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Serbian Noncompliance Leaves NATO with Hands Tied

Column by Ramy A. Arnaout
Associate News Editor

President Bill Clinton announced on Feb. 21 that the parties warring outside Sarajevo were in "effective compliance" with a NATO ultimatum to end the fighting. However, despite the optimism voiced by Clinton and other NATO and U.N. leaders, evidence from the mountains around Sarajevo suggests that the airy phrase "effective compliance" has little meaning in view of blatant flouting of the ultimatum by the Bosnian Serbs.

More distressing, however, is the possibility that NATO will not be able to enforce the ultimatum for fear of killing newly-deployed Russian troops, thus causing a major confrontation between Russia and the United States.

The NATO ultimatum specifies that all warring parties withdraw all heavy weaponry within a 12.5-mile radius around Sarajevo and turn them over to U.N. forces. Noncompliance would result in NATO air strikes.

Despite the mollifying statements of many western leaders, the media is rife with evidence of Serb non-compliance. A Bosnian government report holds that there are still at least 40 pieces of Serb heavy weaponry in the mountains around the besieged Bosnian capital. Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic cited eight tanks and more than 20 heavy artillery pieces among those weapons on and around Mt. Igman and Mt. Trebevic, in the very heart of the NATO exclusion zone.

Reportedly, 250 weapons were withdrawn rather than put under international control, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John M. Shalikashvili. On-sight reports by both journalists and U.N. field commanders positioned in the fields corroborate this kind of Serbian intransigence.

It is not only natural, but essential, for NATO and U.N. leaders to put a positive spin on the results of the ultimatum in the eyes of the international community. Indeed, this long-awaited first demonstration of strong U.S. leadership is a notable success, if only because it has quieted the skies over the ravaged, once beautiful Sarajevo. Unfortunately, the besieged Bosnians can only wait and hope that the ultimatum is the end of the international community's simpering and the beginning of its efforts to end the conflict with justice.

For all its promise the NATO-U.N. victory is a tempered and precarious one. In principle, the obvious move for NATO would be a show of the force that was supposed to be behind the declaration of the ultimatum. There is no reason to speculate that any show of force, even a warning run, would not have immediate results; indeed, the mere threat of NATO strikes was enough to clear the skies above Sarajevo of Serbian shells.

Ironically, NATO's own choice for a 10-day timetable for Serbian withdrawal has made this threat extremely difficult to carry out, if not a practical impossibility. While the West waited for 10 days, Russia sent 400 troops as peacekeepers specifically to key military and strategic positions around Sarajevo with the mission of aiding and overseeing the Serbian military pullout. The Russian presence at potential air strike targets serves as an overwhelming deterrent to US bombers. Russian deaths at American hands -- combined with historical animosities, Russia's unstable political stage, the recent espionage controversy, and deep Serb-Russian camaraderie -- would undoubtedly provoke an explosive Russian response.

In spite of the gradual warming of Cold War relations between Russia and the United States in recent years, the tremendous rise in popularity both of extreme conservatives and the fanatical liberal fringe makes for relations that could quickly turn unpleasant for the United States. The ascent of the opportunistic and very popular Vladimir Zhirinovsky has challenged the administration of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, forcing him partially to adopt the ideas of more radical platforms to retain approval in the eyes of the Russian people.

Given the political circumstances, Yeltsin cannot afford to condemn Serbia or the Bosnian Serbs. Russians have historically come to the Serbs' aid, united by religion and ethnicity, most notably in the sequence of events following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand that led to World War I. In evidence of the firm bond between the two Slavic nations, the Russian peacekeepers were greeted by Serbian cheers and the three-fingered Orthodox salute. With popular Russian support for the Serbs, Yeltsin does not have the luxury of being able to dump Serbia now that the Balkan war threatens relations with the West.

As a result, Yeltsin has repeatedly condemned the decision to threaten air strikes, warning the West not to make a decision that would make Russia deeply resentful and would leave the Russian people indignant, according to the Times. Zhirinovsky, in typical outrageous form, in addition to condemning the strikes, has threatened World War III if NATO forces bomb Serbian positions.

In addition, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev sees a more sober threat to Russian interests, for the decision to bomb Serbian positions establishes a precedent for NATO interference in regions outside their traditional sphere of influence.

Unquestionably, sending Russians and Serbians side-by-side to their deaths through airstrikes would cause a dangerous, fatal confrontation. By sending the peacekeepers, Yeltsin has made a very clever move. Not only has he has safeguarded the Bosnian Serbs from the threat of air strikes, he has appeased the demands of the Russian people that Russia somehow aided their Serbian brothers. Without the threat or use of force, Russia has gained a prestige unseen since the height of the Cold War.

The American plan promises extensive financial aid to postwar reconstruction in Bosnia if the Muslims and Croatians enter into a confederation that would end the fighting Bosnia's south. Hopefully this would present a unified front to Serbian forces, who have seized over 70 percent of its territory, though comprising one-third of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Unless the situation of Russian peacekeepers changes, the Serbs have little to fear from NATO bombing. Unfortunately, Yeltsin's decision may have left international relations in a stalemate. It is highly uncertain what the West can now do to ease the agony of the Bosnian Muslims, who must live under fear, deprivation, and sorrow.

At least some small solace can be gleaned from the current situation, however. It is unlikely that the Serbs will resume bombing Sarajevo, fearing that Russia will use another clever maneuver to remove Serbia's remaining human shields. Russia, after all, still has dominating interests in working with the West, and therefore with NATO and the United Nations.

Mehmed Husic, a columnist for the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, said of the Muslim's condition, "Now we don't expect anything from anybody.