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A Hollow Referendum

``We expect a new conference, new peace efforts.'' - Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb leader

THE rejection this week by Bosnian Serbs of a Western ``contact group'' peace plan for Bosnia should hardly come as a surprise. The Aug. 28 vote was not even close. The peace plan would reduce Serb territory won by aggression from 70 percent of Bosnia to 49 percent. Why should the Bosnian Serbs give up land won by force when there has never been a credible threat by any outside power against them?

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What the Bosnian Serbs have achieved instead is another successful round of stalling tactics. And, as usual, the real winner in the negotiations is Serb President Slobodan Milosevic. He has achieved the appearance of separating himself from the Bosnian Serbs by a weak embargo against them and created deep divisions among allies within the contact group, particularly between Russians and Americans. Yet he now is referred to in many Western circles as an ``un-likely ally'' for his efforts to discipline Serbs in Bosnia - the same Serbs who have furthered his goal of ``Greater Serbia.'' This is quite an achievement.

It should be remembered that the contact group plan, which was agreed to months ago by the Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, originally had a deadline of July 19. If this deadline wasn't met, there would supposedly be ``dire consequences,'' as US and British officials threatened throughout the spring and early summer.

Yet July 19 has come and gone, the contact group has kept extending the deadline, and there never have been any consequences. The closest thing to a consequence is President Clinton's vow to ``press'' the UN Security Council to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnians if, by the relatively late date of Oct. 15, the Bosnian Serbs have not agreed to the July 19 absolute deadline plan. But the US track record in the UN on Bosnia makes this a small threat at best. The truth is the West has no workable plan.

The problem faced by Serb leaders is that the Bosnian government troops are getting stronger, and that the US Congress has not been so willing to ignore Belgrade's tactics. During the past six weeks, as the New York Times reported Aug. 30, Serbs in Bosnia have driven 2,000 Muslims from their homes. Such reports should spur efforts on Capitol Hill to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnians.

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