Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev sought Wednesday to soothe the fury of Bosnian Serbs over the Dayton peace settlement, suggesting that the pact can be carried out in a way that takes account of their grievances.
Appearing side by side, the two men emphasized that the long and complex agreement reached last month in Ohio cannot be renegotiated. But both the secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister suggested that the agreement can be enforced in a way that may accommodate the Bosnian Serbs.
Christopher said the accord needs to be carried out "with sensitivity to the concerns of the [Bosnian] parties." Until Wednesday, the secretary of state had rebuffed questions about Bosnian Serb opposition by saying that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who initialed the agreement, had represented the Bosnian Serbs' interests in the Dayton negotiations.
Kozyrev, whose government has historical and cultural ties to the Serbs, supported the Dayton agreement but then quickly added: "No design can answer all questions. . . . If questions of a human nature arise, we will have wisdom to properly address them."
Over the past two weeks, the Bosnian Serbs have complained repeatedly about the Dayton requirement that control of Serb-held suburbs around the capital, Sarajevo, be restored to the Muslim-led government.
The Bosnian Serb grievances were indirectly supported by the French military commander in Sarajevo, Brig. Gen. Jean-Rene Bachelet. Last week, Bachelet was quoted by a French newspaper as saying that the peace plan for the capital is unworkable and that Serbs in Sarajevo would leave their homes rather than live under the authority of the central government.
French troops will have responsibility for keeping the peace in Sarajevo under the Dayton agreement. Bachelet was recalled to Paris for criticizing the accord, but Wednesday's remarks by the American and Russian officials underscore how seriously the two governments are worried about Bosnian Serb opposition.
"We do want to be sensitive to the Bosnian Serbs," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters here. "Not to [Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan] Karadzic and [Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko] Mladic but to the civilians. . . .
"We would rather see them stay [in Sarajevo] than leave. If they left, they would just become refugees."
American officials were not specific about what could be done to assuage the "sensitivities" of the Bosnian Serbs, but they said many measures could be worked out in talks this weekend in London on the civilian aspects of the Bosnian peace settlement.
Those talks will cover such issues as refugees, economic reconstruction for Bosnia and how Bosnian police forces will be trained and run.
"We have a commitment to them [the Bosnian Serbs], not just to the Bosnian Muslims," the State Department spokesman said. "We have a commitment to all parties."
Christopher pointed out that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is opening a headquarters in Serb-controlled territory at Ilidza, west of Sarajevo. One of its missions will apparently be to prevent Serbs from fleeing areas that will come under the control of the Bosnian government.
According to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials, the first combat-ready troops of the NATO-led peacekeeping operation will start arriving in Bosnia between 24 and 36 hours after the Dec. 14 signing in Paris of the peace accord.
The signing will also be a trigger for troops from the operation's 14 non-NATO countries to begin deploying. They will go to one of the three areas of Bosnia being set up by the advance units under French, British and American commands.
"Within four days, we hope to have enough forces on the ground to transfer authority from UNPROFOR [the United Nations Protection Force] to NATO," one official said.
For this transfer to take place, the Sarajevo headquarters for NATO's land forces must be up and running, and there must be enough troops in each of the three sectors to be able to exercise authority.
On Wednesday, those attending a meeting of foreign ministers from NATO and from 26 so-called partner countries (mainly European nations that were either neutral or under Soviet control during the Cold War) expressed concern about the slow mobilization of civilian resources to support the Balkan peace plan.
Organizations including the Red Cross, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are responsible for rebuilding the war-torn nation, resettling refugees and creating a basis for democratic stability.
"Many at the meeting are worried that the civilian side is focusing too slowly," commented one alliance official. "The less the civil aspects fall into place, the more the danger is that NATO is going to be forced into mission creep. The alliance does not want to become a regional government. That could undermine the mission."
Friday and Saturday, 52 countries are scheduled to meet in London to address the task of reconstruction, a job that carries an estimated initial price tag of about $6 billion.
U.S. officials say that international financial institutions such as the World Bank have pledged to pay $3 billion for reconstruction in Bosnia and that the remaining $3 billion is supposed to be raised through contributions by individual countries.
The European Union has proposed a goal of $2 billion from European countries and has suggested that the U.S. should pay the remaining $1 billion. But the Clinton administration has pledged only $600 million.
"Bosnia is in Europe, and we think the Europeans should lead here," commented a State Department official.