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Croat-Muslim deal provides first hint of Bosnian peace

Hope springs eternal, and some sniffers now think that they can detect, rising from both Washington and Moscow, the sweet smell of peace in the former Yugoslavia.

On Tuesday, with great fanfare, the United States managed to promote an outline agreement on paper between the Bosnian Muslims and Croats for a federation with eventual ties to Croatia.Agreement with the Serbs would come next.

In Moscow also on Tuesday, the visiting Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic announced he is now willing to allow the opening the airport of the besieged Muslim enclave of Tuzla for aid flights. For weeks, NATO has been threatening to open it by force, and then putting it off.

After two years of war, ordinary people on all sides of the conflict are thoroughly sick of it. Some 200,000 have died, some 2-million are homeless.

For the first time, the Bosnian Serbs have become alarmed that after nearly two years of bluffing and empty threats, the United States and Europe may finally have screwed up the courage for the air strikes they have threatened.

As the original aggressors, the Serbs believe they can keep most of what they won on the battlefield anyway, especially since they now believe they will have the help of Russia.

Boris Yeltsin has not only reasserted Russia's role as a world power by sending Russian troops to Sarajevo. He gave the Serbs a fig leaf for withdrawing the bulk of their heavy weapons.

The presence of Russian troops will make it even harder for NATO to carry out air strikes if the Serbs violate the safe zone around Sarajevo as they did with a column of tanks the other day.

Yeltsin has now done the same thing in Tuzla by announcing that he will send other Russian "peacekeepers" there. Both the U.N. military command and NATO were surprised, if not stunned.

The optimistic view is that Russia is joining the United States in a partnership to bring peace in the former Yugoslavia.

The other view is Yeltsin is protecting the Serbs, both in Sarajevo and Tuzla, from any threat of force, and at the same time serving Russia's own interests abroad and strengthening his faltering grasp at home by playing to Russian nationalism.

Probably both scenarios are partly true.

President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher hail the Washington agreement between Bosnian Muslims and Croats as a major turning point.

The idea is that the Bosnian federation would contain both Muslim and Croat cantons and would, ideally, cover 51 percent of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A central government headed alternately by a Muslim and Croat would control foreign affairs, defense and foreign trade. The cantons would do everything else, including police themselves.

The later agreement with Croatia would be a looser confederation, but in negotiating with the Serbs, it would have far more weight than Croatia alone or the Bosnian Muslims alone. It also would give Croatia an opening to the West and avoid the same international sanctions now applied to Serbia.

Serbia's own interest, of course, lies in getting those sanctions lifted. And so Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the man who set the terrible events in the former Yugoslavia in motion, has an interest in getting Bosnian Serbs to reach agreement.

They, on the other hand, now hold 70 percent of Bosnia. It was encouraging that Moscow praised the Croat-Muslim agreement in Washington, but the first reaction of Bosnian leader Karadzic was a sharp attack on U.S. efforts to mediate.

And can Karadzic himself control his military hard-liners? When U.S. fighters downed four Serb planes violating the no-fly zone over Bosnia earlier this week, Karadzic seemed surprised to learn that the Serb planes were in the air.

Belgrade claimed to know nothing about them either, but on Wednesday a Serbian air force pilot lifted some of the mystery by identifying the pilots of the downed planes as colleagues serving as "volunteers" in the Bosnian Serb forces.

You can also hear doubts about the Washington agreement in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. One prominent skeptic quoted in the French newspaper Le Figaro on Wednesday claimed that President Franjo Tudjman might sign almost anything, but that past agreements have hardly been worth the paper they were printed on.

The details of a Croat-Muslim federation in Bosnia remain to be negotiated. And can the signatories overcome the hostility of the forces on the ground, among other places in the beautiful old city of Mostar where Croats have carried out large-scale ethnic cleansings against Muslims?

The argument is that Tudjman may have more to gain in allying himself with Serbia, as he has in the past. Only Serbia, these skeptics point out, can give him back Krajina, the third of Croatia now under Serb control.

How best can Croatia get Krajina back? As part of a confederation with Bosnia or through a direct deal with Serbia?

Much of this is speculation, but it is enough to teach us to believe in nothing until it actually happens. A whiff of peace is there, but it is still overcome by the stench of war.