Medicine man casts a spell on Karadzic: Michael Sheridan reports from Geneva on how Lord Owen scored a victory over the Bosnian Serbs

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The Independent Online
WHEN a doctor turned politician confronts a pyschiatrist turned warlord, a certain amount of professional tension is only to be expected. Thus it was when Lord Owen, formerly Dr Owen, came to deal with Dr Radovan Karadzic of the Bosnian Serbs in Geneva last week. The result, surprisingly enough, appeared to be one up for strong medicine and a retreat for psychiatry.

For many months now the two men have negotiated over Bosnia, from Sarajevo to Geneva and back. On one side of the table there is Mr Karadzic, once the psychiatrist to the Sarajevo football team, thereafter named president of what he and his followers describe as a Serbian republic, latterly the spokesman of that unrecognised country, a hostage to its unelected parliament and a messenger of its defiance to an unsympathetic international conference.

Mr Karadzic is enjoying his 15 minutes of notoriety before the hungry gaze of the world's television cameras, 23 of which were arrayed to chronicle his comings and goings at the United Nations in Geneva last week.

He appears to have borrowed his negotiating technique and his public persona from Yasser Arafat. His English, like that of Mr Arafat, is best described as enthusiastic, if imprecise. It seems to take wing in front of a camera. He can be alternatively effusive and venomous, full of cheerful optimism one moment, black gloom the next, scattering proposals like cluster bomblets, gifted with a knack of avoiding the point and a fluent ability to advance the most implausible claims in tones of wounded reason.

In Lord Owen, however, Mr Karadzic has met a man impervious to his charms. The Yugoslav conference is Lord Owen's great chance to cut a new dash on the international scene. If it succeeds, he will have performed an act of statesmanship. He would not like to fail, and his ruthlessness is an asset.

Either visibly annoyed or disdainfully amused by Mr Karadzic, he endured the windy prevarications of the Bosnian Serbs all through Christmas and new year. He sat as co-chairman of the conference with Cyrus Vance, the former US Secretary of State, through interminable hours of Balkan rhetoric. When Mr Vance, who is in his seventies, appeared soothing and statesman-like, Lord Owen would show impatience, and almost bark at the participants. 'They made an excellent hard cop, soft cop act,' said a European ambassador.

Mr Karadzic appeared in Geneva last Sunday breathing intransigence. The Muslim-led government of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croatian faction in the country had accepted a 10-point plan elaborated by Lord Owen and Mr Vance as the framework for a ceasefire and settlement.

The Bosnian Serbs were having none of it. They abhorred its second clause, which forbade the autonomous provinces of the future Bosnian state from concluding alliances or treaties with foreign powers. In public, Mr Karadzic proclaimed it as anathema. In private, with an amiable shrug of helplessness, he said that he would be delighted to sign their plan there and then, were it not for the disgruntled 'parliamentarians' in his home constituency.

Lord Owen and Mr Vance had prepared for this argument.

The previous week they had flown to Belgrade and persuaded President Milosevic of Serbia to come to Geneva, accompanied by Dobrica Cosic, a Serbian nationalist of impeccable credentials who has recently discovered pragmatism and assumed the office of President of Yugoslavia. Both men were persuaded by Lord Owen and Mr Vance that, for reasons of self-interest alone, the time had come to put pressure on Mr Karadzic and show their will to end the war in Bosnia. On Monday, Lord Owen and Mr Vance confronted Karadzic with a three-headed assault. He stalked off, frothing with indignation. The Bosnian Serbs were given until 10am the next day to say yes or no.

That night, hard bargaining took place. Lord Owen and Mr Vance headed down to the Hotel des Bergues, one of those Geneva hotels frequented by the seriously rich and permanently sun-tanned, where President Milosevic was installed in a suite. A tousle-haired Mr Karadzic arrived. So did President Cosic and the president of Montenegro. 'The talking was pretty brutal and they went on until almost two in the morning,' said an official. Most of the brutal truths, it seems, were spoken by Lord Owen.

Tuesday dawned with many headlines predicting a collapse. 'Don't blame me for this disaster,' said Mr Karadzic. In he went to the United Nations, brandishing his own eight-point document. It was not enough. The two mediators appeared at a packed news conference and Lord Owen talked of a 'breakdown'. 'The objection of Dr Karadzic is the same old one. It's the state within a state that he wants, however it's dressed up,' he said. 'We've told him that that's unacceptable.'

The three presidents were brought in to lean once more on the Bosnian Serbs. In the meantime, Lord Owen and Mr Vance had smoothly refined their 10-point plan to nine points, without losing a phrase. Mr Karadzic, his months of obfuscation suddenly coalescing to a moment of extreme pressure, caved in. He would agree to the nine-point plan if his backers at home would endorse it within a week.

Many of them vow that they will not, but Lord Owen and Mr Vance now have President Milosevic working on their behalf. It may be less than a triumph, but it was a neat piece of diplomatic handiwork.

(Illustrations omitted)