The last time a cease-fire was declared for the warring Balkans, in the brittle cold of this past December, peace-broker and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stumbled over some of the names and confused some of the parties.
Yet the agreement held, at least for several weeks, largely because the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government wanted wintertime cover to stoke their war machines and get ready for springtime offensives. By late April the fighting and shelling had resumed full scale.
Today, a new cease-fire accord is being pronounced over a radically changed Balkan landscape, where the balance of power has shifted and maps are starting to look cohesive, if bloodstained.
The agreement announced Thursday by President Clinton could for the first time evolve into a broader, lasting settlement because the cease-fire--unlike Carter's earlier effort--will be accompanied by additional talks at the highest level, riding on a greater momentum that has been prodded by unusually attentive U.S. diplomats and unusually tough international resolve.
Moreover, this cease-fire stands a better chance of working now because the region's two powers--Croatia and Serbia--finally have essentially what they wanted all along: Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, through his Bosnian Serb proxies, will have half of Bosnia. And through the Muslim-Croat federation that will be granted sovereignty over the other half, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman will extend his influence over a large swath of territory. What's more, he will have a Croatia well on its way to ethnic purity.
Still, truces have come and gone in the Balkans, and no one is prepared just yet to declare an end to Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II.
Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy who brokered the cease-fire that is to take effect Tuesday, abandoned his standard caution Thursday to trumpet his achievement. But he also reminded reporters that there are unresolved issues as daunting as anything negotiated thus far.
"You name it, and it's an obstacle," Holbrooke said, then proceeded to tick off the long list of sticking points. "The map. Sarajevo. The Posavina corridor [the Serbs' supply route in northeastern Bosnia]. . . . Political structures. Constitutional arrangements. Election procedures. There isn't an issue we [haven't] talked about.
"Any of you who think these issues are irrational or minor must remember that the whole war, from the point of view of most of us, is irrational," Holbrooke continued. "We are going to have to plow through these issues one at a time."
Key events in the last couple of months transformed the Balkans and brought the warring parties to this advanced stage of negotiation.
In August, the Croatian army, with tacit American approval, tamed its mutinous Krajina region, sending more than 150,000 Serbs fleeing into exile. This relieved Croatia of any need to accommodate a large ethnic minority and cleared Tudjman's path into western Bosnia. The Croatian army went on to help the Bosnian army break the Serbs' three-year siege of the northwestern city of Bihac.
In September, NATO air strikes pounded Bosnian Serb targets to force the rebel separatists to remove their heaviest weapons from around Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital. Serbian ammunition dumps and antiaircraft missile batteries were destroyed.
Both the Krajina rout and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization attacks left a Bosnian Serb army not as down-and-out as some U.S. officials would like to suggest but certainly weakened. Pressure on the Serbs to settle finally meant something.
"It was not what they had already lost that frightened them, it was that the losses could continue," said a U.N. military analyst in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. "The Bosnian Serb leadership was suddenly confronted by a united West, something they had never seen before. They now know what the price of defying the West is.
"The Bosnian Serb army has not been beaten into accepting this. They are still stronger than their opponents. But they cannot continue inching across the landscape through another winter."
The Bosnian government and Croatia, on the other hand, have in recent weeks succumbed to the temptation of continuing battlefield action thanks to the new and rare taste of victory. In just a few short days, the Muslim-Croat federation was able to conquer so much territory that it shifted the distribution of land from the 70-30 split favoring the Serbs a couple of months ago to a roughly 50-50 split now.
Limited fighting continued Thursday in the Bihac area. But both Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic want to attract financial aid to reconstruct their battered countries and are under pressure to go along with a cease-fire and eventual peace settlement to do so. Tudjman would especially like to see Croatia joining the community of European nations, a less likely prospect if war rages on.
Izetbegovic was determined to have the siege of Sarajevo lifted and had set Nov. 25 as a deadline. Diplomats say neither Sarajevo's government nor its people could easily survive a fourth winter at war, with no electricity, no water and no gas.
Such are the pressures brought to bear on Tudjman, Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Serbs. The most important principal player continues to be Milosevic, the shrewd politician whose nationalist rhetoric first inspired the rebel Serbs.
Eager to have international economic sanctions lifted from the rump Yugoslavia, made up of Serbia and Montenegro, Milosevic has been willing to order the Bosnian Serbs to comply with Holbrooke's plan thus far--not such a tough feat, since the rebels also receive what they most want, a Republika Srpska, or Bosnian Serb Republic.