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Bosnia, Serbia Move to Open Full Diplomatic Relations

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times

In a surprise move hailed as a critical step toward building peace in the Balkans, the presidents of Serbia and Bosnia agreed Thursday to open full diplomatic relations between their two countries.

The bitter wartime enemies, holding their first-ever bilateral meeting, announced they would exchange ambassadors, permit their citizens to travel to each other's country without visas and open rail and road connections.

In addition, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, representing Yugoslavia, reiterated that state's respect for Bosnia's integrity. Yugoslavia is the federation formed by Serbia and the smaller republic of Montenegro.

In turn, Alija Izetbegovic, president of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, recognized the "continuity" of Yugoslavia - that it is the successor state to the Communist-era federation of six republics that bore the same name.

"We are setting behind us the period of confrontation and replacing it with a period of cooperation," said Milosevic, who chatted amiably with his host, French President Jacques Chirac, during a brief signing ceremony under eight crystal chandeliers in the official presidential residence the regal Elysee Palace.

"I believe we have taken a crucial step toward the total stabilization of the region."

A more subdued Izetbegovic said: "I did not come here to make a speech. It is all in the document, and now I would like to see that the substance (of the document) is implemented."

The seven-point agreement was the product of a day of talks between the two men arranged by Chirac. Expectations were low at the start of the sessions because the two men have never had any rapport, and the brutal war that Milosevic is widely believed to have masterminded is still too fresh for many Bosnians.

Indeed, the presidents did not set a date for exchanging ambassadors, and all the trade and infrastructure points in the document were short on details and specifics.

In the Balkan conflicts that have followed the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, signed agreements have often dissolved into thin air unless deadlines were set and external pressure applied continually.

Still, several participants credited Chirac with persuading the two Balkan leaders to reach the breakthrough on diplomatic relations.

The morning meeting between Izetbegovic and Milosevic had not gone well, a source said. But over a three-hour lunch of seafood and beef, Chirac spoke to the two presidents, shifting back and forth, insisting on the importance of compromise and agreement.

"It was like Ping-Pong," said one participant.

"There had been no movement in the morning and everything seemed stopped," said a member of the Yugoslav delegation. "Then everything softened at lunch and they found a formula."

Milosevic, whose Bosnian Serb allies waged a 43-month war against Bosnia's Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, agreed to respect the sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia-Herzergovina. Such recognition undermines the Bosnian Serbs' goals of splitting off the parts of Bosnia they control and uniting them with Serbia.

In exchange, Izetbegovic agreed to respect the "continuity" of Serbian-led Yugoslavia. That bolsters the claim of the government in Belgrade that their state is the rightful successor to the old Yugoslavia, which disintegrated into bloodshed at the start of the decade.

Eventually, this could entitle the Belgrade government to a seat in the United Nations, among other things. In 1992, after Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia each had asserted its independence, leaving Serbia and Montenegro to form a new federation and assume the name of Yugoslavia, the U.N. General Assembly voted to exclude the truncated state. The United States does not formally recognize the rump Yugoslavia as independent state.

However, the most contentious point in Thursday's negotiations may have been a lawsuit filed by the Bosnian government in the World Court at The Hague accusing Serbia of genocide.

Milosevic had repeatedly demanded that the Bosnians drop the claim as a condition for diplomatic relations.

In Thursday's agreement, the two presidents committed their countries to refrain from "political and legal acts that do not contribute to the development of amicable relations."