Former Yugoslavia (September 1995)
by Humanitarian Practice Network September 1995

The situation in the Balkans remains extremely fluid, changing almost daily.

In May, following the taking of UN hostages by the Bosnian Serbs, the UN despatched additional troops to the area in the form of an Anglo-French Rapid Reaction Force. But following Bosnian Serb attacks on the safe havens of Zepa and Srebrenica in June and July, the resulting forced movement of Muslims out of the area, and the ensuing London Summit of Contact Group representatives, UN control was handed over to NATO.

On 30 August, NATO and Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) began a series of air attacks on Bosnian Serb military bases around Sarajevo, pushed to decisive action after months of increasing aggression on all sides of the conflict, culminating in the Bosnian Serb missile attack on a market place in which 37 civilians died and hundreds were injured.

The deaths brought to 10,000 the number of residents in the city killed since the beginning of the 41-month siege. The NATO decision followed a build up of pressure on the Bosnian Serbs over the last two months by both Bosnian Muslims and the re-entry of the Croats into the war, resulting in the re-taking of Krajina.

The attacks are due to continue until the Bosnian Serbs withdrew their heavy artillery from within the 20km exclusion zone around Sarajevo. This was satisfactorily achieved on 21 September, when air strikes were halted.

Since the intervention, all food aid convoys were cancelled, with the exception of Bihac. The road to Sarajevo was opened for limited convoys in early September.

The decisive military intervention by the West may have been influenced by the arrival of the new French President, Jacques Chirac and by the need for President Clinton to fend off the strongly isolationist attacks from his numerous Republican opponents in Congress.

Whatever the motivation, it is now clear that the Bosnian Serbs are on the defensive, with the balance of power now no longer in their favour. The victory of the Croats in the Krajina area showed the Bosnian Serb leadership, for the first time, that they too could suffer defeat, lose territory and see their own people fleeing in refugee columns.

A major Muslim-Croat offensive during the second week of September seized key towns in central and western Bosnia, sending 50,000 Serbs fleeing to Banja Luka, the largest Serb held town in the area and this latest success is likely to encourage further moves. The offensive is suspected to be in part a tactical move on the part of the Bosnian Serbs who, having agreed in principle to accepting an eventual settlement of 49% instead of the 70% of their territory gained since the beginning of the war, will find it easier to ‘sell’ to their hardliners if the territory has actually been physically taken back.

Bosnian Serb leaders may now have to face the real possibility that they will lose everything they have taken since the beginning of the war and accept that it is time to accept a serious advance to the diplomatic table.

A new negotiating team, made up of Serbs and Bosnian Serbs, led by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has been set up, but negotiations if they come about, will not be easy. The emboldened Bosnian government will not accept territorial swaps now as easily as it might have done under circumstances prevailing at the beginning of the year.

Tudjman’s ‘successes’ in the Krajina and central and western Bosnia may make him more determined to pursue a Greater Croatia solution, and while Serbian President Milosevic would welcome relief from sanctions in return for peace, his control of the Bosnian Serb leader and commander, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, appears limited. Just as the Bosnian Serbs were reluctant to ‘stop while they were on top’, so their enemies will find it hard to do likewise, and a stable settlement, brokered by the UN, remains a long way off.

Even if the international community succeeds in keeping them around a negotiating table, the West may not have the satisfaction of brokering a multi-ethnic solution. It remains to be seen if the 8 September agreement on all sides as part of the US peace plan, whereby much of the captured territory would go to the Muslim-Croat Federation, holds. As the rift between Bosnia’s Muslim Prime Minister Siladzic and President Izetbegovic grows, with recent comments by Izetbegovic implying a hardening along the lines of his Croatian/Serbian neighbours, so the hopes for a multi-ethnic state solution recede.