THE Serbs' characteristically hedged acceptance of the latest United Nations plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina has done nothing to reduce Balkan fears that the war may spread. Nor has their tempered response to a recent Croatian attempt to reclaim land taken by Serbs in 1991.
Albania and Bulgaria have the most at stake. Albania could not likely ignore a Serbian move for more "ethnic cleansing" in the Albanian-populated Serbian province of Kosovo, or Macedonia where 400,000 more Albanians live. Bulgarians, too, have a large population in Macedonia. Both countries are desperately hoping the Serbs refrain from such aggression.
The passive resistance of Kosovo's moderate leaders has been consistently supported by Albania, which is has no economic resources to back a military confrontation.
"For all our kinship," says an Albanian political observer, "the last thing we want is to be involved in war. But another Serb move could force our hands."
The same applies to Bulgaria. Ministers have tried to play down the idea of a general Balkan conflagration. But a competent Bulgarian source says: "The mood among ordinary Bulgarians is growing that, if Macedonia is threatened and our government holds back, then people will simply take up arms themselves and go to the border to help the Macedonians."
Western-UN peace endeavors, shifting this week from Geneva to UN headquarters in New York, again look as irrelevant as mediator Cyrus Vance's initial effort just a year ago, shortly before the first attack on Sarajevo.
Within a week of the Bosnian Serbs' Jan. 20 vote on the Geneva plan it was clear they and their mentors in Serbia had once again just played for time in which to make their "Greater Serbia" goal more immune to Western hindrance.
Simultaneously, the Croats demonstrated on Jan. 22 the West's inability to make peace stick by ignoring a UN cease-fire line to push the Serbs further back from the Adriatic coast. Again the UN is relegated to talking.
The Serbs still hold 70 percent of Bosnian territory taken by force. The Geneva map, if applied, will not leave them with much less. Serbs make up only 30-40 percent of the population.
For more than a year, the West failed to bring home to the Serbs that territorial changes brought about by force will not be recognized. On the contrary, the Geneva plan accepts most of them and, in effect, recognizes the de facto division of Bosnia.
The West could have started by insisting on the status quo between nominally equal Yugoslav republics as the starting point for a negotiated territorial settlement in which Serb claims were as fully taken into account as Muslims' and Croats'.
As it happened, the West's verbal condemnation of Serb aggression was backed by as few deeds as the Serbs' and Croats' many promises to abide by UN decisions.
THROUGH the 1970s Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged as a harmonious, multicultured, ecumenically religious, and power-sharing society embracing all its ethnic groups.
Unhappily, even a modified return to something like that is out of the question unless the overall Balkan tension is better understood, not just by Serbs and Croats, but by the West.
Having gained so much, the Serbs will not easily yield much for a more just settlement unless the West exerts real, decisive pressure and makes clear it means it.
Politically, the West has the capability to impose a UN protectorate, with a NATO guarantee, to enforce existing agreements and draw the map with greater regard for ethnic verities, reverse "ethnic cleansing," and secure safe return for the refugees.
Without such change of emphasis in Western policy, the fighting seems fated to continue.