatian interests and Muslim blackmail.

We expected that the international community would show the highest degree of readiness to meet the Serbs' interests and would understand their fear of the possibility of collective destruction - a fear founded on their memories of the Ustashe genocide of 1941-45, which is being repeated in this war.

However, the recent changes to the Vance-Owen plan, adopted under pressure from Muslim representatives, lay the basis for creating a state in which Muslims, Croats and their coalition will have the advantage and hegemony. It will be a state that promotes the ethnic expulsion of Serbs - given that, according to the maps, approximately 40 per cent of the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina still live in provinces under Muslim and Croatian rule.

It is necessary to pay due attention and respect to the statement by the Bosnian Serb leadership that 80 per cent of the maps are acceptable to them while 20 per cent of the disputed territory must be placed under the control of the UN Protection Force until a complete consensus is reached through political negotiations.

I would like to believe that the people engaged in settling the Bosnian crisis will understand that peace, freedom and human rights cannot be established with the aid of ultimatums, sanctions and threats. Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina is possible only if there are neither victors nor vanquished.

The government of Yugoslavia cannot order the Serbs in Bosnia to do anything that would threaten their survival. The Bosnian Serbs, for their part, are not prepared to carry out orders from Belgrade. Our potential for influencing the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina does not extend as far as it appears to the EC, the Security Council and the governments of the United States and Russia.

The international community is proceeding from erroneous convictions when it threatens to toughen sanctions against the Serbs and Montenegrins, regarding them as hostages of the Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats. We can only seek their advice, which we are doing. We cannot order dying people, who are sacrificing everything to survive on their land, to capitulate.

The new sanctions and total isolation with which Serbia and Montenegro are being threatened from New York and Brussels cast doubt on our people's very existence.

I ask: in the name of which principles and rights, in the name of whose interests and aims, are our people being threatened with extermination? And I ask myself this question: under these conditions, how are we to implement democratic reforms and create a free society and a free market economy, to ensure pluralism in the mass media, to build a state ruled by law, and to guarantee full compliance with the rights of citizens and minorities?

Unfortunately for us, sanctions and other measures merely create an atmosphere of wholesale dissatisfaction and foster political and ideological extremism. In the interests of settling the conflict in Yugoslavia and the Balkans the international community must gather all its forces and support what I consider to be a more advantageous approach - consistent compliance with the rights of all peoples to self-determination and statehood.

If we adhere to the principles for which President Woodrow Wilson campaigned when he was involved in the peace process at the end of the First World War, it would probably be possible to carry out a radical state and political restructuring of the Balkans, but only by peaceful means and through talks.

The Serbs do not have a single important national interest which is not essentially democratic and compatible with European interests. We are opposed to national exclusivity, ethnic homogeneity and 'ethnically pure' states.

The author is president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This article was first printed in Russian in the Moscow newspaper 'Nezavisimaya Gazeta' and is reprinted with kind permission of the BBC Monitoring Service, Caversham.