July 2, 1996
Analysis: In Familiar Game, West Threatens Serbs Then Backs Off
By CHRIS HEDGES
AGREB, Croatia -- The tussle during the past few days in Bosnia between the Bosnian Serb leadership and the West was all hauntingly familiar.
First came the demand from the international community: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader who has been charged with war crimes, must leave power. Then came the threat: If Karadzic does not quit, economic sanctions will be imposed. Then came a vague promise by the Bosnian Serbs to comply, followed by no compliance.
And on Monday, the diplomat in charge of Bosnian reconstruction, Carl Bildt, who set the whole thing in motion, said that sanctions -- threatened against the Serbian government in Belgrade, which provides vital economic support to the Bosnian Serbs and is thought to have the power to oust Karadzic -- are probably not such a good idea after all.
The artful dance by the Bosnian Serbs, and less artful retreat by the West, has been polished over four years of peace negotiations, broken cease-fires, hostage-taking, and attacks on sanctuaries that were under U.N. protection. The Bosnian Serbs have learned that the NATO-led force now in Bosnia, like the U.N. peacekeeping troops that preceded it, has no stomach for a confrontation.
"When faced with a choice between renewed conflict in Bosnia and heavy NATO casualties, the Europeans and the Americans will choose conflict in Bosnia," said a European diplomat. "It is sad, but perhaps understandable."
While they do not openly say it, Western officials have made it clear that they no longer insist, in the short term at least, on their original goal of arresting Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb military leader, Gen. Ratko Mladic, to stand trial in the Hague. Rather, with national elections looming in Bosnia in September, they have said that Karadzic, as leader of the hardline forces that reject the goals of the Dayton peace accord, must simply be removed from power.
On Saturday, President Clinton and other leaders of the seven major economic powers declared that Karadzic must step down and that they would consider reimposing sanctions on Serbia if it did not press him to do so, although they pointedly did not back up Bildt's proposed deadline of Monday.
But Western leaders, afraid of provoking reprisals, have been unwilling to let NATO troops get involved in arresting Karadzic. And there seems to be little stomach for sanctions, either.
In the latest round with Karadzic, a repeat of a similar struggle between Karadzic and Bildt in May, the Bosnian Serbs said he was resigning the office of president -- Karadzic even signed a letter drafted in Bildt's office. But Karadzic's vice president later said that he would not formally resign, just hand over his duties for now. In any case, diplomats here say, he will be likely to continue controlling the Serbian part of Bosnia unless he is sent out of the country.
In Rome on Monday, the American Secretary of Defense William Perry responded to the confusion: "We will see what it amounts to in practice," he said in an interview with reporters. "It has to be clear that Karadzic is out of power and unable to influence events in the country." Of future Western responses, he added:
"That will become clear in the days ahead and as it becomes clear we can make a better decision about what the next steps will be."
The failure of Western resolve is chipping away at the credibility of the NATO-led mission in Bosnia. And some experts fear that the decision by Western leaders to back away from the latest demand on Monday, rather than enforce it, could lead to increasing defiance by the Bosnian Serb leader.
Bosnian Muslim leaders in Sarajevo are in despair over the matter. They said they had hoped, apparently in vain, that once NATO troops took charge in Bosnia the demands of the international community for the removal of those indicted for war crimes would be backed by force, or at least sanctions.
Although only a few days ago Bildt was issuing an ultimatum, on Monday he dismissed the threat of economic sanctions, saying they would hurt the wrong people. It was, according to many Western diplomats, a humiliating climb-down and one that was greeted with jubilation among the Bosnian Serbs.
Even as Bildt had made his demand, the political leadership in Pale, in an in-your-face gesture, on Saturday re-elected Karadzic as head of the ruling party, insuring Karadzic's continued control of the police and news organizations.
"It has never been a wise to let the Bosnian Serbs get away with this kind of defiance," said a Western diplomat. "They are not a people who know limits."
"The international community has been taken hostage by Karadzic and Mladic," said Vice President Ejup Ganic of Bosnia, in a telephone interview from Sarajevo. "The refusal to send NATO troops, with all their firepower, to Pale to arrest these war criminals is putting every single civilian aspect of the Dayton peace agreement in jeopardy. The whole peace process is paralyzed. It is clear to us that the West is governed by politicians who lack the vision and the moral probity to do what is right."
Some experts wonder whether such a cautious stance might actually endanger NATO troops in the long-term. For while the current 50,000-man force is scheduled to begin withdrawing on Dec. 20, everyone expects that a lesser force will be left behind to maintain separation between the Serb and Muslim armies. And if the credibility of the mission is in tatters it could mean trouble for the troops left behind.
"When the NATO troops deployed here in December, Karadzic and Mladic hid under their shells," said a western diplomat. "When they saw that NATO troops had no intention of arresting them, or even stepping in to do things like stop the looting by the Bosnian Serbs in the suburbs in Sarajevo, they realized they had a great deal of latitude. They are growing bolder.
"The consequences, if the past is any guide, is that they will not stop until they push the west to respond with force, or entirely discredit the operation."