Bosnia’s Fate Tied to Clash of Personalities, Not Arms


Meeting on the British aircraft carrier Invincible in the Adriatic Sea two years ago, the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia were hours away from signing a peace agreement when it crumbled amid fear and recrimination.

Those talks, one of the last times the three presidents met face to face, revealed details of their personalities and the dynamics of their relationships that are sure to shape the tone and pace of negotiations that began in Ohio this week.

Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman were the two real powers eager to cut a deal that would carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they ignored their Bosnian counterpart, Alija Izetbegovic, say diplomats who were present then.

Izetbegovic was seen as the weakest party, whose fickleness made him hard to handle and, ultimately, the spoiler.


“The Turks [Muslims] are going to be like walnuts in a Serbo-Croat nutcracker,” a member of the Bosnian Serb delegation said at the time, according to “The Death of Yugoslavia,” a new history of Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

As is usually the case in the Balkans, things are not quite as they seem: The public image of how the three men get along contrasts with the reality, according to mediators, diplomats and others who have dealt with the leaders since the former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1990.

Officially, Tudjman and Izetbegovic belong to an alliance, the U.S.-created Muslim-Croat Federation that is supposed to be awarded half of Bosnia as part of the current peace deal.

The armies of the two men, in theory, have joined forces on the battlefield to turn back their common Serbian enemy.


But in fact, Tudjman has done little to conceal his contempt for Izetbegovic in particular and Muslims in general, diplomats say.

Milosevic, who inspired and armed the Bosnian Serbs waging brutal ethnic war against Bosnian Muslims, in fact is said to have been able to hold civil talks with Izetbegovic over the years.

Tudjman, 73, a former Yugoslav army general, and Milosevic, 54, lead the two principal, traditional rival states, Croatia and Serbia, and as such are mortal foes.

Yet they have a certain affinity for each other, and both think of themselves as the successor to Yugoslav dictator Marshal Josip Broz Tito. They are known to swap tales and share good whiskey.

Izetbegovic, 70, remains the most mercurial of the three, a devout Muslim who can be stubborn yet evasive and is subject, more than Tudjman or Milosevic, to the influences of the men around him--chiefly, the Americanized Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey and the cynical and bitter Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic.

By most accounts, the presidents can be expected to maintain a formal, cordial but cool relationship in the current talks--something along the lines of the reluctant handshake that opened the meetings near Dayton.

They know each other well enough not to trust each other.

Right now they do not even sit together; instead they receive the visits and proposals of mediators shuttling among them. Eventually, however, the three will be put together, U.S. officials say.

Milosevic is considered the key to any peace settlement because of his control over the Bosnian Serbs--and despite his role in condoning, if not plotting, some of the war’s worst atrocities and massacres.

A ruthless Communist Party apparatchik, Milosevic in the late 1980s exploited nationalist hatred to cement his hold on power.

Now, he is expected to be the most cooperative at the peace talks because of his near-singular goal of having punitive international sanctions lifted from his nation’s beleaguered economy.

“To go from being the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ to a ‘major factor in peace’ in just a few years is quite a switch,” Milan Protic, director of Belgrade’s Institute for Balkan Studies, said in an interview.

“As long as he cooperates, he will be tolerated [by the West]--that’s what he’s bargaining on. He is not bargaining over Bosnia; he is prepared to accept everything on Bosnia,” Protic said. “What he’s looking for are the kinds of guarantees he’ll get from the international community . . . international recognition, money, lifting of sanctions . . . to preserve his power.”

Milosevic and Tudjman first schemed in a 1991 meeting to divide Bosnia between them, and they have met from time to time since then. The nature of the relationship was based on what some observers have described as Tudjman’s begrudging admiration of Milosevic.

But with Tudjman’s military successes this year, routing Serbian rebels in Croatia and part of western Bosnia, the balance of power has shifted. The two are on more equal footing, and the relationship now may be more tense.

By reputation, Milosevic is cool and indifferent. He works with a clear and neat logic and tends to be comfortable in negotiations. The best English-speaker of the three, Milosevic has a knack for feigning ignorance when confronted on matters such as Serbian atrocities.

Where Milosevic is the shrewd pragmatist obsessed with power and only power, Tudjman is consumed with a messianic vision of himself as the father of Croatia.

Each would follow in Tito’s footsteps but in different ways, said Predrag Simic, an expert on the Balkans who presides over the Institute of International Politics and Economics, a Belgrade think tank.

“Milosevic wants only the power of Tito. He doesn’t give a damn about the glamour. You’ll never see him dressed up or interested in protocol,” Simic said. “Tudjman, obsessed with his historical mission, likes the power and the glamour.”

Indeed, Tudjman loves the pomp, pageantry and trappings of statehood. He has taken to wearing gleaming white uniforms, medals stacked on his chest, to celebrate his army’s victories.

A former Communist, Tudjman became a dissident and one of the original Croatian nationalists in the late 1960s, tendencies that landed him in jail.

“Unlike Milosevic, who is driven by power, Tudjman is obsessed by nationalism,” Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to the former Yugoslav federation, wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs. “His devotion to Croatia is of the most narrow-minded sort, and he has never shown much understanding of or interest in democratic values. . . .

“Tudjman’s saving grace, which distinguishes him from Milosevic, is that he really wants to be a Western statesman.”

To the chagrin of some in the West, Tudjman, after leading his country to independence, revived symbols associated with Croatia’s Nazi-era puppet regime. He can be volatile, and some of his past public comments and writings have been viewed as anti-Semitic or racist.

Brushing aside aides who tried to restrain him, he ranted to Zimmermann once that Bosnia was really just a part of Croatia--a “state of the Croatian nation"--and that the Muslims were “Islamicized Croats.”

As recently as a month ago, Tudjman was overheard screaming at Izetbegovic about the weakness and incompetence of his government and military, a witness said.

The passive, self-contained Izetbegovic is the only leader of the three who was never a Communist.

His Islamic activism landed him in prison for seven years, time that is said to have had a major impact on his personality.

A lawyer and the author of two religious tracts, Izetbegovic has advocated the creation of an Islamic state, though he has also said such an ideal is probably unrealistic.


That kind of talk, however, strikes fear in the hearts of Croats and Serbs, not to mention a few European officials.

Some mediators found him to be a less sophisticated negotiator, though no less cunning, than his rivals. Compared to the flash and flair of Tudjman, Izetbegovic seems bland and nondescript in formal settings. He is also known to skirt issues but become determined, even stubborn, on some points.

“When he gets an idea, he often simply will not budge,” said a diplomat in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

Times special correspondent Laura Silber in Belgrade contributed to this report.

* PATTERN FOR PEACE: U.S. seems to have a specific negotiation strategy. A11