Moving to end a volatile power struggle that has increasingly sucked in NATO peacekeepers, the Western-backed Bosnian Serb president and her hard-line rivals agreed Wednesday to hold elections and share access to state television.
The agreement, brokered in Belgrade by Slobodan Milosevic, the president of neighboring Yugoslavia, was hailed by international mediators as an apparent breakthrough. Tanjug, the official Yugoslav news agency, announced the agreement, and its contents were generally confirmed by diplomats here in the Bosnian capital.
The deal is aimed at resolving a stubborn impasse that pitted Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic against allies of indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic. The agreement gave Plavsic the new parliamentary elections she sought but puts her job up for grabs as well.
As the crisis in the last several months drove a wedge through Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb republic, Washington and NATO backed Plavsic and helped her install loyal police in a string of cities in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the violence involved made Western peacekeepers eager for a political solution.
The deal is risky for Plavsic. Karadzic's allies, grouped behind Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's three-man presidency, control the dominant political party and its considerable infrastructure.
"Both sides will take necessary measures to stop all confrontations which lead to the division of Republika Srpska," the agreement stated, according to Tanjug. "The unity of Republika Srpska is the vital interest of the Serbian people. . . . This interest--the safeguarding of unity and strengthening of Republika Srpska--must be put before all other partial and party interests."
The agreement emerged from an extraordinary, five-hour meeting between Plavsic and Milosevic. Former allies turned bitter enemies, the two had refused to talk until now. Milosevic is under pressure from the West to end his support for Karadzic and his animosity toward Plavsic. He is also known to be eager to reassert his influence in the region; it has been threatened by Plavsic's increasing coziness with Washington and its European allies.
The last time Plavsic traveled to Belgrade, in late June, shortly after she publicly challenged Karadzic and his cronies for the first time, Milosevic had her arrested and unceremoniously dumped at Yugoslavia's border with the Bosnian Serb republic. There, police loyal to Karadzic grabbed her until she was rescued by NATO.
International sources said troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization lent protection for Wednesday's trip.
Plavsic, like Karadzic an extreme nationalist who advocated the brutal wartime purge of non-Serbs from parts of the former Yugoslav federation, broke with her former mentor earlier this year and accused him and his closest hard-line supporters of enriching themselves through illegal smuggling while the Bosnian Serb people languished in isolation and poverty.
In July, she dissolved the Bosnian Serb parliament, which was heavy with hard-liners. Krajisnik ignored her action. Under Wednesday's agreement, however, he accepted a Nov. 15 date for the election of a new parliament. She in turn agreed to Dec. 7 presidential elections, when Krajisnik's seat on the joint Bosnian presidency will be disputed as well.
Plavsic would only say, on Belgrade television, that the meeting with Milosevic was "successful" and that agreement was reached to "stabilize the state."
Krajisnik clearly was responding to pressure from Milosevic. He may also have been unnerved as the cities of Prjnavor and Prijedor in recent days appeared to have fallen completely under the control of forces loyal to Plavsic. On Wednesday, rival Bosnian Serb forces clashed in Prjnavor for the second time this week.
The battle between Plavsic and the hard-liners was also fought on the airwaves. From her headquarters city of Banja Luka last month, Plavsic seized control of a television transmitter that allowed her to break the media monopoly held until then by Karadzic allies based in the southeastern village of Pale.
Western mediators had accused the Pale-based Bosnian Serb television of inciting violence against foreign peacekeepers and of using warmongering rhetoric to attack Plavsic. In Wednesday's statement, Plavsic and Krajisnik agreed to alternate broadcasts of the evening news, one day from Pale, one day from Banja Luka. If it works, it will be the first time since Bosnia's 43-month war ended in December 1995 that all Bosnian Serbs will have a choice of Bosnian Serb television programming.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, foreign ministers of the six-nation Contact Group on Bosnia expressed surprise at Wednesday's announcement of new elections and said that the voting should be overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
At the same meeting, the group threatened "increasingly strong measures" against those who try to prevent the winners of the municipal elections held earlier this month from assuming office or, more generally, thwart implementation of the peace accords negotiated at Dayton, Ohio.
A senior U.S. official said the international community will withhold economic aid from Bosnian groups that fail to live up to the accords and will devise more painful measures if those steps fail to bring them around.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in New York contributed to this report.