The New York Times
August 29, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 10; Column 1; Foreign Desk
HEADLINE: U.S. Policymakers on Bosnia Admit Errors in Opposing Partition in 1992
BYLINE: By DAVID BINDER, Special to The New York Times
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Aug. 28
Almost a year and a half ago, the United States opposed a partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina that had been agreed to by leaders of the republic’s Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The idea was to stave off a civil war.
Now, tens of thousands of deaths later, the United States is urging the leaders of the three Bosnian factions to accept a partition agreement similar to the one Washington opposed in 1992.
Although some of the architects of American policy in the region defend their actions, a number of major figures now acknowledge errors.
“Our view was that we might be able to head off a Serbian power grab by internationalizing the problem,” said Warren Zimmermann, who was then the American Ambassador to Yugoslavia. “Our hope was the Serbs would hold off if it was clear Bosnia had the recognition of Western countries. It turned out we were wrong.”
Although publicly silent on the partition issue in 1992, the United States urged instead a single multi-ethnic state that it promised to recognize as independent, according to officials involved in making policy on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. Washington argued that partition would set a bad example, especially for the successor republics of the former Soviet Union, where ethnic violence was already spreading.
This month, leaders of the three Bosnian factions agreed anew to partition of the shattered republic on ethnic lines, although they remain divided on how much territory each should get. On Aug. 19, Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent a letter to President Alija Izetbegovic urging him to endorse a partition plan proposed by Thorvald Stoltenberg, the United Nations envoy, and Lord Owen, the European Community’s mediator.
Initial Plan Better in Hindsight
Acknowledging the reversal, several American officials involved at the time say that in hindsight, the initial partition plan agreed to in Lisbon and then abandoned may have been preferable to a policy that failed to avert civil war.
Other Government specialists on Bosnia are skeptical that partition would have worked then or will work now without renewed fighting. If there was a flaw in United States policy, they say, it was more the failure to back up international recognition of an independent Bosnia with any meaningful support when Serbian and Croatian forces began shelling Muslim towns centers and seizing territory through the terror tactics of “ethnic cleansing.”
The ethnic partition the United States is now backing is far less advantageous for the Muslims than the agreements they rejected in 1992. And, after 17 months of warfare, the Muslims face far worse circumstances and grimmer prospects for survival.
The original partition plan was negotiated by a special commission of the European Community. Mediators who brokered the agreement argued that partition was the only way to contain the ethnic rivalries. But the Bush Administration was pushing the Europeans to recognize Bosnia as an independent country, with a Muslim-led Government in Sarajevo.
Over a period of nearly two months, European efforts to negotiate ethnic partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina and American efforts to promote recognition of its independence proceeded on parallel tracks. Initially, neither European mediators nor some Bosnian leaders regarded partition and recognition as mutually negating factors. But they ultimately became stark alternatives.
Finally, the United States prevailed. In April 1992 the Europeans joined Washington in granting diplomatic recognition to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The partition talks collapsed.
Civil War Engulfs Bosnia
While fierce ethnic clashes had already erupted across the republic, full-scale civil war now ensued.
Bosnia’s agony began in early 1992, when the mountainous republic was still a miniature of the ethnically mixed Yugoslav federation, which began to fall apart six months earlier. Its population of 4 million was 44 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serb and 17 percent Croat.
Under Communism, ethnic rivalries were submerged. But they sharpened when the Yugoslav Communist Party dissolved in 1990. Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the federation in June 1991, and war between Serbs and Croats raged in Croatia until a cease-fire took hold in January 1992.
Both the United Nations, whose envoy, Cyrus R. Vance, had brokered the truce in Croatia, and the European Community feared the same kind of violence could break out in Bosnia.
Partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina was always the favored solution of Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats and their sponsors in Belgrade and Zagreb. But Mr. Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, opposed partition plans from the beginning, although he agreed to them twice in 1992 under pressure, he said, from the Serbs. He backed off then when he became aware of United States plans to push through recognition of his Government.
The European Community took the lead in trying to resolve the Bosnian problem. It had already set a precedent in trying to deal with the secession of Croatia and Slovenia. Prodded by Germany, it granted recognition to those former Yugoslav republics. At the time, the Bush Administration and Mr. Vance opposed that move as disruptive to peace efforts.
Europeans Call For Referendum
The Europeans began moving toward international recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina by calling for a referendum on independence.
In part to meet the objections of Serbs, who said they were being “outvoted” by Croats and Muslims, the European Community organized a conference of leaders of the main ethnic parties to determine how the three nationalities would arrange the organization of an independent state.
On Feb. 23, 1992, in Lisbon, the three Bosnian leaders — Mr. Izetbegovic, Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs and Mate Boban for the Bosnian Croats — endorsed a proposal that the republic be a confederation divided into three ethnic regions. Mr. Izetbegovic’s acceptance of partition, which would have denied him and his Muslim party a dominant role in the republic, shocked not only his supporters at home, but also United States policymakers.
“We were very surprised at what he had agreed to,” said a senior State Department official responsible for Yugoslav policy who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The impact of Mr. Izetbegovic’s decision was all the greater in Washington because the Bush Administration had begun to immerse itself in the Yugoslav crisis and, in a reversal, to favor recognition of the successor republics.
“The embassy was for recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina from sometime in February on,” Mr. Zimmermann said of his policy recommendation from Belgrade. “Meaning me.”
The Administration’s concern with Bosnia was heightened by scattered reports of ethnic clashes in the republic and indications that Serbs, Croats and Muslims were organizing militias to defend territories they considered theirs.
In testimony before a Senate committee, Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d said on Feb. 26 that he was “reviewing our recognition policy on the Yugoslav republics on an almost daily, or certainly weekly basis.”
Bosnian Chief Signs But Doesn’t Like It
Immediately after Mr. Izetbegovic returned from Lisbon, Mr. Zimmermann called on him in Sarajevo. The Bosnian leader complained bitterly that the European Community and Bosnian Serbs and Croats had pressured him to accept partition.
“He said he didn’t like it,” Mr. Zimmermann recalled. “I told him, if he didn’t like it, why sign it?”
In retrospect, Mr. Zimmermann said in a recent interview, “the Lisbon agreement wasn’t bad at all.”
But after talking to the Ambassador, Mr. Izetbegovic publicly renounced the Lisbon agreement.
A referendum on independence concluded on March 1. The vote was largely boycotted by Bosnian Serbs, while Croats and Muslims, representing two-thirds of the electorate, endorsed it by 99.4 percent.
But Dr. Karadzic, the leader of Bosnia’s Serbs, called the referendum “illegal.” He warned that international recognition would “worsen the situation.”
Talks Reconvene In Sharp Discord
Talks on partition were reconvened on March 7 in Brussels amid sharp disagreements. Mr. Izetbegovic said, “I don’t think tripartition is possible.”
Dr. Karadzic countered, “Bosnia and Herzegovina should not be recognized as a unitarian, independent entity.” Serbs, he said, “want our own state.”
The Bush Administration pushed ahead with its plan for recognition.
“The policy was to encourage Izetbegovic to break with the partition plan,” said a high-ranking State Department official who asked not to be identified. “It was not committed to paper. We let it be known we would support his Government in the United Nations if they got into trouble. But there were no guarantees, because Baker didn’t believe it would happen.”
Meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels on March 10, Mr. Baker urged them to recognize Mr. Izetbegovic’s Government immediately, promising that the United States would swiftly follow with recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as well.
Mr. Baker “told the Europeans to stop pushing ethnic cantonization of Bosnia,” said Richard Johnson, who was the Yugoslav desk officer at the State Department. “We pressed the Europeans to move forward on recognition.”
The European Community members recoiled, in part because of reports of escalating nationalist tensions among Bosnians.
Karadzic Warns of Civil War
On March 16, Dr. Karadzic warned of “a civil war between ethnic groups and religions with hundreds of thousands dead and hundreds of towns destroyed.” He added, also accurately, “After such a war we would have completely the same situation: three Bosnia-Herzegovinas, which we have right now.”
That day, the three Bosnian leaders met again in Sarajevo for another round of talks. Late the following night, they signed a new agreement to divide Bosnia into “three constituent units” based on ethnic criteria.
Dr. Karadzic was momentarily euphoric, calling it “a great day for Bosnia and Herzegovina.” But within days Mr. Izetbegovic again voiced strong reservations, saying the only reason he had signed was because the Europeans told him that he had to if he wanted to gain international recognition of his Government.
There was one more round of negotiations, on March 30 in Brussels, to draw the map of a partitioned Bosnia. But by this time, armed bands of Serbs had crossed the Drina River to begin driving Muslims from Bosnian towns, while in the Herzegovina region, tens of thousands of armed Croats, including main force divisions of the Croatian army had seized control in areas where Croats predominate.
Fighting broke out in downtown Sarajevo between Muslim and Serb forces. On April 5, Mr. Izetbegovic met in Sarajevo with his Serbian and Croatian counterparts in a television studio. In the presence of a European mediator, they listened grimly while their agreement on a cease-fire was read out by two anchormen. It was the first of many.
In Luxembourg the following day, 12 European Community foreign ministers announced recognition by their countries of the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As planned, the United States followed the next day with a statement by President Bush recognizing the sovereignty of the Sarajevo government as well as the independence of Croatia and Slovenia.