U.N. envoy Cyrus R. Vance declared a breakthrough Wednesday in the 6-month-old Yugoslav war after both Serbian and Croatian leaders backed his plan for ending the conflict that has already taken almost 10,000 lives.
While Vance's newfound optimism suggested that war fatigue may be wearing down both sides and improving the prospects for peace, fighting raged across Croatia on New Year's Day, and the warring factions still appeared unwilling to meet U.N. conditions for foreign intervention.
Vance, on his fifth trip to Yugoslavia since being appointed special U.N. mediator in the crisis, emerged from a meeting with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to declare the situation "very radically changed" since his last visit in early December.
"I've seen steps taken that have not been taken before, (including) the acceptance of our proposal in its entirety, in full, by both sides," Vance told reporters. "We have a ways to go yet, but we, I think, have made progress."
In separate meetings with Vance over the past two days, Tudjman and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic pledged their support for stationing as many as 10,000 foreign troops inside Croatia to separate the combatants in three key areas.
Vance also called on Croatian military authorities and those of the Yugoslav federal army to meet today to discuss terms for a new cease-fire. It would be the 15th truce since fighting intensified after the June 25 declarations of independence by Croatia and Slovenia.
Vance, a former U.S. secretary of state, was unable to offer any predictions on when a U.N. peacekeeping force could be deployed, but he made it clear that he sensed greater willingness on the part of republic leaders to work for an end to the conflict.
Croatian officials also appeared pleased, perhaps hopeful that the U.N. deployment, as outlined by Vance, would allow some of the republic's 400,000 refugees to return to their homes in areas of Croatia now controlled by Serbian rebels. "This is the first sign that we could really achieve a stop to the war," a buoyant Tudjman told journalists.
But Tudjman and Milosevic endorsed the same U.N. peacekeeping plan almost six weeks ago during a meeting with Vance in Geneva, raising suspicion among some foreign observers that this week's reported breakthrough is more of a time-buying maneuver than a genuine desire for peace.
Contrary to the political leaders' professed support for an end to the conflict, ethnic clashes have intensified in recent days and appear likely to keep escalating as a Jan. 15 date approaches for Western European recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as independent countries.
The 12-nation European Community agreed last month to extend diplomatic ties to the breakaway republics, if a political solution to the Yugoslav war had not been worked out by then. Two weeks remain until that deadline. But there is virtually no possibility of negotiating the complex terms of Yugoslavia's disintegration by then or of disarming all potential combatants, estimated in the millions because of the Balkan peoples' propensity for keeping firearms.
What may be driving the two republic leaders in their apparent campaign for U.N. support is fear that the war's current course is leading them to personal destruction. Each also hopes that U.N. intervention would be seen as a partial victory for his side.
Milosevic risks an erosion of the absolute power he wields in Serbia because of a growing anti-war movement and an economy in a shambles. He has recently appeared eager for the proposed U.N. deployment that would allow the tens of thousands of Serbian guerrillas fighting in Croatia to return to their civilian jobs, a move that would help to get industrial production and commerce back on track.
Serbia, widely viewed in Europe as the chief aggressor, also has been hit hard by a Western trade embargo that could end, if peace is restored.
But to fulfill conditions for a U.N. deployment, Milosevic would have to accept Croatian independence and order Serbian forces to strictly observe a cease-fire. He also would have to go back on his vow to provide military protection for ethnic Serbs in Croatia. The Serbs make up about 12% of the rival republic's 5 million population and have expressed fears of possible Croatian repression, akin to World War II atrocities committed by fascists.
Because the Serbian president's power base was built on promises of unity and security for all Serbs, renunciation of those policies would anger Serbian guerrilla factions and probably cause them to break the cease-fire.
Tudjman's political future is even more uncertain, amid Croats angered by the loss of one-third of their republic to Serbian militants and the war's systematic devastation of their jobs, homes and families. He is under intense pressure from radicals opposed to deployment of foreign troops inside Croatia, since many fear that the U.N. "blue helmets" will, in effect, establish a new border that protects the Serbian territorial conquests.
Times special correspondent Kirka reported from Zagreb, Croatia, and Williams reported from Vienna.