All three principal players at the U.S-mediated peace talks that opened last week in Dayton, Ohio, reinforce the reputation of their Balkan Mountain homelands as bywords for division and death. The hands they extended coldly in mutual greetings for attentive cameras are symbolically bloodied by atrocities committed by their warring citizens in fractured Yugoslavia during the past four years. By the estimates of their U.S. hosts, the killings during the trio’s presidencies run to 250,000; the number of displaced people approached four million. That does not count the torture and trauma inflicted in the name of the ethnic nationalism preached by the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and BosniaHerzegovina. If they now fail to bury political dissension and agree to a settlement, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared at the start of the peace talks on Nov. 1, “future generations will surely hold us accountable for the consequences.”
Even the settlement pressed by chief mediator Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, is loaded with the potential for perilous consequences. Under an Oct. 11 truce, the three Balkan presidents—Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic—took a first step towards a plan to turn the Bosnian battleground into a federation of the hostile factions. Half of Bosnia would be a Serbian state, the rest allocated to a fragile alliance of Croats and the Muslim majority. A U.S.-led army of up to 60,000 soldiers—mainly NATO troops, possibly including Canadians, with a role for Russians—would police the federation’s creation and the region’s reconstruction. There is also a proposal to arm and train the Muslim army to make it more a match for the potent Serbian and Croat forces.
For its many critics, including both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, the entire plan is a formula for disaster. New York Republican Gerald Solomon stated a common position in the House of Representatives: “This conflict does not justify putting one U.S. soldier in combat.”
Two days before the peace talks began in the seclusion and security of the U.S. Air Force Wright-Patterson base in Dayton, the House voted by a powerful bipartisan majority of 315 to 103 for a resolution calling on President Bill Clinton to let Congress decide whether to commit U.S. troops to Bosnia. That resolution, said Holbrooke, even though
lacking legal force, “grievously interferes with the negotiating processes of peace.” Other developments clouded the Dayton negotiations. Tudjman’s government enfranchised Croats in Bosnia—people designated to be citizens of the new Bosnian federation— to take part in a Croatian parliamentary election three days before the talks opened (Tudjman’s nationalists won with 45 per cent
of the popular vote). And the publication of U.S. intelligence and other reports provided grim new evidence of Serbian “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia—the mass slaughter of as many as 6,000 Muslims in the days following the Serbian army’s seizure on July 11 of the UN-designated “safe haven” of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. A UN tribunal, which has cited Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic for war crimes, is examining the Srebrenica evidence.
None of the three leaders at the Dayton talks has escaped the taint of inter-ethnic cruelties. Their records as fomenters of ethnic division cast doubts over their capacity to go beyond the hesitant handshakes exchanged in Dayton—gestures impossible to avoid under American goading in front of the cameras.
Tudjman, 73, and Izetbegovic, 70, academics and authors in earlier careers, were both twice imprisoned under the former Yugoslavia’s Communist regime for “nationalist activities.” Milosevic, 54, once a Communist operative who became a banker in Belgrade and New York City from 1978 to 1983, has switched and shifted with changing times. He gained power by demanding a “Greater Serbia.” He fostered both the Serbian invasion of Croatia and the Serbian rebellion in Bosnia. The former U.S. administration branded him “a war criminal.”
Against the hard-minded Balkan presidents stands a tough mediator. Holbrooke, also 54, is a sometime political operator and a former New York banker (a managing director of Lehman Bros, from 1985 to 1992). He is renowned as a negotiator who is ready to use threats as cajolery to get his way. His diplomatic career under Democrat presidents has encompassed assignments connected with the Vietnam War in the 1960s and, in 1993 and 1994, as ambassador to Germany, a country his parents fled in the 1930s. Since promotion to his present office
17 months ago, Canadian officials say, he has had little direct involvement with the Canada part of his mandate. Before taking on the Balkans peace task last summer (one of his two sons has been involved in a refugee relief mission there), he worked on NATO expansion policy.
Holbrooke described the Dayton talks as “a historic and important negotiation.” At the outset, the three parties did not even talk directly. Holbrooke acted as a go-between among their separate quarters in the base’s spartan officers’ billets. The building’s name offered both a promising augury and an omen that the latest Balkans peace talks could end up as a joke, albeit a deeply sick one. It is called the Hope Hotel. But it was named for comedian Bob Hope. □
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