The bombs were falling on Serb positions in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday, yet in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the cradle of Serbian nationalism, there was talk of peace.
Announcing an agreement to present a united front to U.S. negotiators, Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president and regional powerbroker, appeared to have gained the upper hand over the Bosnian Serb leaders he once sponsored but lately has had trouble controlling.
Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and a slew of other key Serbs said they agreed to “harmonize completely [our] approach to the peace process” and to cede to Milosevic the deciding vote in any negotiations, should there be a split in opinion.
That means Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke can expect a more cooperative, cohesive Serbian position.
Although the agreement was reached before the Western allies’ retaliatory assault on Bosnian Serb positions, the decision of the Yugoslav government to announce the accord among Serbs on Wednesday suggests that Milosevic is determined to prevent the military action by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations from derailing the fledgling peace process.
How Milosevic reacts to the NATO attacks is considered crucial to whether war now escalates or peace has a chance. Belgrade press and political party commentaries on the bombing raids have been restrained. Milosevic’s Serbian Socialist Party condemned the attacks but urged Bosnian Serbs to keep a cool head and not be led “by extremists” into a “war against the world.”
“He’s decided he wants his 49% of Bosnia, of his ill-gotten gains, and he doesn’t want to prolong [the war] for another 20%,” an official from a NATO country said. He was referring to the 49% of Bosnia that the Serbs, who now hold about 70% of the country, would be allowed to keep under the current U.S. peace plans.
Milosevic also wants to use the peace talks to accomplish his top priority--removal of international economic sanctions from the rump Yugoslavia. The sanctions--imposed to punish Serbia and Montenegro, which make up the rump Yugoslavia, for their role in fomenting war--would be lifted in exchange for recognition of Bosnia and Croatia.
Emerging from one of the day’s sessions with Holbrooke, Milosevic said the U.S. initiative “creates a real perspective for peace,” and he added that he and Holbrooke had achieved “a significant narrowing of differences.”
Focusing on Belgrade underscores a fundamental and unresolved issue. Artillery and explosives may destroy Bosnian Serb weapons and emplacements, but they don’t create a political solution. U.S. officials are hoping the threat of overwhelming air power will scare the Bosnian Serbs into serious negotiations, something that has not happened in more than three years of war.
Officials of Bosnia’s Muslim-led but secular government also described the NATO-U.N. show of force as a “turning point” in the war, with muscle to bolster the peace process.
Before departing Belgrade for Zagreb, Holbrooke said the Serb agreement announced Wednesday “contains some potentially promising steps that improve the opportunities for peace in the region.”
In addition to giving Milosevic the deciding vote, the agreement forms a joint six-member negotiating team led by Milosevic.
A source close to Bosnian Serb leaders said the Serbian government kept secret a second part of the agreement that laid out a platform for future negotiations and suggested some concessions were made to Karadzic and his people.
The secret addendum calls for the widening by as many as 11 miles the corridor that joins Serb-held territory in Bosnia and Serbia proper. It also calls for Sarajevo to be divided and for the Bosnian Serbs to be given access to the Adriatic Sea. Initial reports indicate the U.S. plan may meet some of these conditions.
Still, even amid the declarations of unity, there were mixed signals coming from the Serbs. Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic said he would refuse U.N. demands that he withdraw his heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. And Karadzic said NATO air strikes would trigger World War III. “Serbs will win in the end,” Karadzic declared.
Times special correspondent Laura Silber in Belgrade contributed to this report.