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Toward Peace in the Balkans

EVEN a few days of successful cease-fire is a victory for rationality in war-tattered Yugoslavia. The break in the fighting has created an opening for United Nations intervention. Ultimately, up to 10,000 blue-helmeted peacekeepers could be sent to strategic points within Croatia.

UN forces would provide a critical buffer between warring Serbs and Croats so that the task of negotiating a peaceful dismantling of the old Yugoslav federation can begin. The warriors - with the exception of some Serbian militias from Croatia - have apparently concluded that their guns won't accomplish what they had hoped. The Yugoslav Army, allied with Serbia, faces the twin problems of stiffer Croatian opposition and mounting protests against its draft.

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The success of diplomacy and negotiation remains distant, however. Serbian irregulars could thwart the cease-fire at any moment. Local Serbian leaders like Milan Babic, who has proclaimed the Serbian republic of Krajina inside Croatia, firmly oppose the deployment of international peacekeeping troops. For their part, Croatian leaders have sworn that not one square inch of their republic will be lost. Serbia's leaders are just as adamant that Serbs will never be forced to live in an independent Croatia.

The historical animosity between Croats and Serbs has been stirred to ferocity. Yet the Balkan peoples that coexisted under the old federation are thoroughly intermixed in Croatia, and even more so in adjoining Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is no simple way to redraw the borders.

At the heart of a new modus vivendi - which could lead to lasting peace - will have to be strong, internationally guaranteed protections for the rights of minorities within the newly independent republics.

The UN will have a leading role in forming such an agreement, along with the European Community - though the EC's impartiality may have been compromised by its German-impelled decision to recognize Slovenia and Croatia by mid-January. For all the extraordinary effort to bring about a cease-fire, the diplomatic work has only begun.

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