By Roger Cohen
SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2005
NEW YORK A decade ago, on June 24, 1995, I sat in the ravaged city of Sarajevo and filed a piece to The New York Times that began: "Always the stomach contracts. When, through the still air, there comes the flat boom of rending and fracture that is the sound of another shell's impact, indifference can only be feigned. Even the war-hardened of this city feel the familiar knife in the gut."
That stomach, of course, was mine, along with those of another 280,000 people in a European city that had been living for more than three years with a dirt trench around it, subjected to regular bombardment by Serbian nationalist forces intent on denying the multiethnic character of Sarajevo.
The people of the city had become crazed by that summer. They raised their hands to their necks in a gesture of self-strangulation, saying they could no longer breathe. They burned books to heat stoves to cook the rabbits they raised in cages in their bedrooms. Gravediggers took shelter from shelling in the graves they dug.
That was Europe in 1995: bleeding in its Balkan backyard as the United States and the European Union dithered. The continent's 20th-century agony had begun with the bullets fired by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914; it seemed the century might end much as it began.
But within five months the Bosnian war was over, hustled to a conclusion by the American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke. Another U.S. diplomat, Nicholas Burns, was at Dayton, Ohio, when the peace accord was signed. Because what you see, as opposed to what you merely read about, is what drives you, that presence has become significant.
Burns this year became the under secretary of state for political affairs - and the torpid graph of American attention to the Balkans blipped upward. He visited the area in May. He pledged American involvement. And he made clear his view of the Balkans: "The status quo is neither stable nor sustainable."
What is that status quo? Bosnia is at peace, but its Muslim, Serb and Croat populations remain driven by the politics of ethnic rivalry, dependent on international aid, protected by an EU-led force, and gathered in what amounts to a tenuous state.
The two Serbs most wanted for war crimes - Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic - are still at large. Until recently very few Serbs believed they had done anything wrong.
But the first real dent in the crippling Serbian denial of their crimes was made this month with the showing of a video of the execution of six - yes, six - of the more than 7,000 Muslims killed at Srebrenica in July, 1995.
For once the ironclad Serbian self-image of perennial victim was breached.
Burns is eager to build on this tentative Serbian opening. In a wide-ranging telephone conversation, he described his linked plans for Bosnia and Kosovo, where the peace is even more tenuous.
"In both places we have outstanding business from 10 years ago," Burns said. "The release of the videotape had a big effect on Serbia. It has finally convinced people this shameful massacre happened."
Both President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia have assured Burns that they have now made the decision to arrest and turn over Mladic, who is believed to be in Serbia, and Karadzic, who may be in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia.
"I've told them, you have to get Mladic," Burns said. "I've told them that until you do, we are your biggest problem. You're never going to get into NATO."
Referring to the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, Burns continued: "And I've made clear that they have a major anniversary coming up on July 11 and they need to atone and it would be good to get Mladic before then. I will remind them of that in the next couple of days."
Tadic has told Burns he will be at a Srebrenica ceremony, along with Svetozar Marovic, the president of the federation of Serbia and Montenegro. That in itself would be significant, a step toward Serbian confrontation with what national hysteria wrought.
The reward for Serbia would be movement toward NATO and the long-term prospect of European Union membership. The EU has assured the Bush administration that, despite its travails, it will keep the door open to Balkan countries, Burns said.
Close American-European cooperation is also envisaged in Kosovo, where Burns is anxious to move toward final-status talks this fall.
By then, Kai Eide, the Norwegian ambassador to NATO, will have completed a review in Kosovo, looking at guarantees of the rights of the area's Serb minority and other governance issues.
Kosovo's overwhelming Albanian majority is clamoring for independence from Serbia and believes America has promised to deliver it to the province, now effectively a ward of the international community. Serbia is countering with "more than autonomy, less than independence," a Delphic phrase. Burns is not pronouncing yet on the outcome, but is clear on procedure.
A leading EU politician, perhaps the former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, would lead the talks, flanked by a senior American diplomat, who would probably not be Burns himself. "We might try sequestration a la Holbrooke in Dayton, or we might negotiate in some other way," Burns said.
Where would the process lead? A long-term outcome other than independence seems inconceivable when the overwhelming majority of Kosovars want that.
But the Kosovo Albanians would have to earn it - by decentralizing power, by providing real protection and rights to the Serb minority, and by accepting an international civil administration for a long transitional period.
If Serbia agrees to this, and has arrested Mladic and Karadzic, it will need prompt recognition in the form of convincingly open arms from NATO and the EU.
Two things are clear. Only America's involvement will deliver results because its credibility is unmatched. And, as Burns has said, the United States and its partners "cannot define averting disaster in the Balkans as success."