'Virtual Peace' In Sarajevo

When Richard Holbrooke emerged from his armored Chevrolet in front of Sarajevo's Presidency building last week, passersby applauded. A week had just gone by without so much as a sniping victim or a mortar explosion. Souvenir stalls in the Old Town's market opened up for the first time in the war, and night clubbers flouted the city's curfew. A "Pax Americana," Munevera Bratnik called it as she took her two toddlers out in a stroller. Cars long in storage emerged to create unprecedented traffic jams. One optimistic entrepreneur, inspired by the reopening of the airport to U.N. flights, even started a travel agency. But the siege of Bosnia was not yet over.

Fighting continued in the north, with Muslims and Croats pushing back the Serb aggressors. And as with every Balkan peace plan, the U.S. initiative brokered by Holbrooke faced its toughest going when negotiators got down to the maps. In the broad agreement on principles they signed in New York last Tuesday, the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Croatia posited an autonomous "entity" for the rebel Serbs. The agreement purposely avoided the hardest question: where the Serbian entity's borders would be. Cartographers in tow, Holbrooke began the bargaining process in Sarajevo. After a meeting with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, sources said, the negotiating teams had spent much of the time with maps spread on a 30-foot table, arguing about the Muslim enclave of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia.

Top U.N. officials in Bosnia say the enclave is indefensible, and they insist the Bosnian government will have to give it up in the end. After their recent battlefield successes, the Muslims and their Croat allies hold at least 52 percent of Bosnia's territory, almost exactly as much as the U.S. peace plan would award them. The problem is that, as one American diplomat put it, "it's the wrong territory," much of it un-populated, or traditionally Serbian. That suggests a territorial trade. The Bosnians want to keep Sarajevo intact, and the Serbs want a "compact" entity, free of Muslim enclaves. A swap of Gorazde for Serb-held Sarajevo suburbs is the only thing that makes sense, negotiators say--except to the 60,000 people who live in the enclave, and hundreds of thousands of other Muslims who want to return to homes from which they were "ethnically cleansed."

Face to face: "The United States will never force the Bosnian government to create 60,000 more refugees," Holbrooke told NEWSWEEK. But the Bosnians eventually might be persuaded to give up the enclave in face-to-face talks with the Serbs. "They could do it directly, but the United States won't make them do it," said a Western diplomat. "But so far the Bosnian government hasn't remotely approached that point."

Do the Bosnians want to make peace now that they are winning on the battlefield? Izetbegovic's government is deeply split between hard-liners and relative moderates. But the Bosnians don't want to be the spoiler in the peace process, and Washington has enormous influence with them. Any temptation to keep up the counter offensive will also be moderated by the Muslims' Croat allies, who provide vital heavy artillery and logistical support. "I foresee a sort of virtual peace," says Emir Habul, editor of the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodjene. "A loose agreement, even presidential signatures on the peace plan--but the problems will not be solved."

Holbrooke is a man in a hurry, with a self-imposed deadline of Nov. 15 for a final agreement. One of his talks with the Bosnians last week turned into "a top-of-their-lungs screaming match," said a U.S. official. "Dick did a lot of the screaming. He's not afraid to be incredibly tough." The U.S. strategy is to keep pushing--"don't let people rest, don't let them reflect for months, keep Holbrooke in their face," as a senior State Department official put it. After only a few intense weeks, the U.S. initiative is already far more successful than much long-er-lasting efforts by European negotiators. But Sarajevans may stop applauding once they see the fine print.