President Bill Clinton, announcing the results of a meeting in New York, said the agreement guarantees that Bosnia-Herzegovina will remain a separate, independent country. "There is no guarantee of success, but today's agreement moves us closer to the ultimate goal of a genuine peace," Mr Clinton said.
Though the agreement, agreed by Balkan foreign ministers at talks in New York, was hailed as an important advance in the drive for a lasting peace, diplomats from all sides warned that considerable further work remains outstanding. In the meantime, there is still no ceasefire in Bosnia.
Brokered by the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, the new document adds new provisions to the ground-breaking but incomplete set of principles adopted by the warring sides in Geveva on 8 September. Most importantly, it details arrangements for free elections across Bosnia and for the establishment both of a parliament in the country and a ruling presidency. In spite of the very clear hedging of all the diplomats involved about the pitfalls ahead, yesterday's agreement none the less indicates that the peace process that Mr Holbrooke has been shepherding since the summer still offers the best hope there has been at any time since fighting broke out in the former Yugoslavia that a genuine political settlement might be within reach.
"The principles issued today take us one more important step on the road to peace", the parties declared in a joint statement. "These are ... significant, if incomplete, achievements which must be fleshed out in much greater detail in the next round of negotiations."
The document retains the basic premise agreed in Geneva that Bosnia would be divided roughly equally between a Croat-Muslim federation and a separate Serb entity, to be called the Republika Srpska. The negotiations are still being pursued on the basis that in spite of the division, the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina would remain a single and unified state. The Muslim- led Bosnian government was seeking reassurances through this week's negotiations that the Serb half of the country would not be able to ally itself so closely to Belgrade, and eventually even secede, as to allow the creation of a de facto Greater Serbia. Asked last night whether the document guaranteed against such an eventuality, a US official replied last night: "Absolutely not. That remains our greatest nightmare."
The main provisions of the agreement call for the holding of free and direct elections throughout the country once international monitors, who will be sent to the country immediately, deem peace is sufficiently embedded. A parliament would be elected as would a presidency, probably with a cabinet of ministers. A constitutional court responsible for all the country would be created. To reflect the current population distribution, two thirds of both the parliament and of the presidency would be elected from the territory of the Croat-Muslim federation and one third from Serb territory.
Mr Holbrooke, who will return to the Balkans tomorrow, was at pains to emphasise the fragility of the peace process. The text, he pointed out, was not a legal document in itself, was not definitive and remained "too vague". "We certainly expect confusions," he remarked. "This is a confusing war."
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