• U.S.


7 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

AS THE BALKAN PEACE TALKS BEGAN last Wednesday near Dayton, Ohio, the mood in the Hope Hotel at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was downright frosty. When U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher stood and urged the Balkan leaders to shake hands, they did so in the most perfunctory manner imaginable: Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman would not look Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in the eye; Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic refused to smile at Tudjman; Milosevic and Izetbegovic stared past each other. Even worse, after the press was dismissed, each man delivered a blunt statement accusing the others of human-rights abuses. But when the chilled greetings and heated rhetoric finally concluded, something surprising happened. Unprompted by anyone, Milosevic and Izetbegovic shook hands and exchanged a few words.

O.K., that hardly amounts to a declaration that peace is about to break out in Bosnia. Indeed, far from it. But if nothing else, the modest gesture attested to a spirit of grudging but determined compromise that seemed to pervade the first week of talks at Wright-Patterson. Perhaps that spirit stemmed from the Balkan leaders’ recognition that this was probably their best and last foreseeable chance to craft peace. Or maybe it was owing to the tremendous diplomatic and military prestige America has staked on the conference’s outcome. Whatever the reason, despite efforts to ratchet down expectations, a case can be made that an agreement is getting tantalizingly closer. There are many caveats. Signing abortive peace deals that are not worth even the paper on which they are printed is, of course, a time-honored Balkan tradition. Success may still elude the negotiators. And it will probably be weeks before anyone knows what they have wrought. But the beginning, at least, looked encouraging.

The U.S. has gone to elaborate lengths to apply political and psychological pressure to the participants, pushing them to cut a deal. The plain fluorescent lights and the faint stains in the rug at the conference center made it clear that the Hope Hotel was no Versailles or Vienna but a place to do business, pure and simple. The leaders were given identical accommodations– identical suites furnished with identical desks, identical lampshades and identically colored towels. This arrangement carried the message that the three men enjoyed equal status and that they bore equal responsibility to resolve their differences.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the production was its sense of secrecy and isolation. To keep the principals talking to one another instead of playing out their differences in the press, as they are wont to do, the base was sealed from the media. The three Presidents were not invited to speak publicly at the opening ceremony. They were kept away from television cameras and reporters. So tight was security that some were soon calling the conference “a boot camp run by Americans” and complaining that “life is really, really boring.” But if the restrictions were deemed onerous, at least not everyone found the shag- rug-and-Formica decor so bad. “It’s a bit like Motel 6,” said Mohammed Sacirbey, Bosnia’s Foreign Minister. “But I like Motel 6. ‘Leave the light on.'” There were complaints about not being able to leave the base–although Milosevic was spotted Friday afternoon buying shoes in suburban Dayton, surrounded by a cocoon of Secret Service agents. “I’ve never seen so many trench coats in my life,” said Dawn Warren, manager of Regis Hairstylists. “We were thinking it must be Reba McIntyre.” The country singer performed Saturday night at Wright State University.

U.S. officials hoped the seclusion would force the antagonists to talk to one another. It seemed to work. Milosevic was spotted one evening chatting up a senior Bosnian official at Packe’s, a sports bar on the base. Such informal contacts were greatly aided by dozens of U.S. mapmakers, constitutional lawyers and military strategists. Those advisers held so many impromptu meetings that the living quarters swiftly began to resemble a college dorm during finals week, with diplomats gathering on the fly to thrash out issues big and small. At the center of it all was Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, who acted as a sort of diplomatic cruise director, dispatching experts to float proposals, stamp out disagreements and buttonhole delegates. “It’s like a living, breathing, international diplomatic biosphere,” gushed State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.

The Americans did not hesitate to turn up the temperature in this hothouse environment. On Wednesday morning, even before delivering a pep talk to the three Presidents at the plenary session, Christopher visited the private quarters of each to chide them about actions their countries might take that could derail the talks. He warned Tudjman not to undercut Bosnia’s Croat-Muslim federation and told him point-blank to knock off the brinkmanship over eastern Slavonia, the hotly contested sliver of Croatia still controlled by rebel Serbs. The Secretary instructed Izetbegovic to keep his distance from the media and told Milosevic that his failure to do anything about ongoing atrocities by his proxies, the Bosnian Serbs, was unacceptable.

Christopher’s messages and Holbrooke’s pressure soon produced some modest results. By Wednesday night the Serbs and the Croats had agreed to jump-start negotiations on eastern Slavonia. The next day Tudjman and Izetbegovic announced a goodwill gesture: 600 Croat and Muslim refugee families would be permitted to return to their home areas. Other territorial conflicts will no doubt prove thornier, but Holbrooke has placed before the leaders a lengthy draft treaty, compiled by the U.S. and other Contact Group members, which carves up territory and proposes solutions to disputes. At this point, despite the fact that most of the blood in this war has been shed over land, U.S. officials are optimistic about solving these problems. What they are really worried about, Americans say, is the constitutional arrangements for the new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On Thursday morning Holbrooke presented all three sides with a draft constitution that sets out elections and proposes a constitutional framework for a Bosnian President, parliament and judiciary. Unfortunately the Serbs and Croats seem intent on making these institutions, the glue that will hold Bosnia together, as weak as possible. This is because the Croatian and Serbian communities desperately want to establish formal links with Croatia and Serbia proper. Doing so, however, would threaten to partition Bosnia, pulling it apart and leaving the Muslims in the middle with virtually nothing. Building a government whose structure is sufficiently loose to accommodate all sides but not so feeble that it will simply collapse will be one of the biggest challenges in the next few weeks.

Before setting off for Dayton, Holbrooke warned reporters that the chances of success were extremely uncertain. Administration sources later suggested that Holbrooke was intentionally presenting a bleak picture to lower expectations in case the talks fall apart. In fact, State Department and Pentagon officials told Time, they were privately optimistic that the three Presidents would come up with an agreement in possibly two weeks.

The job of enforcing that agreement is planned for 60,000 NATO troops, 20,000 of whom would be American, and Holbrooke’s draft treaty provided the most detailed picture yet of what they might be doing. One proposal was for Bosnia’s new territories to be bordered by “zones of separation” that would provide a 2-km-wide buffer zone to keep opposing armies apart. There would also be “heavy-weapons-exclusion zones” to keep artillery, mortars and tanks an additional five miles from each side of the line. One task for the NATO troops would be maintaining those zones.

The force could be called to deploy as early as Nov. 15, according to NATO time lines. But last week the House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution prohibiting Clinton from even pledging to send U.S. troops to Bosnia without congressional consent. The measure sends a clear signal. The White House may have convinced itself that peace is possible in Bosnia. It may even have begun to convince the Balkan Presidents. But what the Administration has not done is convince Congress–or the American people–of their interest in enforcing a deal.

–Reported by James L. Graff/Dayton, Aleksandra Niksic/Belgrade and Douglas Waller/Washington

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