The New York Times Special Report: 21 Days in Dayton


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WASHINGTON - The wine was drunk, a lavish lobster dinner eaten, and it was time to resolve one of the most delicate issues in the Bosnian peace talks: the creation of a route for the Bosnian government from Sarajevo through Bosnian-Serb territory to the beleaguered Muslim enclave of Gorazde.

President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia made his way to a high-tech auditorium to play Powerscene, the Pentagon's computer mapping program that reproduces terrain on a vast movie screen. The Serbian leader was adamant that the corridor could be no more than two miles wide.

Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the senior American military official at the negotiations, whisked Milosevic off on an imaginary aerial tour of the region to show why such a narrow corridor made no strategic sense. "As you see, God did not put the mountains two miles apart," Clark said.

Milosevic downed a large whisky, considered this geophysical fact, and the deal on a five-mile-wide corridor was consummated. It became known as the "Scotch Road."

Throughout the 21 days of talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, from the wary chill of the opening to the sleep-deprived marathon and near collapse at the end, the American negotiators established a remarkable rapport with Milosevic. The Muslim-led Bosnian government, which the Americans initially saw as their friend and the victim of the war, ended up not fitting into the fraternal Realpolitik in which negotiators cut through days of stalemate over slugs of whisky.

The Bosnians, convinced after years of Serbian barbarity against Muslim civilians that they were merely defending their homeland, ended up being badgered into agreement. By the end American officials spoke with disappointment and anger of what they saw as the vacillation, internal conflicts and sometimes cynical maneuvering of Bosnian officials.

The only party more isolated than the Bosnian Muslims was the delegation of Bosnian Serbs. Although their cooperation is essential for any peace plan to succeed, the Bosnian Serbs were not shown any of the proposed peace maps until a few hours before the talks ended. Their three representatives in Dayton, kept out of the actual talks because Milosevic insisted on representing them, spent most of the three weeks sitting around trying to find out what was going on.

For four days at the end, arguments raged, nerves were frayed, sleep was scarce, and failure often looked certain. Just two hours before an agreement was finally announced, the Clinton administration drafted a statement explaining the collapse of the talks.

Progressively, the niceties of international intercourse were abandoned. At one point, Warren Christopher, the unfailingly polite secretary of state, started yelling at the president of Bosnia when he accused him of breaking his word. At another, Richard Holbrooke, the chief American negotiator, grabbed the prime minister of Bosnia by the shoulder after he disappeared for a snack at a critical moment.

Meeting rooms and corridors became popcorn-littered expanses reeking of stale fast food. Versailles it was not.

The result of this careening enterprise was an improvised settlement that is at once a tribute to the force of revived American diplomacy in the Balkans and an unfinished road map for peace that is ridden with the potential for confusion and conflict.

It is founded on uneasy relationships, whose evolution will become a crucial issue as President Clinton tries to convince Congress and the American people that 20,000 American troops will have to go to Bosnia to enforce the peace.

The scenario looks potentially menacing: A Bosnian government lacking any real conviction about a peace it resisted until the very last moment, and potentially restive Bosnian Serbs who were kept largely in the dark about the settlement.

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"We have to have the strategic consent of all the parties," Clark said. "We will not go in as an invasion force." That consent, it is clear, has not yet been secured.

The tone for the talks was set at the outset on Nov. 1. Despite pleas by Christopher to discard a bitter past and build a future for the children of the Balkans, all the antipathy, suspicion, and mistrust among Milosevic, President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, were evident in the perfunctory handshakes and averted eyes that marked the opening ceremony.

American officials, led by Holbrooke, spent much of the first week trying to dispel this tension by creating a convivial atmosphere in the small quadrangle or red-brick buildings where the delegations were housed - a tactic that they used throughout the talks.

At one point, the Americans gave a dinner in the shadow of a massive B-52 bomber at the Air Force Museum at which a military band played Glenn Miller, but not everyone was in the mood. At another, Holbrooke and Tudjman worked on a formula for one outstanding territorial dispute between Serbs and Croats for eastern Slavonia, the last remaining area of Croatia in Serbian hands, between sets of tennis.

Still another, Milosevic, the man responsible for starting the war in the first place, sidled up to the piano in the Officers' Club to sing "Tenderly."

But underneath the veneer of politesse, the American negotiating strategy was clear: first, strengthen the Muslim-Croat federation to present a united front to the Serbs on the critical question of land in Bosnia; then settle the one outstanding territorial dispute between Serbs and Croats to increase the pressure on the Bosnian government to choose peace.

Finally, with a mixture of economic blandishments and displays of American power, persuade all the parties that this was the last, best chance to put the barbarity of Yugoslavia's destruction behind them.

But problems were immediately apparent.

Izetbegovic, a devout man with a distant gaze who was twice imprisoned by the communist authorities of the former Yugoslavia for leading movements of Muslim protest, kept a reserved distance. He preferred to eat alone; he never talked of the future or economic reconstruction; and to American officials, he seemed strangely unmoved by the suffering of his people.

Of course, the Bosnian president felt he was being asked to give away half his country to the Bosnian Serbs who had repeatedly massacred and abused Muslim civilians in pursuit of their dream of secession.

American officials, however, felt that the 70-year-old Bosnian president was missing the point. If peace really took hold, if money poured in, if the West was firmly behind the reconstruction of Sarajevo, then the old divisions might fall away. Rather than losing half of Bosnia, the Bosnian government might ultimately have a hope of gaining something inaccessible through more war: a unified and multi-ethnic state.

"Izetbegovic was occasionally animated in front of maps, but never before suffering or the prospect of rebuilding his country," an American official said. "He's a very stubborn, very elusive man."

Negotiating with the top Bosnian delegates was further complicated by the fact that they seldom saw eye to eye. Izetbegovic, Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, and Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey became known as "Izzy, Silly, and Mo." Their spats were interminable and often vitriolic.

When an American official suggested that Silajdzic might constitute the "swing vote" in this shifting cast, a furious Sacirbey screamed at Holbrooke, "There's only one swing vote here, and that's the president."

For much of the time the prime minister and the foreign minister would not speak to each other. Occasionally, Silajdzic would disappear for a prolonged sulk. Just what, if any, shared objective the three men had was almost impossible for the American team to assess.

Milosevic, whose vitriolic nationalism unleashed the Balkan wars in 1991, was the exact opposite.

His determination to get three-year-old trade sanctions on Serbia lifted made him flexible; his taste for drink and hearty meals made him accessible; his utter domination of the Serbian delegation made him, as one person at the talks put it, "one-stop shopping."

For much of the time, moreover, he was trading land that was not his but held by the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, a personal rival of Milosevic. This tended to make the Serbian president unusually amenable, even over issues as complex as Sarajevo, a city, he once confided to one American official, "that Izetbegovic has earned through what happened in this war."

As for Tudjman, the Croatian president, he had arrived in Dayton already a victor. Having retaken all but eastern Slavonia from the Serbs through military conquests over the last six months, he had relatively limited concerns.

His instructions from the Clinton administration were clear: honor the nominal alliance with the Muslims in Bosnia and resolve eastern Slavonia through diplomacy as the price for continuing American support for Croatia. A man whose shrewd instincts have often been underestimated, Tudjman was ready to oblige.

By Nov. 10, nine days after the conference began, an agreement to strengthen the strained Muslim-Croat federation was ready.

It was more theater than substance, since the real issues between Muslims and Croats will be solved only on the ground where mutual suspicion is still rampant after the 1993 war. But it did at least open the way for discussion to turn to the more serious issue of eastern Slavonia.

Christopher, on the second of his four visits to the conference, spent most of his time on this question. The conflict between Serbs and Croats had come down to this: should there be a transitional period of one year, as favored by Tudjman, or two years, as favored by Milosevic, before the restoration of full Croatian sovereignty over the Serbian-occupied area.

"Let's call it 12 months of transitional rule, plus a second period not to exceed the first period," Christopher suggested. That way, the only number the volatile Tudjman would hear and have to relay to his people was the one he wanted to hear: a single year. Meanwhile, Milosevic could call it two years.

The two men, whose sparring for territory and hate-filled propaganda propelled Yugoslavia toward disintegration, reviewed the matter for about an hour. Then they came into Holbrook's suite, sat together on the sofa, and Tudjman said: "Mr. Secretary, we've solved eastern Slavonia."

The breakthrough was not announced till Sunday, Nov. 12, in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, because a few local details had to be worked out. But it immediately set an upbeat tone as the talks moved into what officials hoped would be the final few days.

When Carl Bildt, the European representative, asked Milosevic about the remaining Bosnian problems after the accord, he waved his arm dismissively. "The rest is nothing," Milosevic said. "I will take care of it. The war is over now."

This remark reflected the Serbian president's intimate conviction that Serbs and Croats set the terms in the Balkans, while the Muslims are a mere side show. It was thus in 1991, when Milosevic and Tudjman agreed to carve up Bosnia. He believed it was thus still in 1995. But three years of struggling to survive had given the Bosnian government a stubborn new conviction.

Even as the participants exchanged congratulations at the initialing ceremony, the signs of discord were evident. The Bosnian Serbs, enraged that Milosevic had negotiated without them, boycotted the ceremony.

They were fuming at the agreement's military annex, which, they told Bildt, the representative of the European Union, made the NATO troops an "occupying force."

Just as serious was the way Milosevic had ceded Sarajevo to the Bosnian government. The Bosnian Serbs did not realize until the morning of the ceremony that they had lost the Sarajevo suburbs of Grbavica, Ilidza, Vogosca, and Ilijas, which they have defended with an iron will since the beginning of the war. Milosevic had purposely withheld this information, telling American negotiators: "I'll only show them the map at the end."

Shortly after midnight, hours after Christopher, the Europeans and the three Balkan presidents had flown out of Dayton for good, a group of Bosnian Serbs who stayed behind turned up at the base's military headquarters to confront Clark about Sarajevo.

Huddling over a map in the auditorium where the Powerscreen mapping system operates, the Bosnian Serbs politely but firmly explained how Milosevic had given their roads and neighborhoods away.

"The red line is Milosevic's," Clark patiently explained. "You can't change it. It's agreed."

"It may be Milosevic's line," one of the Bosnian Serbs said, "But it's our road."

"The line doesn't mean anything anyway," the general continued. "Freedom of movement is guaranteed."

The Serbs were dubious. Finally, Clark said: "It's best to let it alone for now and allow this to sort itself out."

But the problem of Sarajevo remained far from sorted out. The mountain road overlooking the city's southern edge - a road from which the Serbs have regularly shelled the city over the last 43 months - is a road that NATO troops are supposed to patrol in a few weeks.

"Now for the hard part," said James Pardew, a senior Pentagon official who witnessed the exchange. "The glory's over."

Copyright 1995 The New York Times