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Creeping Ethnic Partition Of Bosnia Threatens to Reignite Conflict

Washington, March 21 (RFE/RL) - The creeping ethnic partition of Bosnia -- something no one seems to be able to do anything to prevent -- threatens to reignite the conflict there, divide NATO, and lead to a new and dangerous confrontation among outside powers.

That sad conclusion reflects three recent developments: the continuing unwillingness of Serbs, Croatians and Muslims in Bosnia to cooperate at any level even when NATO troops are present; the near certainty that those troops will leave by the end of the year if the U.S. withdraws its contingent as it promises to do; and the increasing dependence of the emerging mini-states on foreign patrons, some of whom are likely to exploit the conflict even at the risk of a broader war.

The Dayton peace accords were intended to preserve a territorially integral, multi-ethnic Bosnia. That was the basis for American and NATO willingness to commit troops for a year. But the presence of IFOR has not stopped the ethnic sorting out of the population as the Serbian evacuation of several Sarajevo neighborhoods demonstrated this week. Nor has it overcome the unwillingness of Bosnian Muslim, Bosnian Serb, and Bosnian Croatian officials to cooperate even to receive foreign assistance.

According to a report made public on Wednesday, the American military has concluded that "the prospects for the existence of a viable, unitary Bosnia beyond the life" of the NATO deployment are "dim." Although hardly surprising, such public conclusions may exacerbate the situation on the ground still further.

Because the U.S. has said it will withdraw its forces by the end of 1996 and because neither the US nor the West Europeans have shown much willingness either to make a longer military commitment or to provide significant aid, the competing factions in Bosnia have reached the obvious conclusion that partition is almost certain to happen and that the West is unlikely to do anything to prevent it.

Having reached that conclusion, both the Bosnian populations and their ethnic leaders are likely to take ever more actions that will make such an outcome still more likely. Were their decisions only to reignite the communal conflict in Bosnia, that result would be tragic enough. Unfortunately, a revived conflict there will almost certainly have three broader consequences, each of which will undermine the chances for international peace.

First, the threatened partition of Bosnia is almost certain to lead to the creation of an increasingly radical Islamic state in Europe, something many West Europeans fear and oppose. And that in turn is likely to divide NATO between West Europeans who want to try to preserve a united Bosnia even if it requires continued troop deployments and the U.S. which wants its troops to come home quickly. It is ironic that at a time when the NATO countries are discussing the expansion of the alliance, a new Bosnian crisis may threaten its survival.

Second, all three emerging ethnic mini-states within Bosnia will be forced to look for and then become dependent on outside sponsors. The Bosnian Serbs will certainly look to Serbia and beyond that to radical Russian politicians who have supported the Serbian cause. The Bosnian Croatians will equally certainly look to Croatia. Those expected developments entail real dangers. But the Bosnian Muslims seem likely to look to some of the most radical Muslim states, a step that could lead to an even more serious explosion.

And finally, the creeping partition of Bosnia will endanger world peace in yet another and more fundamental way. Throughout the conflict, all the great powers have said they will do whatever is necessary to block partition. But as recent events suggest, partition is nonetheless taking place. That in turn undermines the credibility of the international community and teaches aggrieved groups elsewhere perhaps the most dangerous lesson of all: violence works.

In a world with as many divisions as this one, that is not a message anyone should want to send.