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He had good reason to be. Milosevic whisked Holbrooke to the presidential palace in Belgrade, where he handed the American envoy a document signed by top Bosnian Serb leaders, including political leader Radovan Karadzic, military commander Ratko Mladic and Patri arch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church. "Look," said Milosevic, in what for him must have been a moment of supreme satisfaction. "I now speak for Pale." Translation: the Serbian President did what he had boasted he could do-he had delivered the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table. Moreover, he could control the Serb side of the negotiations. According to the document, Milosevic would choose three of the six members of a Serb delegation to any peace talks, and was also authorized to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Over lunch Milosevic later told a stunned Holbrooke how he had forged the idea of a joint negotiating delegation. He claimed, in fact, to have paved the way for this weeks earlier, when Karadzic and Mladic had flown to Belgrade to meet with him immediately after the Croatia offensive. Having been encouraged early on by Milosevic in their bids to establish a satellite Serbian state, the Bosnian Serb leaders were looking to him for support as Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's troops steamrolled through Krajina and into Bosnia during the early weeks of August.
By this time, however, Milosevic's calculus had changed. Since May 1992, Yugoslavia has been chafing under economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. For months Milosevic had been trying to make some deal to get those sanctions lifted. Discussions of such a deal have hinged on Milosevic's willingness and ability to make his Bosnian Serb clients negotiate a peace. Always more of an opportunist than a true nationalist, Milosevic has for some time appeared willing to sell out his brethren Serbs for the sake of unshackling himself from sanctions.
"Either you join with me and we do it together," he reportedly told the Bosnian Serbs when they met, "or the deal gets done anyway, without you." As the document Milosevic showed Holbrooke attested, the Bosnian Serbs had capitulated, effectively signing their negotiating authority over to him. In Karadzic's case, the decision reflected his growing political weakness; in Mladic's, it was simply a reaffirmation of his close ties to Milosevic. What is interesting about this breakthrough, if indeed that is what it turns out to be, is that it was not triggered by NATO's air strikes. While last week's bombs no doubt concentrated minds in Pale, Milosevic had apparently secured Bosnian Serb cooperation before the planes ever took off.
By Friday afternoon Holbrooke had managed to win agreement from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to send their foreign ministers to Geneva this week to join representatives from the so-called Extended Contact Group--including the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia--in beginning peace talks. "These negotiations will be complicated, and they will be difficult," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. That, no doubt, is an understatement.