Barely suppressing their mutual distaste, the three Balkan presidents came together Wednesday at an American military base for ambitious peace talks aimed at ending four years of terror and bloodshed in Bosnia.
It was the first time the three men - Presidents Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia - have met face to face since they held a series of unsuccessful meetings in Yugoslavia in 1991 on the eve of the country’s division and disintegration into war. Thus, just bringing the trio into the same room represented a considerable achievement.
But the basic questions that they failed to settle four years ago and that have provoked Europe’s worst conflict since World War II remain unresolved: Can Bosnia survive, and what degree of self-government should be given to the Serbian minority living within its borders?
“We have an urgent and important purpose today,” U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in opening the conference, which included representatives of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and the European Union. “We’re here to give Bosnia and Herzegovina a chance to be a country at peace, not a killing field, a place where people can sleep in their homes, walk to work and worship in their churches, mosques and synagogues without fear of violence or death.”
The United States, which hopes to keep the negotiations shrouded in secrecy and the three presidents away from television cameras, did not allow them to speak at the opening ceremony or answer a reporter’s question about the prospects for peace.
And in a sign that the United States intends to control public disclosures about the talks, the State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, told reporters Wednesday night that Milosevic and Tudjman had agreed in a separate meeting Wednesday to a positive joint statement.
The statement, which Burns read aloud but did not release, declared their willingness to work toward full normalization of relations, including a mutual respect for human rights and the return of refugees, as well as the peaceful resolution of eastern Slavonia, a piece of Croatian territory that was seized by Serbs early in the war.
There was an air of awkwardness in the antiseptic, fluorescent-lighted meeting room in the Hope Hotel Conference Center, and the body language of the three Balkan leaders as well as the choreography of the Americans revealed much more than the official statements did.
The main players - including the three presidents, the Europeans, Christopher and Richard C. Holbrooke, the chief American negotiator - strode into the meeting room one by one. Each president was escorted into the room by the senior American diplomat serving in his country.
That allowed Christopher to avoid having to shake the hand of Milosevic, whom the Bush administration said should be tried on war crimes charges.