Muslims learn to fear Tudjman's embrace

PEACE IN THE BALKANS: Michael Sheridan on the backstage drama that brought peace to Bosnia
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The Independent Online
For at least one diplomat at the Bosnian peace talks, the most sinister figure present was not the whisky-slugging Serbian strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, but the portly and avuncular Franjo Tudjman, the President of Croatia.

"Tudjman has a low opinion of Muslims and he doesn't hide it," said this observer, who sat through all 21 days of talks on a sealed-off US Air Force base at Dayton, Ohio. "That hurts them," he said, "you could see it in their faces." By contrast, Mr Milosevic was brutal and direct, yet capable of telling the Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic: "You deserve Sarajevo, you stayed there through the siege and the shelling." With those words he doomed the Bosnian Serbs to defeat on the issue of Bosnia's capital, which will go to the Muslim-Croat federation.

But Mr Tudjman, the supposed ally of the Muslims in this American-engineered pact, radiated a chilling and ominous disinterest in the fate of Muslim Bosnia, according to several reliable witnesses. He barely deigned to treat the hapless President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia as an equal.

And Mr Izetbegovic's inconsistent and indecisive negotiating method - long familiar to mediators like Lords Owen and Carrington - finally alienated senior American officials, whose initial wholehearted support for the Bosnian Muslim leadership has not outlasted prolonged contact with it.

These were among the most conspicuous ironies that have come to light since the secrecy that surrounded the talks began to lift this week. The peace settlement was initialled after several delays last Tuesday.

Most days, the six members of the British delegation to the peace talks met at 7.30am to review their plans. Pauline Neville-Jones, 56, Political Director at the Foreign Office, was Britain's key player in the delicate game of keeping in with the Americans and ensuring British interests were not swept aside.

Miss Neville-Jones' confidential telegrams to the Foreign Office "will make vintage reading in 30 years time" according to one who has read them already. They reflected a continuous tension between the Europeans and a high-powered team of American negotiators who were forcing the pace. The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, has described the tense atmosphere among the Europeans as the result of "American attempts to marginalise them".

Nobody who has attempted to marginalise the formidable Miss Neville-Jones has previously escaped unscathed, and by the end the chief American negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, found his relations with her reduced to brisk courtesies.

At 8.30 each morning, the British went to join a strategy session with the other Europeans - the French, the Germans and Carl Bildt, the European Union negotiator. At 9am they were joined by the Americans and the Russians. Then this uneasy group split up to deal with the Serb, Croat and Muslim delegations.

The Americans were at a huge advantage. All the Yugoslav delegations clearly believed their modest quarters,"like a three star hotel", said one inmate, were bugged. They went for walks outside in the snow to talk among themselves. Their phone and fax communications with home were presumed to be insecure. And the Americans brought all their force to bear on two demands alien to the political culture of the Balkans: a fixed deadline and a yes-or-no decision. That worried several Europeans.

"It was an American decision to go for a cutoff," a European diplomat said. "And then a number of deadlines passed by, which caused a credibility problem. But they were right, we had to get an outcome."

The pressure to reach a decision split the Bosnian government delegation. To the ill-concealed pleasure of several of the Europeans, it broke the political power of Bosnia's high-profile Foreign Minister, Mohammed Sacirbey, an American-educated master of emotive television soundbites who coped less well with secret talks. "Sacirbey was very close to President Izetbegovic at the start but unfortunately for him he'd been denied the megaphone," said a diplomat. "By the end it was Silajdzic, the Prime Minister, who was the man who could make a deal." There are also tales circulating among diplomats that Mr Sacirbey's socialising during the talks offended the Americans. He has since announced his resignation.

The Americans used their leverage to put pressure on the Bosnians to reduce their contacts with Iran and agree that all "foreign forces and freedom fighters", a reference to Islamic Mujahedin, must leave the war zone. Achieving their departure could test the British forces who will take over their area, but it is clearly an objective of American policy to remove extremist Islamic politics from the Bosnian equation.

If the Bosnian government had its problems, the most pathetic delegation at Dayton was that of the Bosnian Serbs. It was President Milosevic who made the bitter deal to turn over key Serb suburbs of Sarajevo to the Muslims and Croats. The arguments over the future map of Bosnia were crafted to ensure a better outcome for Milosevic sympathisers around the northern town of Banja Luka than for the faction loyal to Radovan Karadzic, in Pale.

In Dayton, Mr Milosevic treated the Bosnian Serbs with contempt. "They weren't even allowed to use the telephone and the fax", a diplomat said. When the delegation's hardline leader, Momcilo Krajisnik, finally got to see the map, "he went apoplectic", a witness said.

If Dayton was a learning process for the Serbs, they were not alone. "The Bosnians are going to need a lot of help if they are not to be completely dominated by the Croats," a British official said. And the British view of the Americans, with whom there have been so many disagreements? "They are now more aware than perhaps they were before that Bosnia is a very complicated place," he said. ( Graphic omitted )