In somber silence, the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia signed a peace agreement Thursday, even as scattered violence in Bosnia made clear that real peace was not yet at hand.
Thursday’s ceremony, presided over by President Clinton and other international sponsors of the agreement, cleared the way for the deployment of 60,000 NATO peacekeeping troops and the commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the country after nearly four cruel years of war.
“My government is taking part in this agreement not with any enthusiasm, but as someone taking a bitter potion of medication,” President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, a Muslim, said after the formal signing of the accords reached with U.S. mediation in Dayton, Ohio, last month.
Though the agreement preserves his country in name, it also ratifies the ethnic division of Bosnia that Izetbegovic’s government had fought to prevent, dividing the territory between government and Croatian forces on one side and Serbs on the other.
The plan signed Thursday, with its calls for a new confederation of the rival parties and free movement of peoples within, represents a desperate gamble that peace can be forged from this savagely splintered remnant of the former Yugoslavia.
Before the signing, President Jacques Chirac of France said, “Real peace remains to be built in people’s hearts and minds, along with democracy, human liberty and reconciliation.”
Clinton, who flew in for the ceremony in the chandeliered ballroom of Chirac’s presidential residence, Elysee Palace, Thursday morning and flew out this evening, told the former belligerents: “You have seen what war has wrought. You know what peace can bring. Seize this chance and make it work.”
On paper, the 19-page accord leaves the multi-ethnic Bosnian state whole, and it was officially recognized as Bosnia-Herzegovina on Thursday by the Serb-dominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
But on the ground, the NATO peacekeeping force provided for in the accord will have the job of keeping apart the forces of Bosnia’s two newly created components - a Muslim-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb republic.
Most of the NATO force, including 20,000 U.S. troops, will be in place in northern Bosnia by February. As those troops keep the peace, the United Nations and other groups will take on such tasks as rebuilding a badly damaged economy and resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees.
There were no tears of relief, no emotional scenes of reconciliation as Izetbegovic, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia filed in under the gilded cherubs in the coffered Elysee ceiling to seal the accords.
They signed without saying a word, put the caps back on their fountain pens and shook hands perfunctorily, staring straight ahead and seldom applauding as speaker after speaker urged them to think of the tens of thousands of people killed by followers of these same men after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
Then Clinton and the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and the European Union signed as sponsors.
More than any of the others, Clinton has tied his political fate to the success of the agreement, by committing 20,000 U.S. soldiers to the NATO peacekeeping force over considerable opposition from Congress and at the start of his campaign for re-election.
Clinton assured the three Balkan leaders in meetings before the signing ceremony that the NATO force, commanded by Gen. George A. Joulwan of the United States, would act impartially. He also asked them to do all they could to insure that the NATO peacekeepers were not attacked as the U.N. peacekeepers so often were, U.S. officials said.
Milosevic of Serbia warned, “The key to success in the mission is even-handedness, even as the basis of its failure is partiality.”
He and the Bosnian Serb forces - which he had initially sponsored, then broke with after suffering years of international economic sanctions - were blamed for setting off the war in early 1991 to create a Greater Serbia out of the ruins of Yugoslavia. Milosevic accepted terms Thursday that fell far short of that.